After Katrina, `We are so blessed'

New Orleans neighbors who rode out the August hurricane together celebrate a wedding at the W.Va. base where they're staying

Katrina's Wake


KINGWOOD, W.VA. // For one maverick group of Katrina evacuees, yesterday was another roller coaster day - filled with worry, punctuated by love.

The group of eight neighbors, friends and relatives survived Hurricane Katrina's flooding of their Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans by gathering supplies and riding out the hurricane together in a local school.

Rescued, they were flown to another world - Camp Dawson, a 4,000-acre National Guard training base in rural West Virginia, a refuge that seemed like paradise when they arrived three weeks ago. When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pledged early last week to reopen the Uptown neighborhood to residents and businesses within days, homesick members of the crew greeted the news with joy, hoping to at least visit their New Orleans homes one day soon.

But Friday and yesterday, Hurricane Rita's powerful wind, rain and storm surge struck New Orleans' weakened defenses. Some New Orleans neighborhoods were submerged when water flowed over the levees, and others were wet from smaller leaks. It appeared yesterday that Uptown would not be re-flooded, but group members worried about going home.

Despite such uncertainties, two of them, Greg Avery and Glenda Perkins decided, after 15 years together, that now was as good a time as any to wed. The marriage took place outdoors overlooking the Cheat River, with guests including West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III.

Afterward, their neighbor Allen Smith - known as "Sarge" for his days as a military policeman - orchestrated a reception called "Taste of New Orleans," featuring jambalaya and dirty rice.

In New Orleans, the group survived the post-Katrina chaos by creating a commune in their Uptown neighborhood middle school. Smith devised the plan, instructing the others to outfit the school with food, water, blankets and a radio before Katrina hit.

After a few days, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters offered evacuation. Smith urged elderly neighbors to flee, but he and the others declined, saying they would be more comfortable in the school than amid the horrors of the New Orleans convention center.

Avery was the cook, preparing Cajun red beans and rice one day when a reporter visited at lunchtime. Vance Anthion was the protector with a soft spot. Tears flowed down the imposing Vietnam veteran's cheeks at the mention of his wife, whom he hasn't seen since the day after Katrina hit. And everyone spent time entertaining talkative Sierra Smith, 8, who chose to stay behind with her grandparents when her mother was airlifted.

Uncertain plans

Now, they all have fantasies of returning to New Orleans, but the future is full of questions.

Sierra's uncle and grandparents are considering moving to Charleston, while Avery and Perkins might move to nearby Morgantown. The offers are tempting: furnished apartments with free rent for several months and help finding jobs.

Smith and Anthion were hoping yesterday that the group might fly home to New Orleans by Thursday. Smith's plan is for the group to return for a few days, check the condition of their homes, and then all go their separate ways to live with scattered relatives.

"We came as a group; we're going to return as a group," he said.

But yesterday the group's attention was focused on Kingwood and the wedding.

A frantic Red Cross volunteer-turned-wedding planner directed flower girl Sierra, while Smith and Anthion prepared the reception feast. Everything, including the cake and the couple's honeymoon night at a nearby mountainside resort, was donated.

"Oh goodness, I'm so excited," Perkins said, sitting nervously in her barracks moments before the ceremony. "This is more than just our wedding; it's an appreciation of everything. We are so blessed."

A pastor of a nearby church that the couple has attended presided over the ceremony, and his 12-year-old son walked Perkins down the aisle as a harpist strummed Pachelbel's "Canon in D."

As Perkins, wearing a regal purple ensemble and matching hat, walked toward the altar, Avery smiled, and then, pulling out his digital camera, snapped a photo of his bride.

"This man is my king," Perkins said, beaming after the ceremony.

It was a moment where she could take her mind off other worries. Perkins has not heard from two sisters she lost track of after Katrina. And her youngest brother, who was evacuated from New Orleans to Beaumont, Texas, during Katrina, was forced to leave Texas on Friday, hours before Hurricane Rita came ashore. She hadn't spoken to him since Rita struck the coast.

"I don't know what to think," she said. "But I'm going to stay optimistic."

The kindness of strangers in this Appalachian community, population 2,944, has fed their optimism.

Warm showers and a hot meal welcomed the group when they stepped off the plane from New Orleans. Everyone was thrilled.

"These people are amazing," Anthion said, "especially after all we've been through."

A new place

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