An invitation went oh so right

One family's home became another's haven when Katrina struck in 2005.

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 5, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - The goodbyes were tearful that afternoon as Robert and Rachael Eyer, their two kids and the dog piled into the green Toyota 4Runner and headed back to Gulfport, Miss., where 568 miles away, their ruined home awaited.

Forced to flee by Hurricane Katrina, the family had found a haven in the New River home of Danielle and Mark Hassan.

They arrived as strangers, brought together by disaster and the Web. The move was risky for both families. The Hassans' parents questioned their judgment at first but later supported their decision.

But unlike some Katrina house guest horror stories, this one ended happily. Over shared meals, housework and conversations at the community swimming pool, they became close friends.

Even the neighbors showed up to say goodbye.

The two families vowed to keep in touch. For a while, they did.

When the Hassans' son, Hunter, was born several months later, the Eyers mailed a tiny Tampa Bay Buccaneers outfit.

But life got busy. The Eyers started working to rebuild their hometown. The demands of a new baby - and 18 months later a second - cut into the Hassans' time. E-mail addresses and phone numbers were lost.

"I need to do a better job keeping in touch with people," Danielle said when a St. Petersburg Times reporter called on the second anniversary of Katrina. She regretted that she couldn't find their contact information.

If she could, she would have told Rachael all about 19-month-old Hunter, who is the spitting image of her husband, Mark. She was pregnant with him while the Eyers were living with them.

He says a few words now; "boo-ball" is football. She would also tell them of her second pregnancy, how her water broke one night and now-11-week-old son Cameron was born two months ahead of schedule. The 28-year-old would talk about how she quit her job as a teacher at San Antonio Elementary School to became a stay-at-home mom after Hunter was born and how it's much more than "just playing with your children." She would talk about how children strain a marriage and how much work it takes to weather the change.

She would talk about how much she looks forward to the education class she teaches once a week at Saint Leo University.

She also would want to hear how the Eyers are rebuilding their lives.

"We see New Orleans on television all the time and there's still lots that needs to be done," she said.

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Two years after Katrina caused part of their roof to collapse, the Eyers are in their old neighborhood. Property managers before the storm, they moved in across the street, rebuilt their old house and rented it out.

"It was still really tough when we first returned," Rachael Eyer told the Times last week after researcher Angie Drobnic Holan found her telephone number. The family stayed in a tent in the front yard until they received a mobile home from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where they spent a few months while her husband repaired their home.

If she could reach the Hassans, she would catch them up on how little by little, things are returning to normal.

"We had one store serving four counties," said Rachael. The 40-year-old now works for JESCO Inc., a major contractor doing rebuilding along the Gulf Coast. Robert is continuing his work buying homes, fixing them up and selling them.

She would also catch them up on her two kids. Danielle, 10, is in the second year of her school's program for gifted students. She likes being a teacher's pet. Instead of giving her birthday gifts, she asked people to give food to the needy.

Son, D.J., 9, is "all boy" and into skateboarding. Not a day goes by that he doesn't fall off his board or bike. Robert is building him a half-pipe in the back yard to keep him off the street.

D.J. was the quarterback for his football team last year and scored 18 of the team's 23 touchdowns.

But the best part was when Rachael and Robert renewed their vows at St. Marteen last year.

"Knowing that together we weathered 'THE STORM,' we know that we can pretty much endure anything that life has to throw at us," Rachael told the Times.

The women wanted so much to catch up with their lives, the Times arranged a telephone reunion Thursday afternoon.

Danielle Hassan sits on the beige carpet and puts the handheld phone on speaker. Hunter keeps trying to take it away. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

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Danielle: "Hello, Rachael?"

Rachael: "Hey, how are you?"

Danielle: "How is everything? That's Hunter, by the way. He wants the phone. He thinks it's so funny that Mommy's on the phone and he wants it."

Rachael: "I hear you have another baby? They're just like Danielle and D.J., back to back.... I'm so happy for you. You've definitely got your hands full."

Rachael: "We're doing okay. Little by little, everything's getting better here. A lot more people came back here and started rebuilding."

Danielle: "How are D.J. and Danielle?"

Rachael: "Danielle is so big - she grew to a size 12 in the last six months. Her feet are bigger than mine. She's a doll. Hers is the biggest heart in the whole world.... D.J. is always in an accident of some sort."

Danielle on her kids: "(Hunter) is still very needy. At first, Cameron just slept all the time, but he's becoming more of a normal, regular baby."

Rachael: "You probably have a little bit of jealousy going on."

Danielle: "He likes to slap babies right now. He's learning to be gentle."

Rachael:"It's so funny. The age difference is the same as Danielle and D.J. It's really tough. But it gets easier and it gets better the older they get."

Danielle: "Two years later, are you still taking it one day at a time?"

Rachael: "We're were very fortunate. We were able to get back on our feet. Our area is a lot better. But the small towns still look really bad. Every day you see something improving. I begged Publix to open something here."

Danielle: "I have such a hard time keeping in touch with people."

Rachael: "We have to keep in touch better."

Danielle: "My baby is waking up. Tell everyone I said hello."

Rachael: "Hugs and kisses to everyone!"

Lisa Buie can be reached at (813) 909-4604 or toll free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com