Starting life anew in Baltimore

Members of a New Orleans family drive hundreds of miles, drawn by the hope of shelter in a relative's home and buoyed by the help of generous strangers.

Katrina's Wake

September 14, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

From New Orleans to Baltimore with $12 to her name.

This is how Jaynell Oliver weathered Hurricane Katrina, four children and her brother's fiancee packed into her car, as they whirled through Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, a string of strangers helping them all the way.

Here they are now, in the three-bedroom Northeast Baltimore rowhouse of her uncle, reunited with her mother and stepfather, who suffered through the storm and made it here after their own weeklong journey.

Home. Or as close to it as they're going to get.

For the thousands of working-class New Orleans residents who lived paycheck to paycheck, the choices are limited. They landed somewhere -- wherever they could escape -- and that is where they'll likely have to stay.

For Oliver, with debt to pay off, no savings and children to support, the march must go on. "I've got so much stuff to do," Oliver said yesterday, between appointments. "I'm not under the water but I feel like I am."

Hers is among more than 1,000 families -- a total of 2,488 individuals -- who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and are now living in Maryland, according to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

While the majority are in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, there are 328 families consisting of 759 people in Baltimore and its surrounding counties.

Friends and family

About one-third of the evacuees are staying in hotels; the remainder are with friends or family.

Family like Dalton Journee, 40, who opened up the New Northwood home where he lives with his wife and 19-year-old son.

There are eight people who have been staying there for more than a week. Oliver and her four young children, her brother's fiancee, and her mother and stepfather.

They're sleeping on air mattresses and the couch, wearing donated clothes and eating barbecue chicken and macaroni-and-cheese cooked by friends and area churches.

Moving forward

But through all the chaos of 11 people -- eight of them dislocated and disoriented -- under one roof, life goes on.

Oliver's 10-month-old baby stands up; her grandmother rushes to grab a camera to record the moment. Michael Graham, 11, quietly does his Spanish homework, his mother reading over his shoulder to help.

For Oliver, a 28-year-old single mother who had never been farther than Texas or Mississippi, her journey was enough to give her faith in humanity, hope that things will work out.

After working the night shift as a ferryboat assistant for the Louisiana Department of Transportation, Oliver had one day to leave before Katrina hit home. So she packed up her kids and set out with her brother's fiancee, Markitta Briscoe, 22.

They headed east to Mississippi, stopping after 12 hours in Laurel when she was too tired to go on. It was past midnight and Katrina was to hit that day.

A police officer at the gas station gave them a ripped sheet of paper with a woman's name and phone number. He called the number for them and guided them to her house.

The woman had a nearby empty house that she opened up to them. There they stayed through the storm, and for several days while neighbors gave them water and food, candles and flashlights.

A bag of coins

After getting in touch with her uncle, they decided to move on. Oliver was going to drop Briscoe off with a relative in Georgia and then head to Maryland. The woman who let them use her house gave them $75 in coins to make the journey, the remnants of which they hold up in a plastic bag while retelling the story.

At a rest stop in Georgia, members of a church offered formula and diapers and other essentials just as Oliver was running out of supplies.

When they found Briscoe's relative's house was full, they headed north, strangers offering them money for food and gas every stop of the way.

In South Carolina, when they wanted to rest for the night, another woman offered to pay for a room at a Days Inn. After a night of rest they drove north straight to Baltimore, where the exhausted lot finally landed the weekend of Labor Day.

"I didn't really expect people to be so nice," said Oliver. "I'm very, very grateful."

Baltimore will take some getting used to, she says. The hills. The seemingly sprawled-out nature of it. The snow and cold weather -- when they come.

She'll likely be here for winter. She figures she'll stay.

Three of her children began school Monday. Yesterday she was trying to get formula -- which she got through a federal program in Louisiana -- for her 10-month-old baby.

She's applying for jobs and looking for an apartment to rent (though she can't find anything close to the $600 she paid for a three-bedroom apartment in New Orleans).

Less eager

Same goes for her mother and stepfather, Deardra, 44, and Cornell Jackson, 47, though they seem less eager to begin laying the groundwork of a life here.

Cornell Jackson is hoping he can return to Gretna, La., where they lived. But they realize they are at least three months away from going back.

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