Victims of Katrina: "We're sleeping six to seven deep in each room"

By Ed Brock and Justin Boron

New Orleans-resident Gabrielle Taylor is in a painful and uncertain position that most 15-year olds never encounter. Her home may be destroyed, submerged in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath of broken levees and flooded neighborhoods. And while most family members are nearby in the Jonesboro home sheltering her, there is still at least one missing.

She is one of hundreds of thousands other Gulf Coast natives who are now essentially refugees.

Her family is staying with seven other families in what would ordinarily be a spacious two-story home on Utah Drive in Jonesboro. But with 32 other people sharing a space meant for one family, conditions are extremely cramped.

"We're sleeping six to seven deep in each room," said James St. Julien Jr., Taylor's relative who owns the home.

In one room, formerly used as an office, there are seven children and a small dog in a kennel. Downstairs, two more children play video games on a portable television next to a stack of blankets and pillows. At night the floor becomes their bed.

St. Julien's hospitality is part of a growing effort to scramble resources, ranging from the goodness of people's heart to those offered by official human service agencies, so that the dire needs of evacuated families will be accommodated.

Aid groups like DFCS, Red Cross, local churches, and charities responded this week to the wave of refugees arriving in Clayton and Henry County to stay with relatives or look for help.

The widespread flooding and instability in New Orleans have complicated the local relief efforts since the evacuees' stay here is likely to last several months. In many cases, they will be forced to seek employment, enroll their children into local schools, and find their own residences.

The governor has promised to take measures like relaxing job requirements to ensure an easier assimilation.

But Darlene Brown, 40, who abandoned her home in the 8th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, described a worrisome and life-altering transition.

"I need a good high school like Brother Martin," she said of an all-boys private school in her city. "I can't put my child in a zoo."

Brown also said the need for an automobile to travel in Atlanta was going to be an inconvenient and expensive change in her life.

"In New Orleans, we could catch a bus to where we wanted to go," she said, explaining that the evacuees would need money for transportation. "People need gas, if not money, then gas cards."

With the evacuees' full impact on the local community still unclear, officials coordinating local relief efforts are trying to resolve immediate issues like feeding mouths by cutting as much bureaucratic red tape as possible, said Chuck Fischer, the deputy director of the Department of Family and Children Services in Clayton County.

Fischer said the office is moving 150 food stamp applicants through the office a day and will continue to work through the weekend.

"As long as I've been here, I've never seen anything like this," he said.

On Friday, the DFCS employees in the office donated money to provide lunch for dozens of people waiting in their lobby mostly for food stamps.

Coordinating the volume of donations and help from different sources has been a challenge, according to Cathy Ratti, the director of Clayton County DFCS.

"We just don't know whose got what," she said, after the pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church approached her and told her he had enough food to feed 200 people each night. Pastor Chris Reynolds said the meals will be at 6:30 each night.

Also, while directives on short-term assistance have been clear, longer-term questions such as where the 17,000 people from New Orleans with Section 8 vouchers will live aren't fully answered yet, Fischer said.

"Obviously, they can't use them in New Orleans," he said, adding agencies were looking for ways to accommodate them.

Waiting for food stamps at DFCS, the reality that she will have to find a more permanent home had already set in for Latoya Bell, 25. Her family was scattered in different places between Louisiana and Georgia and she said she would like to find a home where all of her family could live.

"It's hectic trying to get everybody here," she said.

Many victims still gripped by the perils of Katrina aren't even ready to consider such long-term decisions.

For Taylor, one concern that overwhelms all others.

"The biggest thing for me is my cousin," she said. "We can't find my cousin Joshua Smith."

The last phone conversation she said she had with him was after Katrina had moved through the city. The 18-year-old's house was flooding and he was going onto the neighbor's roof.

The big screen television in the living room stays on one program, the news.

But like Taylor, St. Julien says the worst part is not knowing where other members of the family are. The media is focusing so much on downtown New Orleans, the looting and the Super Dome that he said has no idea what east New Orleans, where he lives, even looks like.

Sam Long, who's daughter Deidra is married to St. Julien's brother, said his two-story house is underwater. His wife Camille Long said if Thursday was a normal day she would be visiting her 94-year-old mother in the hospital.

Now she has no idea where her mother is.

And Sam Long, who at 70 will soon be in need of a refill for his medication, also said he doesn't like the fact that the media focuses so much on the looting in downtown New Orleans and not the thousands of harmless, stranded citizens.

"This is a minor element," Long said of the looters. "There are a lot of people."

Trudy St. Julien, Greg's St. Julien's wife, said the people of Clayton County are doing what they can to help. Businesses give them discounts when they say where they're from, Trudy St. Julien said, but the money is still running out. Still, she said they're planning on a long stay, possibly of years.

"We're going to do what we can do in the meantime," Trudy St. Julien said.

The plight of refugees like the St. Juliens, the Taylors, the Longs and the other families moved the officials of the city of Riverdale to take action.

There are several houses in and out of that city that have also become make-shift refugee camps, said those officials at a press conference that included Police Chief Thetus Knox and Fire Chief Billy Hayes. Therefore the city will be collecting items like cleaning supplies, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, diapers and other toiletries. They'll also be collecting financial donations for the American Red Cross.

"The disaster has been brought to us and we have to respond," Hayes said.

Another temporary resident of the St. Juliens' house, 15-year-old Brittany Connerly, along with Taylor and other refugees, spoke at the press conference and made their personal plea for help.

"Right now we have nothing to go home to," Connerly said.

ebrock@news-daily.com and jboron@news-daily.com