A desperate search for missing relatives

Refugees in Houston scour message boards, Internet for news of loved ones

Katrina's Wake

September 06, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown and Michael Dresser | Matthew Hay Brown and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - Once again, Ellis Ashford scanned the hundreds of notes taped to the wall of the convention center looking for news of his missing sister.

The 56-year-old roofer from New Orleans last spoke to Brenda as Hurricane Katrina was slamming into the Gulf Coast. Before he left the city, he waded through chin-high water to her shotgun house, only to find it empty. Now in Houston, he has been looking for her for more than a week.

"It's a hard thing," Ashford said, standing before the message board at the Reliant Center. "We came up together, and we never strayed too far apart. Now I want to know she's all right."

A week after Katrina ravaged the coast, thousands from New Orleans and other flooded cities remain missing. Here at the Reliant Park stadium complex, where about 25,000 storm refugees are bedding down in the largest evacuation shelter in U.S. history, family members are posting signs, registering on Internet databases and using donated cellular phones to search for lost loved ones.

In the days since the refugees began arriving, the message boards at the Astrodome, the Reliant Arena and the Reliant Center have seen dozens of tearful reunions and, when the loss of a family member has been confirmed, several emotional breakdowns.

"It's very scary, because you don't know whether they're dead or alive," said Antoinette Santa Cruz, who was looking for her 78-year-old mother-in-law, a diabetic with breast cancer.

"There are so many bodies floating. You don't know if that's one of your loved ones or what."

With the 1.5 million people displaced by the storm dispersed around the country, the Internet has become a vital tool for reconnecting refugees. At least 50 Web sites have sprung up to accept information about friends and family lost and found.

In a typical posting, 14-year-old Chris Allen Assavedo placed a message on the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper seeking information about his father. Chris Assavedo Jr., a 32-year-old crew boat captain from Joliet, La., was last seen a week ago, helping relatives to safety.

Missing their father

Assavedo's wife, reached by telephone at her father's home in Alabama, said her son and two daughters desperately miss their father.

"In my heart, I believe he's using his boat to save other people," Staci Assavedo said. She said a friend had given her husband's last known coordinates to the Coast Guard, and she had been following message boards run by the Times-Picayune and several New Orleans television stations in the hope that her husband and his brother Chet would reappear.

"There's still no word," she said yesterday afternoon.

After weathering three hurricanes last year in Volusia County, Fla., Robert and Marisa Gary decided to set up a Web site at www.hurricanekatrina survivors.com.

In the first week since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Robert Gary said, the site had more than 10 million hits. He said it had received 6,500 forum postings and had helped find at least 22 people.

At the Reliant Center, volunteers have been bringing in laptop computers to help refugees register with the American Red Cross and to search that database and others for family members.

The system has led to more than 100 reunions, said Tommy Huynh, vice president of sales at Pinnacle Wireless in Houston, which helped to set up the service. When a family member finds a missing person registered online, he or she is given a cell phone to make a call.

The news isn't always good. Sherri Smothers broke into sobs inside the Astrodome yesterday afternoon when she learned that her father, George Wharton, had been airlifted from the Superdome in New Orleans after a bad fall. It was not clear where he had been taken or whether he had survived.

"I don't know anything," said Sherri's mother, Carol Wharton, her lips trembling. "I can't get no information from no one no how."

The Whartons' niece, Joanne Taylor, was looking for her daughter and her three grandsons.

"I'm just praying to God, that's all," said Taylor, who had posted signs around the shelter complex and was waiting to register online. "I'm trusting God to bring them to me."

The index cards and photocopied pictures and poster-board pleas that have sprouted on the walls here remind some of the missing-persons handbills that appeared in New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But here, messages list whole families or even city blocks as yet unaccounted for.

"Gumms," reads one pink sheet at the Reliant Center. "Fred, 18, Julian, 6, Herbert Jr., 5, Chantee, 4, Jeremiah, 2 ... Mom and Dad and Baby Haley are fine and waiting to hear from you."

`She hasn't surfaced'

Antoinette Santa Cruz described the scope of the search for her mother-in-law, Dorothy.

"I don't know if she's in a hospital or what," she said. "I don't know if she's in Texas or Shreveport. I keep looking, but she hasn't surfaced."

Ellis Ashford, whose wife and children had made it to Mississippi but whose sister hadn't appeared, was similarly frustrated.

"A friend of mine said he saw her get on a bus, but people say that just to cheer you up," he said. "I don't know what's going on. I just want to find my sister."

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