Local Family Takes In Relatives Fleeing Katrina

Local Family Takes In Relatives Fleeing Katrina

Pedro and Wendy Cruz and their four young children lived in Kenner, La., about 20 minutes from New Orleans. Then came Hurricane Katrina.

In the morning, before it struck, Wendy put the children in a car and drove with Pedro’s cousin toward Florida, but got caught in the storm and headed, instead for Dallas, Texas. Remaining behind in their apartment, Pedro told Wendy, “You go with the kids; don’t worry about me.”

THEY EVENTUALLY all reunited and are now staying with Wendy’s cousins in Centreville’s Country Club Manor community, until they find a place of their own. Welcoming them with open arms and warm hearts were Daniel and Julissa Mejia and their children, Frankie, 15, a Westfield High freshman; Benson, 12, a Stone Middle seventh grader and Lilibeth, 7, who attends Dogwood Elementary in Reston, where her mom is an office assistant.

But not just the six Cruzes came. Also seeing refuge with the Mejias were Ana Peralta — Wendy’s mother and Julissa’s aunt — and a neighbor, Alex Hernandez, who stayed a week and is now in his cousin’s home in Manassas.

“There were eight of them altogether when they arrived,” said Julissa. And they were in addition to the two people already living in the Mejias’ finished basement — employees of Daniel’s remodeling business.

So for awhile, some 15 people lived there at the same time. But luckily, the Mejias have a large house, with six bedrooms and three bathrooms so, for the most part, things are going smoothly.

Originally from Honduras, Peralta and Wendy Cruz lived in Louisiana for more than 20 years. Pedro, 40, from Puerto Rico, met Wendy, 30, in New Orleans. She’s a bookkeeper with the Shell Refinery in Norco, La., and he worked with Davita as a dialysis technician in New Orleans, but recently transferred to the company’s Fairfax location. He’s been with the company seven years and says his new co-workers have been “very nice to work with.”

When the hurricane came, Pedro was glad his wife and children — sons Pedro Jr., 11, Daniel, 10, and Edward, 6 ½, and daughter Alida, 5, were out of danger. Meanwhile, he tried to ride out the storm in their home because “I thought people might steal things. When it hit, I was there a good six hours — the wind was blowing and it was raining. There was a lot of water.”

The window in the children’s room blew out and, said Pedro, “I tried to cover it with plywood, and that’s when the roof caved in, so I gave up.” He grabbed a few of their belongings — Wendy had already taken their important papers, a couple days’ clothing for the children and some snacks — and jammed the door with wood so it wouldn’t rock open.

“THE WIND was so strong, it was blowing the water everywhere,” he said. Soon, six inches of water filled the house and, since the children’s room was above the kitchen, that room, too, got soaked.

“The water went chest high in the street, and there were branches and electric lines down,” said Pedro. “And because New Orleans has alligators and snakes, I waited until I could see ground to leave.”

After a day-and-a-half, he walked a half-mile to the house of Peralta, his mother-in-law and called his wife. “Wendy called me at midnight on my cell, after the storm hit, and I let her know I was all right,” said Pedro. “Then my phone went dead.”

He stayed three days with Peralta and called an aunt in Shreveport, La. “I asked, if I could get there, could she advance me some money, and she said yes,” he said. “I was supposed to get paid on Monday [after Katrina struck], so then I was wet, aggravated and broke. And I’d run out of food by then, too.”

Pedro, Peralta and neighbor Hernandez drove to Dallas where Wendy and the children were staying with relatives in a one-bedroom apartment. “But it was too crowded,” said Julissa. “So they called me and I told them to come here.”

Eventually, they all made their way to the Mejias’ home in Centreville. The Mejias, themselves, had just moved there in July from Reston, and the Cruzes and others arrived on Labor Day, Sept. 5.

Wendy was since called back to her job in Louisiana, because of the importance of the refinery, so she returned Sept. 11. “Wendy said that, when she saw their home, she started crying,” said Julissa. “Everything in the cupboards had black mold on it, and she had to throw it all away. She said it’s very hot, there’s no light and the smell is very strong. I told her to take pictures of the damage for FEMA and the insurance company so people would believe they lived there.”

MEANWHILE, Wendy’s staying elsewhere and getting to work by bus. "They plan to relocate here near us," said Julissa. "She's coming back in one or two months."

Peralta is also staying. "Her building was still standing, but everything around her was destroyed," said Julissa. "There's no electricity, the windows are broken and she wants to move up here too."

And although there are now 13 people in the Mejias' home, "Everybody has their own bed," said Julissa. "The principal of Dogwood Elementary, Robin Cochran, gave me one inflatable bed, a teacher there gave me another one and we bought one more." And those were in addition to the six, regular beds already in the house.

The Cruz children are attending Dogwood and, said Julissa, "They really love it. They're very good kids, and the teachers are fascinated with them. Daniel's birthday was Sept. 12, and one of the mothers surprised him by baking cupcakes so he could bring them to school."

"The support we've gotten from the school is incredible," said Julissa. "The first-grade team gave us a basket with popcorn, candy and snacks, and some of the parents are giving the children regular beds for when they move into an apartment, as well as a table and chairs, armoire and sofa."

She said the parent liaison gave the Cruzes some new clothes and teacher Phyllis White gave them a big lasagna, garlic bread and salad for one of the first nights after they arrived here. "Another teacher, gave us gift cards for Pizza Hut and Dominos," said Julissa. "You have to be creative; it's challenging cooking for so many people."

Peralta said she was sad to leave her home in Louisiana, but she is glad her niece took her in. Pedro is also happy. "I love it here," he said. "People in Virginia have been great."

He doesn't want to return to Louisiana "because of the mess I saw. There's no electricity, no food, no water and problems with the sewer system. And there's no work — my company was downtown and still has water in it."

Pedro said his children feel fine about the move. "They like their teachers in school," he said. "And I told them we're gonna play in the snow, and they were excited."

As for the Mejias, he said, "They're super nice; I am blessed. And Julissa's an angel." Saying he won't miss the noise, crime and drugs of the New Orleans area, he described Centreville as "one step to heaven."

Julissa said the biggest adjustment is sharing the bathroom; "The kids tell each other to hurry up." But, she said, "I'm used to being around a lot of kids at school, so it's like having school here. It's always a party with a lot of people. We laugh a lot, and we just have to stick together. Out of tragedy, you have to find humor. Otherwise, you would never see the daylight."