In From The Storm | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

In From The Storm

Ondria Thompson
Ondria Thompson, 38, and her daughter, Tia Johnson, were standing on the balcony of a looted hotel when the floodwaters came raging out of the levee and took St. Bernard Parish.

"That water came in not even half an hour," she recalls. "I was standing on the balcony, and my daughter was watching it with me and said, 'Momma, are you scared?' I said, 'Baby, you know I'm scared.'"

Fortunately, Thompson and her daughter were rescued by a helicopter a few days into their ordeal.

It wasn't Thompson's plan to sit around and wait for the flood. She had actually packed her family into their 1999 Pontiac Grand Am to flee the hurricane before it hit the city, but got caught in the panic of motorists. "They had some cement blocks (on the road) so that we couldn't leave out or come into the city. There were nine different families stuck on that same bridge with me. The guys in the group went and kicked in a motel room door so we could all have someplace to wait out the storm," she says.

Thompson and her daughter evacuated to Shreveport.

"My son thought I'd died in the storm. We found each other three weeks later," she explains. The real casualty in her family was a niece, who died a few weeks after Katrina hit. The baby had lupus and couldn't handle the massive infection caused by the rancid floodwater.

From Shreveport, Thompson came to Jackson, where she stayed in the city coliseum until a Red Cross voucher allowed her to rent an apartment. Two weeks later, she started working at a Jackson gas station.

Johnson now lives in a small West Jackson neighborhood, created by Habitat for Humanity in conjunction with Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network.

Thompson's daughter, Tia, attends Jim Hill High School, while her son, Tyrone Johnson, attends Jackson State.

"Life has been hard," Thompson said, "but we're getting by thanks to friends.

Jacqueline Canales
North Jackson resident Jacqueline Canales, 56, and her husband, a former Marine who is now teaching science at Chastain Middle School, admit that they both knew New Orleans was living on borrowed time.

"We always knew that New Orleans was going to flood, and it has flooded, but once you set down your roots, you buy a house, and your children are in school, it's very hard to move. We wanted to move, but we couldn't get the motivation."

Nevertheless, motivation came.

She and her husband fled a city that had descended into chaos, even though their immediate neighborhood in Jefferson Parish was not underwater.

"It's good that (we) survived a tremendous amount of structural damage and tremendous high winds (when) you think the roof is going to be ripped off, but after that came the misery and the breakdown of law and enforcement. We left the following Wednesday after the storm, the second of September."

Canales and her husband were able to barricade their house and slip out of the city on country roads. She says it took them three hours to drive one hour's distance to nearby Baton Rouge.

The couple stayed with friends, jumping from one house to another lest they overstay their welcome. She was thrilled when her employer JRL Enterprises decided to move to Jackson.

"I couldn't wait to get out. It had come to the point that I couldn't stand being in that environment," she says, explaining that even though their children are grown and still living in Louisiana, she doesn't see herself leaving Jackson anytime soon.

"We love it here. We intend to stay. People have been absolutely wonderful. It's such a welcome for us to have this kind of reaction from people."

Deidre R. Jackson
Divorced mother Deidre R. Jackson, 32, got out of New Orleans one day before the storm hit. She was one of the fortunate ones with transportation.

"It was me, my daughter and Adam the cat. We arrived in Hazlehurst that afternoon. We assumed we'd be going back that Wednesday, but I'm still waiting for that Wednesday to come," Jackson said.

Jackson and her daughter stayed with her boyfriend's family in Hazlehurst for more than two weeks before Jackson said she fell into survival mode. She realized that the roots to her home on Crowder Boulevard, in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans were inescapably torn with the first few reports from her boyfriend, a truck driver who had cruised the blasted area.

"He told me there was no need to go back. I got 14 feet of water in my house," Jackson says. "I was blown away because this was not a flood-prone area. I was not required to buy flood insurance. But it didn't work out like that. I wasn't able to recover any of the baby pictures, the notes, none of the memorabilia."

In some ways, Jackson got off lighter than others. She had renter's insurance, which gave her property more coverage than what some city residents had, and Jackson had a little something else to get her started.

"I had five days of clothes. I didn't bring anything really, but I had a copy of my teacher's certificate. It was in my wallet by chance, and I presented it to the Hazlehurst school board and got a job teaching English," Jackson said.

Job in hand, Jackson soon took steps to find a home.

Through Habitat for Humanity, she managed to secure a new home off Capitol Street, from where she commutes 30 minutes to Hazlehurst. She remains, to this day, a grateful Jacksonian who enjoys her adopted home, but says she still yearns for the subtropical nights of New Orleans.

"If I could go back home today I would. Nothing against Mississippi, but New Orleans is home. All my relatives still live there, though many now live in trailers." Jackson says, adding that much off the city "still looks like the hurricane happened yesterday."

"If they rebuild New Orleans 100 times stronger than it was before, it'll never be what it used to be, because Aug. 29 will always stand in our mind as when the big one happened. I hope people never forget."

Giuseppe Delfino
Giuseppe Delfino, 51, teaches French at Murrah High School in Jackson. More than a year ago, however, Delfino was teaching in new Orleans and living in a house that was destined to gulp down four feet of water.

Delfino says he was crunched in the 200-mile gridlock choking I-55 northbound from New Orleans to Jackson. "We left a day and a few hours before Katrina hit New Orleans. Traffic was bumper to bumper, but that was my own fault," Delfino says.

He made it to Jackson, but realized it was time to devise some longer-term plans as the news kept rolling in.

"I was getting depressed watching the TV. I couldn't go back to my home because for 42 days we weren't allowed back into the city. I had certification so I applied with the local school board, and they gave me an interview. The principal has been very understanding and welcomed me with open arms. I appreciate his help. I was standing in a Red Cross line, and suddenly the sky is blue again," Delfino says.

Though Delfino now has an apartment in Jackson, the native Italian says he's rebuilding his home in New Orleans.

"I've been living in Louisiana since 1977, and I'll return when my house is finished, but the rebuild has gone a lot slower than I expected," Delfino says. "My home had water inside. Only four feet of water, and it receded quickly, but the mold and mildew took over. When we came back, the stench and smell, even though I had a gas mask, felt like I was going through a nuclear site."

Delfino says he's optimistic that New Orleans will be better prepared for the next Hurricane Katrina. "I'm confident that we'll have a better levee system after two years. I'm crazy and all, but I think they'll hold," he says.

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