New Orleans Families Find an "Angel"

Newspaper publisher gets involved to help storm evacuees

Stewart reports on how individuals are stepping forward to help families regain their footing and start a new life.

For Alice Tisdale, associate publisher of the Jackson Advocate, the 38 people sharing a room at a Jackson, Mississippi, hotel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were more than a story for her newspaper. They were a cause.

Even as she wrote about the plight of the Brown and Coste families in the 67-year-old-black newspaper, Tisdale also set about helping them put their lives in order. "She's our guardian angel," says Stephanie Coste, who fled the raging hurricane with her husband, Christopher, their children and other relatives. "She's been helping us ever since she met us."

The determined group had caravanned from storm-devastated Chalmette and New Orleans in Louisiana just as flood waters were submerging their communities. Instead of joining thousands of strangers in temporary shelters, the group pooled their money and opted for the only hotel room they could find.

"We wanted to keep the family together," Christopher Coste says. "We thought it was just going to be for a couple of days. We get warnings every year, and it turns out to be nothing." During a previous hurricane warning, he said they had evacuated as recommended and spent their money on hotels and gas. But there was no storm and they returned home without the next monthís rent.

By Sept. 8, the group had shrunk to 16, still in one room, as the rest fanned out to other relatives' homes throughout the country. The manager of the Clarion Hotel promised to move them from the painfully cramped quarters into four separate rooms by evening as other families checked out.

Meanwhile, Tisdale had mobilized a network of Jackson citizens to offer whatever help they could. And as the parents waited in long lines for several days to secure Red Cross and FEMA assistance, Tisdale helped enroll the youngsters in school and tracked down donations of food, clothing and toiletries. The items were assembled in neat stacks in the crowded hotel room.

But Tisdale says she has bigger plans for the group, whose members have skills as cooks, carpenters, domestic and maintenance workers. "The long-term goal is to help them become self-sufficient," she says. "We're working with the city and HUD on housing, and weíre hoping to help them open a restaurant with New Orleans cuisine."

That Friday night, most members of the family slept on the grounds of the Mississippi Coliseum in a line to obtain Red Cross debit cards Saturday morning. Christopher Coste says Tisdale has been a godsend. "Spiritually, mentally and physically, she's been right there for us every step of the way."

Pearl Stewart is a journalism professor at University of Southern Mississippi.

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