After reunion, thoughts turn to future


Hurricane Rita

September 26, 2005|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun Reporter

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS -- When Lietyna Eugene is feeling good, she speaks often about God and his blessings. She talks about prayers that have been answered during her time away from New Orleans. And she smiles and laughs a lot - much more than she cries.

But when she stops to think about the future, Eugene becomes nervous. And bitter.

"How am I going to pay my rent?" she asked. "Or get a job while we wait for them to rebuild our neighborhood? And if I can't, are we going to get put out?"

It has been nearly a month since Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home, flooding the Ninth Ward where she lived and from which she escaped with her fiance, two daughters and seven grandchildren.

Eugene has waded through neck-high water filled with feces, bodies and snakes. She has been separated from and reunited with her family. She lived through "hell on earth" at the Louisiana Superdome for five days, going long stretches without food and water for her, or milk and diapers for her young grandchildren.

She went to the Astrodome in Houston, then stayed briefly with nearby relatives, only to confront Hurricane Rita. As the storm approached, the group was evacuated by bus to two churches in Huntsville, about 70 miles north, finally reaching the La Quinta Inn here just before this second hurricane stormed through town.

During the past four weeks, she has mostly thought only about what her family could eat, or when she could shower or sleep in a bed instead of on the floor.

But yesterday, with a full stomach and a few good nights in a bed, Eugene started to think about next month, and six months from now, and one year from now. She's almost out of the $3,200 her family has received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross.

The past few days in Huntsville, and the helpfulness and hospitality of local volunteers, encouraged her to consider staying here. That involved making some risky decisions with no certain outcome. She took a chance and spent $800 of her relief funds to buy a car, which will permit her to look for housing and a job.

"We were doing OK for a while, but then Rita swept us out again," Eugene said. "We have until October 9th in this place. What do we do from there?"

Those questions tend to pop up often.

They come and go between laughs, as she trades stories with her fiance's family.

Stroke of luck

In an extraordinary turn of fate Friday, as these relatives - the Williams family - fled from Rita, they pulled out of the freeway's gridlock into the La Quinta Inn parking lot, and unexpectedly encountered Eugene.

The Williams family, about 26 people traveling in eight cars, couldn't have found her at a better time. She cleared out one of the two rooms her family was occupying, and the group converged on Room 219 at the motel - sleeping on beds, floors, tables and in the bathroom - any spot they could find to be under a roof and in the air conditioning.

The clan had lived most of their lives in the bottom of the cup that makes up the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

When it was flooded by Katrina, most of the Williams family fled to Houston to live with a relative. Then, with Rita threatening, they hit the road again, this time heading north and spending 20 hours in traffic and a night sleeping along the interstate and the curb at a McDonald's parking lot before arriving in Huntsville.

After finally getting under a roof again, they turned on the television and saw water flooding into their New Orleans neighborhood for a second time. Most of them believe all their belongings are destroyed.

Memories of home

Royce Williams Sr., a cousin, said he had just paid off the debt on his home but never purchased flood insurance because he didn't think he needed it.

Temporarily resettling with his family at his sister's home in the Mission Bend neighborhood of Houston, he enrolled his children in schools and bought new clothes.

His wife, Kina, managed to get a transfer from the SteinMart she worked at in New Orleans to the company's Houston store. They were about to move into temporary housing when Hurricane Rita turned their way. They'll go back to Houston, but Rita added extra tension at a time already filled with enormous stress.

Williams is distraught about his cousin Donald, who is missing, and Donald's family, who drowned. He's been in touch with the coroner's office for the past week to see whether Donald's body has been recovered.

When Williams recalls his house in New Orleans, he winces when he thinks about his 1981 black Trans Am or his 55-inch TV. Kina Williams is sad about losing her family photos, her Jeep Cherokee and her new washer and dryer.

Their 17-year-old son, Royce Jr., mostly understands that his life in New Orleans is on hold, but Williams' 10-year-old daughter, Kailyn, doesn't get it yet.

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