LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Fleeing from Katrina: A port in the story

LaReeca Rucker
The Oxford Eagle

Yvonne Hookfin abandoned Redemption for salvation. The former St. Bernard Parish resident escaped the New Orleans Redemption housing complex, where she's lived for nine years and sought safety with her best friend Dionne Cole. The two are now Broadmoor Baptist Church shelter residents.

Hookfin, a New Town, Miss. native, said her shelter stay has been a positive aspect of the Katrina tragedy. "I will hate to go and leave the people I have met, but I will be glad to find a house to live in," she said Thursday, while sitting outside the shelter. "I have met some people I will never forget."

Cole said her present accommodations cannot compare to the conditions of the New Orleans Convention Center, where she and Hookfin slept one night before moving to another location. "It was terrible — the fighting, and there were dead bodies everywhere," said Cole. "We are thankful we are here. The food is so good, we are going to hate to go."

There are five active evacuee shelters in Madison County. First Baptist churches of Ridgeland, Canton and Madison, and Madison and Broadmoor Baptist churches on Highland Colony Parkway are all housing evacuees. Broadmoor is handling the most, with an average of 100 daily. Representatives from all say they have enough supplies and donations, but may need more as the situation develops.

There were messages posted on the walls, doors and bulletin boards at First Baptist Church of Ridgeland Wednesday. Some offered jobs. Others sought family members. Ridgeland shelter resident Numa David fled Metairie, La., with his wife, Phyllis, and her mother. "So far, we've been helped a whole lot," he said. "We have found that the people of Mississippi are tops in help."

He said he and his wife are still trying to get stabilized at this point, but many evacuees are returning home to see the condition of their property.

Red Cross worker Cindy Nolte traveled from Wichita, Kan., to Madison County to help with Katrina relief efforts at First Baptist Church of Ridgeland. "They are all anxious to see what kind of shape their place is in," she said, "and if they have something to go back to."

She said residents are eating three meals a day and have snacks daily at 3 p.m.

"If they need something, we ask them to write it on the list and we put it on the door," she said.

Many evacuees are trying to find ways to obtain cash. Nolte said BankPlus has offered to cash personal checks up to $200. Many are also looking for area work and housing.

"I've heard some of them saying that they are not going back," she said. "This community really has been so good to them that they want to stay here."

Trudy West, a shelter resident in Ridgeland last week, returned to Pearl River, La., with her boyfriend Ronnie Tricuitt and found her home intact, but with no running water or electricity.

"We stayed like that for nine days," she said. "But, thank God, my house is fine. Ronnie and I were blessed. Our house wasn't damaged in any way. And, thank God, he works for the Slidell Memorial Hospital, so he still had a job to come home to. My other family members lost everything."

West said after several days, she finally located her brother and sister, who lived in St. Bernard Parish prior to Katrina.

"They lost their home and everything, but they are staying with someone else right now," she said.

Terry Ellis, director of the Canton Parks and Recreation Department, was placed in charge of Canton's evacuee shelters. He said there were initially four Canton shelters that served 300 people mostly from the La Place, La., area, but one family returned home and alerted others that La Place had electricity.

"So around 200 packed up and went back," he said. "The ones we have now are from the Kenner and Metairie area."

Ellis said the city has only one shelter at First Baptist Church of Canton's Family Life Center on Liberty Street.

"We are directing evacuees to the Mississippi Coliseum at this point," he said, "just because the Red Cross doesn't have the manpower and is consolidating the shelters."

Donnie South, pastor of First Baptist Church of Canton, said his volunteers have been able to find housing for many evacuees. The shelter presently has around seven families.

"We are dealing with about 20 or 25 people," he said.

Some have been transferred to Texas and Oklahoma, South said, adding that the shelter's status may change from week to week. He said the church is presently well supplied with food, clothing and paper products.

"The people of our church, county and across racial lines have extended their hands to these people," he said. "Many of the evacuees have been brought to tears by the people who want to help them and talk to them."

Frank Wilson, a shelter manager for the American Red Cross at Madison United Methodist Church, said the church is serving around 70 evacuees daily. The number fluctuates as some residents transfer to shelters closer to their former homes and others enter the area.

"They are beginning to realize that they can't go home," Wilson said.

While some evacuees are looking for housing in the area and elsewhere, others are in the process of enrolling their children in Madison County schools. Terry Gillyard, 12, of Gulfport, will become a student at Madison Middle School Monday. Right now, he's living in the Broadmoor Baptist Church shelter.

"I was from Shreveport, but my dad wanted me to come down to New Orleans and live with him," he said. "I like it a lot better up here."

Shelter resident Raymond Mosley, 5, has made friends with Gillyard. The two sat in chairs outside the shelter Thursday. Mosley, a former New Orleans resident, has embraced the experience as only a 5-year old would.

"My house is under water, and we had to stay at the shelter," he said. "At the convention center, we didn't have any food or water, but we've been having a lot of fun here. I've been hanging out with him," he said, pointing to Gillyard. "We've been playing and watching TV."


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