Thursday, September 29, 2005

Helping evacuees benefits community most

Staff Writer

Five families from the New Orleans, La., area brought a miracle to Holly Springs in wondrous and mystical ways following the flood of New Orleans four weeks ago. The families’ journey to Holly Springs, how they were helped, and what life is like now for them on a hurricane-wrecked coast is the topic of this story.

Getting out
For Tina Saladino, a radiology technician with Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina is the first storm which she has fled. Most of her family in New Orleans and Slidell, La., had left in advance of the storm and for some of them getting out is something they have done before.

Most of the time New Orleans gets lucky and the storm turns away.

“This time it didn’t,” Saladino said.

It was a mandatory evacuation that allowed her to leave her job at Charity Hospital and catch up with the rest of the family headed north. She said getting out of New Orleans during an evacuation is the hardest part. Once north of Lake Pontchartrain traffic flow is easier. The Saladino’s live in Slidell, north of the lake.

Saladino left a day later with her husband and two children to meet with other family members at a hunting club camp near Poplarville.

From there five families made a decision to stick together, once they decided which direction to go. Saladino said the extended families included herself and her husband and his parents and grandparents; her uncle and his children and his girl friend.

The hunting club in Hillsdale near Poplarville was a place where Saladino’s husband and family and his father and her uncle had gone often to hunt.

Saladino’s parents were staying in Bossier City, La. (near Shreveport) in a hotel room with her brother.

“My brother had a friend in St. Louis, so after five days in Bossier City they went to St. Louis,” she said.

“We didn’t want to go west. Everybody was going west and there would be no hotel room,” Saladino said.

Going east was not a prime choice for the families either since they already knew that weather is worse on the east side of a hurricane.

“So, the radio was saying go north and we were headed north through Meridian and toward Tupelo where we were going to meet and decide from there what to do,” she said. “But we didn’t have to decide. Julie (Ross) helped us.”

Meeting at McDonald’s
Julie Ross, her two children and husband Blake, were driving back to Memphis from a short vacation at Dauphin Island off the Alabama gulf coast. As a family they usually don’t take last minute vacations. Ross said she really didn’t know why they even dared with the weather.

“We were in West Point, Miss., at McDonald’s for a late lunch,” she said. “There were about eight vehicles and 19 family members there.”

While standing in line to order, Ross noticed and made light conversation with one of the families fleeing Katrina’s path.

It became apparent to the Ross family that the families were trying to decide where they would go while they were eating.

Julie Ross said she cannot and won’t take personal credit for anything that happened after that. Tina Saladino, however, called her a guardian angel.

“I think God put me there. Nobody is a hero in all of this because it is such a tragedy. I had nothing to do with it.”

Ross said she and her husband put themselves in the evaciees shoes. The imagined how it would feel to be stuck with great-greatgrandparents all the way down to a two-year-old on the run from a storm.

“I thought that could have been all of us trying to figure out where to go,” Ross said. “I was ordering and heard accent. I said, I’m sorry yall had to get out. We were the only people in the restaurant. It was them and us. I heard them talking with each other about what they were going to do.”

Ross quickly decided to call her dad Bill Wage who put the families in touch with Jennifer Blaker at Kirkwood Golf Course.

“I handed the phone to Tina so they could make reservations,” Ross said.

Hotels fill up in Holly Springs
The McCauley, Pagano, Perkins, Powell and Saladino families arrived at Kirkwood Sunday, as Katrina’s rains just were moving in on the gulf coast.

On Monday Julie Ross called to check on the families at Kirkwood. Hotels were filling up in Holly Springs. She thought about the Wages’ cabin at Snow Lake as a place for some of the families to stay if they lost their rooms at Kirkwood.

While Bill Wage was talking with his daughter Julie about his Snow Lake cabin he realized the cabin next door was not occupied.

Tricia and Palmer Brown had just bought that cabin but they were not living in it. Two unoccupied cabins would handle the 19 evacuees for short term. Ross contacted Tricia Brown.

“She didn’t hesitate,” Ross said. “We were able to accommodate everyone.”

The grandparents and great grandparents stayed in one cabin and the young married couples and children stayed in the other.

From that point the help for the group of 19 snowballed, Ross said.

Dr. Kenneth Williams at Alliance Healthcare System and the local pharmacies worked with getting the necessary medical attention to the members who needed their checkups and medicines.

Marshall Academy opened its doors for the children - three boys and two girls.

Julie and Blake Ross said initially they felt overwhelmed that theycould do nothing for a million evacuees. Then while at McDonald’s in West Point a solution to the helpless feeling emerged.

“I looked at Tina and I thought, I can help hold on to you,” she said.

In Memphis, Blake Rosses mom, Sissy Nickels’, involved her prayer group which went about collecting money for Wal-Mart gift cards for the families. Quite a large amount of money was raised for the families that way, she said.

Local families poured in their blessings. Mike Lynn brought copious quantities of food from his restaurant business in Oxford which Saladino said the families enjoyed for days. Terry and Anna Morrison served the families lunch in their home. The Lynns gave the families a tour of Walter Place and provided gas cards.

Ross said the Snow Lake cabins played a key role in helping the families keep themselves together as a unit while they waited for word about the condition of their homes.

“The older ones, the grandparents, were able to care for the kids while the parents went to get information on the Internet,” said Ross.

