For the past year, Joan and Joe Gros have enjoyed a paradise on earth in Slidell, La. It has now turned into their hell on earth, thanks to Hurricane Katrina, and they, like thousands of others, are in limbo, wondering when and if they will be able to return home anytime soon.
The Groses had a nice life in Mount Vernon, but always thought in the back of their minds that they would like to return to Louisiana, where they both had family. So, last year, they retired and said good-bye to their friends and neighbors. They bought a house on the water and a boat, and soon they were living large. Joan Gros enjoyed spending time with her sisters and Joe Gros was closer to his mother.
Evacuation drills were nothing new to them. Although the Groses had only lived there a year, they had already been evacuated twice.
“That’s why you have to understand why people don’t go,” Joan Gros said. “They don’t have the means and they have been through this so many times.”
This time, however, it would be for real. Joan Gros said that even though they had planned to leave early Sunday morning, they still didn’t think it was going to be too bad. Then at 10 p.m. Saturday evening, the mayor came on the radio and announced that everybody needed to evacuate.
“They couldn’t force an evacuation because of a legal issue,” Joan Gros said. “That’s why they opened the Superdome.”
She and her husband left as they had planned, driving to Georgia to stay with his family. They brought his mother, their cat, four outfits and some important papers. Traffic at that point was still light and gas wasn’t an issue. They thought that they would return home in a few days.
It has now been two weeks since Katrina’s wrath was felt. Joe Gros remains in Georgia, while his wife has been staying in Virginia, dealing with some family matters.
Joan Gros has not spoken to any of her neighbors, but her sister has seen the Groses’ home and said that it is still standing and has a roof and a foundation.
However, their 9,000-pound boat is now in front of their neighbor’s house; the house was filled with water; the new screen enclosure that they built around the pool is gone; and the retaining wall was ripped apart. They left one of their cars in the garage so they are sure that is filled with water.
They can see aerial views of St. Tammany Parish via the Internet. The water has now receded. They understand that they can get into the neighborhood but aren’t allowed to stay.
Joan Gros said that her husband would like to go back, but she said she asked him, “'Where would you live if you went back there?' The infrastructure has to be fixed before we can do anything. I think it’s going to be awhile.”
There is no power, no electricity and no infrastructure. She knows that they will have to go back eventually; she imagines that her neighbor will want her to move their boat out of their front yard.
“WE’RE SORT OF IN LIMBO,” Joan Gros said. “You have a different feeling towards things — they don’t matter as much. But you know you can’t walk away; you have to rebuild. Fortunately we have good insurance; we had to purchase flood insurance when we bought our home. It’s going to be a very long process — I don’t know that it has sunk in yet. I don’t know what the future is. Some people say that it’s foolish to rebuild New Orleans.”
One of her sisters is staying in Baton Rouge, La., while another sister’s condominium is intact, albeit without power or water. Her sister who was recently elected to the school board no longer has to worry about serving; the school board has been dissolved and the state is taking over. There are no longer any public schools in those areas.
Friends have offered them the use of a condominium in Pensacola, Fla., which they may consider taking advantage of because it would be closer to Louisiana than Georgia. They also have to deal with explaining to Joe Gros's mother why she won’t be able to get her hair done next week at her familiar salon. While the retirement home she was staying at didn’t suffer too much damage, they’re not sure when she will be able to return. It’s the same story there — no power, no water, no infrastructure.
“I can understand how the people in Baghdad are so frustrated; not having any organization,” Joan Gros said.
Joan Gros spent some time last weekend at Good Shepherd’s International Festival and said the hugs she received from friends were important. She’s working to get Good Shepherd to adopt her church in Louisiana to help them rebuild. Tom and Pegi Libby collected $525 at Good Shepherd’s International Festival for hurricane victims. A second collection was held at all the church’s masses and the response was “overwhelming and considerable.”
THROUGHOUT THE AREA, concerned residents are trying to contact loved ones living in the hurricane-stricken area. Suzanne Odom’s parents and siblings are in Baton Rouge and doing fine, but she has found that the hardest thing is the line of communication.
“I’m still having a hard time reaching them,” she said. “I keep getting a busy signal and redial and then get through — it’s the luck of the draw.”
