A Place of Their Own Again

A family who lost all to Katrina has a brand-new home in Baltimore

Cover Story

December 03, 2006|By Emeri B. O'Brien | Emeri B. O'Brien,Sun Reporter

Reynoud Duplessis and three of his children recently sat in M&T Bank Stadium, rooting for their home team. As they watched the Ravens play the Carolina Panthers, they kept a close watch on the ticker of scores under the scoreboard.

"Let's go, Saints," screamed Nicholas Duplessis, 20.

"Way to go, Joe [Horn]," yelled his sister Phylissa, 19.

There was a time when they would be in the Superdome watching the New Orleans Saints play. But not anymore.

During the Ravens' game in October, a picture of the Duplessis family appeared on the JumboTron, reminding the members of why they were in Baltimore.

"A family of nine displaced by Hurricane Katrina," the accompanying text said. It went on to say how the Baltimore Ravens and Sandtown Habitat for Humanity had helped the family renovate a new home.

This Christmas, the Duplessises have something to celebrate. They are home for the holidays.

Life has seemingly settled down from a year ago, when there were days of life-wrenching challenges and obstacles.

A storm wiped out their lives in New Orleans, taking them on a journey from the Crescent City to Lake Charles, La., to Baton Rouge, La., and, finally, to Baltimore.

When they arrived, they were homeless. They received temporary housing here with the help of a church and a federal disaster assistance voucher that has since been used up.

Today, the family is experiencing a new normalcy. Reynoud and Helen Duplessis are working, and they became grandparents in the summer to Dontae, who was born in Baltimore.

Their children - Roza, 26, Jennifer, 25, Brittany, 21, twins Alysia and Phylissa and Nicholas - are in school or working and have made new friends.

Still, it's not New Orleans.

"It's different," says Helen, 42, who works for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "I was just an everyday Joe in New Orleans. I paid my bills, and I was a law-abiding citizen.

"My city is not the city I knew it to be. As of Aug. 29, 2005, it will never be again. Home is where the heart is - that's the bottom line."

A long road

Reynoud, 49, and his family talk about their lives in two terms: pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.

Before Katrina, Reynoud worked for a granite/marble company in Jefferson Parish. His wife worked in a mailroom, and they did their best to take care of their children.

They paid $600 a month for a four-bedroom house they rented in the Sixth Ward, about 10 blocks from the French Quarter.

Their life, though, was not without troubles. Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 28, 2005. A month later she had surgery, and her first chemotherapy treatment was on Aug. 18.

Nearly two weeks later, the hurricane would cause even more turbulence in their lives. Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

The levees broke the next day, heavily damaging the place they called home.

Unlike many of their neighbors, the family heeded warnings to leave the area before Katrina hit.

With three days' worth of clothes and other belongings loaded up in Reynoud's Ford F-350 truck, they headed west to Lake Charles.

Those who couldn't fit in the cab sat in the back, holding a tarp over their heads. What should have been a four-hour drive on Interstate 10 took 17 hours.

"The thing I remember the most was seeing a bunch of cars with one person," says Reynoud, reflecting on those left behind.

The family's stay at a shelter in Lake Charles was short. While there, Hurricane Rita hit, forcing the Duplessis family to evacuate again.

The members bounced from shelter to shelter and ended up in Baton Rouge, bonding with evacuees from all points.

All the while, Helen continued her chemotherapy at other hospitals, and the family dealt with its rootless existence.

"I only had four units of chemo before the storm," Helen says. "I finished chemo in shelters and on the road. What else could you do?"

Her husband, who now works for UPS, remembers watching and listening to the news reports about the devastation and heard how the media referred to people like them as refugees.

"We never called ourselves refugees," Reynoud says. "We called ourselves survivors."

Meeting an angel

It was in Baton Rouge that the stars began to align for the Duplessises.

There, they met their angel, Scott Adams, a minister at Messiah Community Church in Reisterstown, who was looking for Katrina families who were willing to relocate.

"It was Kansas City or Baltimore," says Reynoud of their relocation options. "My wife is from Massachusetts. Baltimore is in the Northeast. So we went with that."

They gave their belongings away and didn't turn back.

"I walked to the Greyhound bus station and bought one-way tickets to Baltimore," Reynoud says. "It took us two days to get from Louisiana to Baltimore."

When they got off the bus in Baltimore on Oct. 5, 2005, Adams was waiting for them with a smile.

"We have to be our brother's keeper," says Adams, recalling that day. "I am committed to the Duplessis family. They are my family now."

Their first stop was a Ramada Inn at Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road.

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