By the end of the week of the storm the men drove back to Slidell to see what, if anything, was left of their homes. Catholic Charities provided gas cards and helped the families get online.

When the families went to dinner with the Wages at Seafood Junction Too in Byhalia, it was the Saladinos who were going to treat, but Wage said the owners of Seafood Junction Too said “no, we’re going to do that.”

Bill Wage said the owner had been thinking of how he could do something for the evacuees. His decision was simple. He would feed the entire group - about 25 people - for free.

Marshall Academy opens arms
Elementary principal Diane Greer said the Academy had nine students to enroll from storm damaged areas. As of last week two students remained of the nine.

Greer said the students were an inspiration to the faculty and the students at MA.

“Of course they are gone; I loved them to death,” said Greer last week. “I’ve called them twice this week to check. I was going to tell them to come right on back up (during Hurricane Rita). The McCauley family said they were thinking about relocating to Holly Springs - that relocating was not out of the realm of possibility.”

Greer said MA “welcomed the children with open arms.”

The oldest in the group of five families had already registered at Christian Brothers in Memphis. He spent one day there and then enrolled with the others at MA, Greer said.

One of the boys in the group, John McCauley, was given a surprise birthday party by his class on Friday, August 17, their last day at school before going back to Slidell.

Greer said having the evacuees’ kids at MA was good for the regular students.

They understood what it meant to have to relocate.

“They got to hear first hand how the children lost all their toys or how someone had to leave their pets,” Greer said.

Churches pitched in with the purchase of backpacks and school supplies for the temporary students. First State Bank helped pay for the students’ lunches.

Again it was Julie Ross who jump-started the process at MA.

“Julie was instrumental and then she called the school to ask the possibility of us helping out,” Greer said. “We just had one evacuee at the time. I told her to bring them on.”

The faculty adored the visitors, Greer said.

“The faculty fell in love with them,” she said. “It was a sad day when they left.”

Greer said MA thanks the board of directors and everyone in the community who helped the school work to make the visitors’ stay a little bit nicer.

“They promised to stay in touch and they have,” Greer said.

Going back
Saladino said three or four days after the storm all the men got in the car and drove to Slidell.

They were able to check on her home, her uncle’s home and her uncle’s grandfather’s property.

The Saladino’s house and her father-in-law’s house were safe. One other house was livable.

Properties in St. Bernard Parish, one of the hardest hit with flooding, had water marks up to 18 inches in the attic. Nothing was salvageable. The ceilings had collapsed inside the homes and everything was ruined.

On October 19 the family scouted properties in St. Bernard Parish.

Saladino’s father and brother and the Pagano families’ houses in St. Bernard Parish - four houses total -were lost to water damage.

The older Saladinos - both grandparents - have not been able to get to their house in Orleans Parish because of a ban on going back in. But they don’t think anything will be left.

“St. Bernard Parish is like a ghost town,” Saladino said. “People won’t live there for two years at least.”

Saladino’s radiology job with Charity Hospital is gone because the hospital is closed.

The families are lucky though. Saladino’s husband and her cousin are a plumbers. Her brother is an electrician.

“There is plenty of work in the trades,” Saladino said. “People like me don’t know what we will be doing. I’m still getting paid through September 30. I work for LSU Healthcare.”

Saladino said some of the families took pictures, insurance papers and children’s savings bonds and some clothes before they left the area.

“Most of us know to take our insurance policies,” she said.

But in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes insurance adjusters have not been able to get in, she said.

Saladino has heard the rumors that flood insurers and homeowner’s insurers will fight over who has to pay for damages.

“It’s going to get crazy,” she predicted.

The McCauley family is staying with a sister. Saladino has the Pagano family living with her - in all 12 people living in her home. The other house near hers is keeping five family members.

Grocery store shelves in Slidell are still pretty bare and long lines wait for shopping opportunities, she said.

Gasoline is available some days and on other days they have to drive around checking for stations that have gasoline.

Traffic is bad. Public schools were not open last week but some private schools were. The Post Office is delivering mail. Telephone service is back up.

The American Red Cross has plenty of distribution points where people can get food and water.

“They will ride through the neighborhood asking if you need food and water,” she said. “The military is doing a good job in delivering meals ready to eat. Every mile or so there is a place to stop off for water, food and essentials.”

The worst part of the ordeal now is the unknown, Saladino said.

“It’s not knowing if you will have a job in two months,” she said. “My family depends on two incomes.”

The mortgage companies are good about working with homeowners, she said.

Saladino remains grateful.

“Overall, we have gotten so much help, I can’t say anything bad about anyone,” she said.

Saladino said she wishes she could remember the names of all who helped her families in Holly Springs - people who dropped off food.

Counting blessings
Ross said she can take no credit for any of it.

“So often we spend our lives in a selfish way, but when one least expects it, God just kind of whispers.

“We were in the place to be at the time and there is no doubt in my mind or my husband’s mind it was the right thing to do. They blessed all our lives more than we did theirs by letting us be a part of their lives. We learned in a helpless time, we could actually do something. They all managed to keep their sense of humor. They are good people. It was so out of character for us to go to Alabama. Maybe that’s exactly what was supposed to happen.”

Bill Wage agreed, calling the families “a sweet, wonderful bunch of people.”

“We haven’t done anything more than Christian folks are supposed to do,” he said. “Personally, I didn’t intend for the story to get out. It is just something we were able to do.”

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