Evacuees uncertain of their futures, find refuge in Clayton

By Shannon Jenkins

Many people escaped Hurricane Katrina with only their lives and the clothes on their back.

They all share traumatic tales of survival, and they all face uncertain futures.

Don Alley and his fiancee, Bridget Bass, aren't sure if they will settle once again in Bayside Park, a small community outside Bay St. Louis, Miss.

"If we do go back, I can't live in the same spot after all those people died there," Bass said while surrounded by her family in her former father-in-law's house in Riverdale.

Bass, Alley and Alley's two children were staying with Alley's father when Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. They assumed they would be safe there.

"The house was old and built well," Alley said. "It stood (Hurricane) Camille."

But Katrina was an entirely different storm and would not be as merciful as its 1969 predecessor.

The family watched helplessly as water crept through the surrounding woods and seeped into the house.

"We never thought the water would get that high," Bass said.

When the water began to inch past their waists, they crawled into the attic. But the dark flood found them there as well. The tin roof above them swelled and shuttered as if it were breathing. Bass asked her future husband if they were going to die, but he did not answer. All they could do was pray.

Then the eye of the storm passed over the sinking home, and the wind shifted the water away. For about eight hours they sat in the attic along with 12 dogs that belonged to Alley's father. When the water began to retreat, they swam through the house to rinse the insulation from their bodies.

Meanwhile, Bass's daughter and son-in-law, Shannon and Aude Levron, were searching for them. Along with their two small children and friend Woodrow Clark, the Levrons reunited with the family.

After climbing over toppled trees and fighting off a water moccasin, the group made its way to a storage shed near town. It was there they slept and waited for the sun to rise. What they saw the next morning was pure chaos and destruction.

Almost two weeks later and more than 400 miles away from their homes, their words jumbled together as they tried to describe what there community had become.

"It was like an atomic bomb," one of them said.

"It was like the movie 'Resident Evil,'" someone else added.

"All you could smell down there was gas and death," Bass said.

Catfish and stingrays were laying in yards, and the corpse of a white horse lay bloated as it baked in the sun. And there was mud. It was everywhere.

"The mud was like cake batter."

Days later Aude Levron finally received reception on his cell phone. He called some of his wife's relatives in Riverdale, who drove down to Mississippi, and together they made their way northwest to Georgia.

Alley said he and his family will just have to start over. Levron and Clark plan to drive back to the Gulf Coast sometime this week to work. Levron had recently started his own framing company and employed Clark. It will be the first time Levron has ever left his young family to work.

On Sunday, Louisiana resident Gwendolyn Doyle returned to her home in Slidell, La. to work as well. The middle school principal and the rest of her district's school officials hope to re-open their schools on Oct. 3.

With tears in her eyes, Doyle said they had to do whatever they could to help the children through this difficult time.

As for Doyle herself, the entire experience has been hard to swallow, and she found comfort in the arms of strangers.

After evacuating her home on the Sunday morning before Katrina hit, Doyle, a few family members and an elderly friend drove to Clayton County. They stayed in a Morrow hotel for a few days and then spent some time in Atlanta with friends of a friend. Eventually they drove back to Morrow and sought refuge at the Country Inn and Suites on Mt. Zion Parkway.

It was there Doyle forged a close bond with the hotel managers, Sam and Dee Patel.

"They've been wonderful since I walked through that door. They've been so kind," Doyle said of the couple. "Hospitality has been an understatement here at this hotel."

One day she was presented with a menu from the Chili's restaurant next door and told to order whatever she wanted. Sam Patel then delivered the food to her room.

It was their compassion that consoled Doyle during her stay.

On the Friday before she was to return home, Doyle shared video footage of her home that she shot last year and recent photos of her home after Katrina. She took the pictures after returning home the weekend following Katrina's arrival.

In the hotel lobby, Doyle shared her emotional homecoming.

"When I drove up, my house was standing," she said. "I collectively thought everything was OK. Then I opened the door."

Doyle said the first floor of her two-story home appeared as if it had been through a washing machine. All her possessions and furniture had been tossed around like dirty rags.

"The floor was black, slippery, mucky mud," she said. "I was so devastated I couldn't cry. I just thought, 'Oh my god.'"

Doyle decided to drive back to Georgia that night. She described her drive back as if she were in a third-world country. Armed military personnel guarded stores, and gas - where she could find it - was rationed. In Hattiesburg, Miss., she slept in the lobby of a hotel. The next day she waited for hours in a gas line, only to purchase $20 worth of fuel.

And the further from Slidell she got, the more her body relaxed.

"It was as if I was coming home," she said.

Doyle is unsure if she will resettle in Louisiana.