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1,000 Miles Away, Family Weathers the Storm

Their relatives safe, one Louisiana family considers Katrina’s questions.

Even 1,000 miles away from their home town of New Orleans, Trey and Rebecca Barnes still struggled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Family for the South is so important,” said Rebecca Barnes, who lives with her husband Trey Barnes and his father Furman Barnes in River Falls. “To live elsewhere you feel helpless.”

As Furman, Trey, and Rebecca Barnes sat in their Hackamore Drive home, with Rebecca’s sister Alison Tillery Sunday night, that was the word that kept coming up — family.

“Louisiana’s family. Family gets to family. That’s just the way we do it. It’s just bred in you,” Furman Barnes said.

With only television, telephone, and Internet at their disposal, the Barnes have spent the last week accounting for every one that they can. One family is still missing, Furman Barnes’ wife’s brother-in law, an 81-year-old stroke patient.

But blood relatives are only the innermost group.

“Family is much more than blood relatives. … Neighborhoods were families,” Tillery said.

“We have friends, and family of friends, and on and on and on that we still haven’t heard anything about,” Trey Barnes said. “The stories of people that we will know that will have lost their homes, their business, hopefully nothing more than that — but I suspect in some cases loved ones — will continue to spread for some time.”

Trey and Rebecca Barnes grew up in New Orleans and came to Potomac less than 10 years ago. Trey Barnes attended Louisiana State University. Until recently, Furman Barnes lived with his son Christopher in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Tillery and Rebecca Barnes’ parents live in Baton Rouge, just 70 miles from New Orleans, and they have aunts, uncles and cousins living on the outskirts of the Big Easy.

Christopher Barnes escaped the city Thursday, as the water rose even in the French Quarter, which had remained mostly dry. He waded to the Superdome with a bag over his head, then to the convention center, deciding in both places that checking-in would be a bad idea. He went to hotels in the French Quarter trying to find someone with a car and finally found a former New Yorker who offered him a lift to Baton Rouge. The man said he was leaving in five minutes. Christopher Barnes took the ride — they made it out on the dry sections of the major highway I-10 and secondary roads. (See box.)

Tillery and Rebecca Barnes’ family were able to evacuate, too, though many of their houses were flooded.

“At first we felt terribly helpless. We couldn’t get through. You know we were calling constantly. I mean you literally hit redial on your phone,” Tillery said. “And then you got mad. You were mad at everything — the fact that you weren’t there, that you couldn’t help. … You’re calling up going ‘What can we do, what can we do?’”

They could do nothing but listen to the stories of devastation.

Tillery and Rebecca Barnes’ uncle, a lawyer, lost his entire livelihood — his law office, his files, and, no doubt, many of his clients, washed away. He will have to start anew, probably in another city with his school-aged children.

Their parents are safe but struggling. They went to a grocery store to find empty shelves.

Furman Barnes’ sister met a family that had some money in the bank — many in the statistically poor New Orleans don’t — but had no way of getting it.

“What if your bank washes away? … The man and wife and two children, and he was from the south of Mississippi. His bank blew around, he’s running out of cash. He can’t put his credit card in an ATM and get money.”

There was laughter in the Barnes house too — at family stories, at memories of Southern culture and New Orleans delicacies. It was clear that the old saying applies — you can take the family out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the family.

But there was sadness there, too. One of the almost-certain casualties of Katrina is New Orleans itself. Many of the evacuees will simply integrate into their new cities, the family agreed, and never return. They have nothing to return to.

And “New Orleans” in 10 or 20 years simply will not mean the same thing that it did a week ago.

“New Orleans is going to be different. If and when it comes back, and to what degree it comes back,” Furman Barnes said. He pronounces “Orleans” with three syllables.

“We just hope to God they don’t make it like a Disney World, where you can buy a ticket and go through, visit the French Quarter, like Williamsburg,” Rebecca Barnes said.

With family accounted for, there was also time — time to begin pondering the social and political questions that Katrina has posed: Did the federal government mismanage its initial response to the catastrophe? Was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin up to the task of responding, the way New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did after the 9/11 attacks, or did he, too fail? Did the economic and sociological history of the city leave its mostly African-American poor behind while many whites escaped?

Those questions are not simply intellectual fodder to people for whom New Orleans is an identity as much as a home town. Trey Barnes said that many New Orleanians will brag — earnestly — that in their entire lifetimes they have never gone outside the city limits.

And there is this question: Is it possible that building a city in a spot so prone to destruction was simply a mistake?

“We have always living there known that some day it’s going to happen. You don’t know when it is, and you hope you’re not there. But they’ve always said verbally that if a hurricane came up the mouth of the river … that it would be 200,000 dead people,” Furman Barnes said. “That was just a word of mouth thing. I’m not saying it’s that, I don’t think it’s that, because it really brushed New Orleans. … We don’t know what the damage is.”

“New Orleans has always been a city that said, ‘Yeah we know about this — it’s just not going to happen to us,” said Tillery. “We’ve had so many false alarms.”

Rebecca Barnes: “In past years [people] have been told to evacuate, so they all evacuate, but they’re back in a day or two, so you bring just two days worth of clothes … Well everyone thought that’s the same thing that’s going to happen here. So you’re leaving your home, you’re not taking your insurance papers, all your pictures, you’re just taking a couple days worth of clothes. And then I think as a family group to realize all of a sudden you have nothing when you get back. … It’s pretty devastating.”

It will take years to rebuild, and perhaps decades to fully recover, the Barnes said. Consider the domino effect — not just high gas prices, but the closure of the nation’s largest port, which handles 40 percent of the country’s grain; the loss of tax revenue in Louisiana and Mississippi that’s needed to rebuild; families saddled with mortgages to pay off on houses that no longer exist and weren’t insured against flooding.

Right now the region needs money, not goods, the family agreed and officials should take time considering exactly where that money is truly needed. Displaced people need jobs and schools. Tillery, who teaches at North Bethesda Middle School, said her school will absorb four displaced students beginning this week.

But for now, the Barnes also have some newfound perspective. They’re thankful.

“We have I think [been] blessed. Some have lost resources and goods. But we’re all accounted for,” Trey Barnes said.