While her family is out of harm’s way, Odom was concerned because they kept hearing rumors of all these refugees coming into Baton Rouge, looting and stealing cars. It appears those rumors are unfounded and things are now getting back to normal in that area; the students returned to school on Monday.
Odom said that her husband, Cal Odom, has a cousin who is a Catholic priest.
“He stayed behind with some international seminary students who didn't have any place to go," she said. "After the flooding he stayed to help. People were very worried about him and a search crew drove with a boat from Lafayette to look for him. They found him but he convinced them to stay and try to help get people out. They did, but then the armed thugs Cal refers to as ‘knuckleheads’ were trying to steal the boat, so they got out.”
Dorothy Boger’s family is out of harm’s way in central Louisiana, but Boger’s brother, who is a Louisiana state trooper, has been removed from his detective job and been asked to go back on patrol. A third of the force has quit and two have committed suicide.
“They’re doing their best to get everybody out of there," Boger said. "It’s exhausting and very sad. They told them, ‘Don’t expect a day off for six weeks.’”
Her mother is housing some of her sister’s in-laws who lived in the affected area.
UNTIL LAST WEEK, Jan and Mitch Sproul had no family in Louisiana. That is, until they dropped their son, Rob, off at Loyola University.
“It’s truly by the grace of God that he got out of there safely,” said Jan Sproul, Rob’s mother.
She and her husband left Rob Sproul after orientation last Friday. One of the items they discussed during orientation was the need for an individual evacuation plan; they didn’t think they would need one anytime soon. Then they received a call Saturday evening; they had already driven as far as Knoxville, Tenn.
“The school was closed; they were evacuating the kids,” Jan Sproul said. “The phone lines were jammed; we didn’t know how we would get Rob home.”
Fortunately Rob Sproul's roommate’s parents, who are from Arlington, were still in the area and were able to drive the boys back to Virginia. Rob Sproul grabbed his laptop, cell phone and gym bag. Everything else remains in his dorm room.
“It was fairly simple for him — he was home on Sunday,” Jan Sproul said. They learned later that it took some students up to a week to get out of there.
The Sprouls weren’t sure at first what the status of Loyola was but thought it was OK. Then they heard that it was closed for the semester. They shared information with parents of other local students who were supposed to be attending Loyola and Tulane Universities. They heard that all the Jesuit colleges were offering the Loyola students a space. They also started making phone calls to the Virginia universities.
“U.Va. was the most accommodating,” Sproul said. “They called us and said, ‘Mr. Sproul, we’d like to have your son.’ They got him room, board, an academic advisor and kept him in his field of study. They had 135 students enrolled, registered and with a schedule in a matter of days.”
The Sprouls had to make a decision by 4 p.m. Friday; U.Va. wanted Rob Sproul there that night.
The family decided to accept U.Va.’s offer, but didn’t get Rob Sproul down there until Sunday. They needed to regroup, plus they had to purchase all new school supplies.
Once again, they attended orientation, but it was very different this time. The refugee students, or "Katrina’s Kids" as they are already known, are considered to be temporary students. Most have intentions to return to their home schools when they re-open. If they decide to stay at their new school, they will be treated as transfer students.
“It has been an emotional rollercoaster, but certainly a positive one. It’s been an adventure,” Jan Sproul said. “We are thankful that he was able to get out of there as quickly as he did.”
Jan Sproul said that her son was disappointed to leave New Orleans, and upset to see what happened, but thankful to have another school.
Sproul said that James Madison University and Randolph-Macon were also very accommodating.
Virginia Tech sent out an email last week stating that they will offer specialized admissions to students displaced by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
"We will offer admission for non-degree status on a case by case basis to qualified undergraduate or graduate students for the fall and/or spring semester. We know that it will be difficult for students already traumatized by the tragedies in the South, but these are not normal times and we want to do everything in our power to help students stay on their academic paths," said Charles Steger, president.
Tech's program will be open to students already enrolled in a school shut down or likely to remain closed as a result of the hurricane.
The university is also investigating ways to expand on-line course offerings to assist affected students. The Sloan Foundation is offering grants to universities to expand existing on-line course programs and Tech is responding. Displaced faculty in hurricane affected areas interested in visiting faculty status are encouraged to contact Provost Mark McNamee at 540-231-6123.
