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Comfort of home

Lonnika Thompson is grateful for the chance go home for the holidays, even if she doesn't have a bed to sleep on. Her idea of home hasn't been the same since Hurricane Katrina.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007


GAINESVILLE - When the Florida women's basketball team was dismissed for the holidays immediately after Saturday's win over St. Louis, sophomore guard Lonnika Thompson hopped into her mother's car and headed home.

The drive took less than nine hours.

The journey has taken more than two years.

Twenty-eight months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her family's New Orleans home and altered the course of her life, Thompson spent Christmas Day with her family in their newly rebuilt home in the Lower Ninth Ward.

It was the first time she had slept in her own bed since August 2005. The house is among just a few that have been rebuilt in her neighborhood, and she didn't have a bed because her family was waiting for her to pick her own bedroom set. But after all this time, none of that mattered.

"I know it's not the same as it was," Thompson said. "I know when I go in I'll remember this is where I used to come home from school and just lay down on the floor. And there may be that one stain on the ground that I know used to be there, and it's not going to be there anymore. But I'm real excited. I don't have to have a bed, I'll sleep on the carpet. I just want to be home."

Thompson was 17 years old, and she and her twin brother Lonnie II were looking forward to their final year of high school at McDonogh No. 35 when their lives changed suddenly.

When news of the impending hurricane came, Thompson's father, Lonnie, took her and her brother to stay with family in Jonesboro, Ga.

Although some weather reports indicated the storm could be catastrophic, even those who evacuated didn't quite grasp it.

"I didn't think that it was going to be that bad, so we only grabbed like four outfits and four pairs of shoes and just called it a day," Thompson said. "We thought we were going to come back soon. So then everything else we left in there. It got destroyed. Nothing that was left there survived. Everything we had was gone."

Thompson's mother, Charlotte Baptiste, was nearly a casualty as well. Although she sent her children away, she and her mother had decided to ride out the storm. But Thompson's paternal grandmother, Maeola Thompson, kept calling to plead with Baptiste to leave. Finally, she reluctantly agreed and fled to Mississippi to be with family. It was a move that saved their lives.

"If me and my mom hadn't left, we would have been gone," Baptiste said.

The next 2 1/2 years for Baptiste and her children can be summed up in one word.

"Hell," Baptiste said.

Finding their way back

In Jonesboro, Thompson lived for weeks in her cousin's three-bedroom home, filled with other evacuees.

Baptiste arrived on Labor Day. The Thompson children enrolled in Jonesboro High School and tried to find some normalcy where there really was none.

"It was crazy," said Thompson, now 19. "It's like you still have your friends, but you no longer know where they are and you can't hang with them like you used to when you were home. You had to meet all new people.

"And there's nothing wrong with meeting new people, but it was my senior year and your senior year is supposed to be your best year of high school. I wanted to be with all my friends that I grew up with."

Baptiste knew that, too. And when McDonogh 35 reopened in February 2006, her children begged her to take them home.

"I didn't have a problem going back to New Orleans, but where were we going to live?" Baptiste said. "And when you're living in another state, it's so hard to conduct business like that. But they didn't understand that. All they knew was they wanted to graduate with their friends. And when you're a parent, you'll do everything in the world for their children."

So she began desperately trying to figure out how to get back to New Orleans. Eventually a close friend of Baptiste's mother opened his three-bedroom home to the family until their FEMA trailer became available in May. Thompson and her mother shared one room while her brother took the other.

"They were happy because they were home," Baptiste said. "They didn't care where they were as long as they were in New Orleans, they were at No. 35 and as long as they graduated with their friends. That's all they were worrying about."

The happy return was mixed with sadness when, on Feb. 1, 2006, Thompson saw her destroyed home for the first time. A friend of Baptiste's who is a detective escorted the family to see the house. The only things salvageable were a few family photos that had been nailed to the wall above the water line.

"The door was open because they had to kick it in; they kicked everybody's door in to make sure they didn't have anybody there," she said. "We went back and stuff was just everywhere. Glass, our table was flipped over, the chandeliers were on the ground, the cabinets were open and broken. Me and my brother's beds were off the springs. The computer was on the ground. I was in shock."

Through all the strife, it was basketball, the game she has played since she was 7 years old, that kept Thompson going. She played in Jonesboro. When she returned to McDonogh 35, she finished the season there. The evacuations caused many recruiters to lose contact with high school players, so the 5-foot-4 Thompson spent a season at Trinity Valley Texas Community College before catching the eye of college recruiters, including Florida coach Amanda Butler. Thompson has played in all 11 games for the Gators, starting three.

"I don't know what I would do without basketball," Thompson said.

Learning to move on

There are times, even now, when to Thompson's surprise the tears still come when she allows herself to think about the past two years.

"She doesn't talk about it a lot," Butler said. "It's not that she's very private about it or anything, but she's a very carefree-type spirit. And I think for someone who experienced something like that, those are the type of people who probably have the most success in terms of being resilient from having such a harsh thing to go through. She's someone who is able to move on, focus on the present and not dwell on all the bad things in the past. And I think that's a tribute to her character."

Character, shaped in part, by Hurricane Katrina.

"A lot of stuff can break you, and that broke me," Thompson said. "But I learned a lot, too. I know things happen that you can't control, but you have to move on. You just have to survive."

And find your way back home.

 

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.