Victims of Katrina arrive: "I won't go back"

By Michael Davis

Freida Hollis didn't want to evacuate her New Orleans home - at first.

The retired utility company employee has been through evacuations before, as recently as last year, and was simply tired of picking up, moving out, and coming back when the danger had passed only to find out everything was intact. But watching the pictures on television of what had been her home town - her house, one block from Lake Pontchartrain - she gets frustrated and wonders whether she will ever go back, or if she should. But she worries more about the father she left behind and hasn't heard from since.

"If the city is under water, why would you put human beings in that situation," she said. "God gave you common sense."

Hollis, her family, and friends and relatives make up a contingent of almost 30 holed up in an extended-stay hotel in Stockbridge this week, uncertain of their next moves, of the future and what remained of their lives back home in New Orleans and Slidell, La.

They left in a hurry, but thinking like before, they would be gone just a couple of days.

It was Hollis' daughter, Georeida Maheia, a New Orleans casino-barge worker, who convinced her to leave this time. Hollis' father, at 77, was in a condo in New Orleans, and she hasn't been able to reach him. She fears he's dead.

Four generations of the family are here in the Suburban Lodge in Stockbridge: Hollis, her mother Shirley Jones, her daughter Maheia, and grandson Merrick. They decided Georgia was a better bet than Texas when it was time to go because everyone else seemed to be headed to Texas. They have other family in the Fairview area that helped them find hotel rooms.

But when it became clear they couldn't go back, or maybe they just decided not to, they moved from the hotel to the extended stay, where they have a small kitchen, and get a better rate.

Fleeing the storm

It was late Saturday night when the decision to leave came. Maheia saw casino workers shutting down the barge and figured the worst was coming. She called her mother to ask, "Where are we going?"

The family's matriarch, Jones, 75, was picked up from her home in Slidell along the way out of town. She had to be convinced to leave. She wanted to stay with her dog, she said. "I hope he's still there," she said.

Hollis' best friend, and a fellow church member Carol Bucks, also evacuated with the family. Thursday, she and her daughter Brandi, 20, still hadn't heard from two of Bucks' other grown children, her daughter Karmen Hassanin and her son Kenneth Fields.

"I haven't heard anything, I haven't heard anything," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. Brandi sits silent on the bed next to her mother, holding her hand. Carol says she is in shock, depressed.

Bucks must have known this storm was different from others that have forced her from her home, just five doors down from Hollis'. "When I walked out of my house, I stopped and I just took a look, and I've never done that before," she said.

Evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, which struck the gulf coast early Monday leaving thousands upon thousands homeless in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, began trickling to wherever they thought they could find help this week. Many are staying with family, friends. Many are staying in motels along the interstates, unsure when they will return, if they will return, or whether they should.

The group in the Suburban Lodge consider themselves lucky, if that's an appropriate description for people who may have lost family members, and likely almost everything that means home.

Is it still home?

Hollis and company have been glued to the television, watching pictures and video of what remains of their towns, and what continues to be destroyed by violence and looting. Bucks said she had to shut the television off at one point, for her daughter's sake. "All she does is cry," she said.

Thursday, they were getting the full scope of the devastation to the area. Meheia said she saw the barge where she works on TV, somewhere inland. Hollis said where home should've been was completely under water.

They realize they may never return to life the way it was and they were planning what to do next.

Tracy Pichon, who is related to the group by marriage, had been working the phones, trying to get social security checks, due the first of the month, deposited directly into bank accounts. Here, all but cell phone bills are neglected. The phones have to stay on, in case someone they're looking for calls.

Tracy said she's using the money that had been set aside to pay the note on her mobile home to get by up here. "It might not even be sitting on the land I left it on," she said. Pichon husband was making his way back to New Orleans Thursday to survey the damage, just to see for himself.

Hollis was preparing to collect information from her friends and family in the lodge she would take to the Stockbridge public library and use to fill out forms for federal disaster aide.

Meheia was going to work on her resume and hoped to get a job here, at least for a while. "I've got to provide for my family," she said.

Her son Merrick is an energetic three-year-old.

Meheia was hopeful that the city would be rebuilt, eventually. Her mother questioned whether it should be. But Bucks had already decided that New Orleans was no longer home.

"I won't go back," she vowed.