BACK AT HOME, everyone seems to want to do their part to help out. Lemonade stands appeared throughout the neighborhood as children helped to raise money for the hurricane victims. Rose Meyers, age 8, attends St. Mary's Catholic School in Old Town, and had the idea of hosting a lemonade stand this weekend to collect money for the relief efforts in Louisiana. She organized it for Labor Day and had eight other neighborhood friends helping out. Helping Rose were her sisters: Caleigh Meyers age 4 1/2, Jacqueline Meyers age 2 1/2 and friends. Kelly O'Meara age 8, Margaret O'Meara age 8, Kevin O'Meara age 5, Lauren Fish age 8. All of their friends are from the Westgate neighborhood. Cousins included Sydney Meyers age 7, Mackenzie Meyers age 6 of Darnestown, Md.
Patty Meyers, Rose’s mother, said, “People were generous. The kids raised $122.35. We will be giving it to St. Mary's Church.”
Jacob and AJ Powers sold lemonade to their friends Zach and Connor Sadler; they raised $130.42 to send to hurricane victims.
Christine Macey, Michelle Butchko, Paige Atkins and Rachel Macey also sold lemonade to collect money for hurricane victims. They raised a total of $175.
The Rev. Carl Rush, pastor of Bush Hill Presbyterian Church, is spearheading a mission to bring supplies to the affected area. His church is serving as the collection point for Presbyterian churches throughout the area and information about what they are collecting is outlined in their Web site, www.bushhill.org. Bush and a few others will take a camper with supplies down later this week and then return again with a larger contingent of volunteers.
Five Guys Enterprises, the owners of the Five Guys Burgers and Fries, announced that it donated $10,000 to the Red Cross to benefit the Hurricane Relief Efforts in the Southeast.
The Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce sent out an email this week stating that two tractors trailers donated by Universal Debit & Credit Corp. were leaving Northern Virginia Wednesday, Sept. 7, carrying water and food to the hurricane victims. They stopped at the new South County High School to pick up toiletries, diapers, baby food, nonperishable canned goods, paper products, clothing, tents, bedding, stationary, stamps and packing boxes.
The chamber also announced that a fund-raising reception to benefit hurricane victims is being sponsored by the State Societies of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 6-9 p.m., in the Jones Day Building, 311 First Street, NW, 7th Floor, Washington, D.C. Host: $2000, Co-host: $1000, Friend: $20. To RSVP, call Tonya Fulkerson 202-314-3224 or email her at email@example.com
TO HELP OUT WITH EMPLOYMENT, Heidi Koontz, president of Intuitive Fare, has started a Web site for D.C. area restaurants to help workers from the Gulf Coast find a job and a place to live.
To participate, visit www.restaurantjobsforyou.org and list available jobs. Employers can also help by finding a place for new employees to live. Koontz will post the jobs available at restaurants along with a contact person and number, as well as a link to restaurant’s Web site.
For more information, call 703-266-1086 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The chamber e-mail listed a link to a Web site where employers can post job listings. It is http://washingtondc.craigslist.org/jjj/.
They also listed the Web site where people who have the ability to offer lodging to the relief victims can post that information: http://neworleans.craigslist.org/hhh/. There are several others, including www.hurricanehousing.org and www.katrinahousing.org.
Lyssa Seward has already volunteered to take a family of four in her Mount Vernon home. She said that the ideal situation would be a carpenter who could work with her husband, Charlie, and earn some money while they’re here. She knows that a large group of people arrived this week at the D.C. Armory and is hoping to be connected with somebody. She said that one of the Web sites she checked already had 35,000 people offering homes to refugees.
“Charlie would love to have a carpenter — give him a job, house them and feed them,” Lyssa Seward said. “It seems like everything is so chaotic — there are so many different variables. But it’s hard to watch and not offer to do anything.”
With so many people wanting to help in many ways, it is still important to be aware of the potential for scams. A press release issued this week from the Fairfax County Police Department said that four people were arrested for conducting a scam claiming to collect money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. According to the report, police responded to the 12100 block of Sunset Hills Road in the Reston area Sept. 4 for reports of people asking for cash donations on behalf of charities helping victims of Hurricane Katrina. Investigation revealed that the four suspects did not represent any charity and had allegedly misrepresented themselves. The report said that police charged all four individuals for solicitation violations and released them on a summons to appear in court.