Aretha May is just one of many Hurricane Katrina evacuees who have been spread among more than 20 states, often traveling from one state to another before they were able to find shelter and the services they needed.
May and her husband, Howard Payton Jr., and 9-year-old daughter, Christianna, landed in Birmingham, Alabama, two weeks after the storm. She was pregnant, and she, her husband and daughter had been sleeping in their car. Volunteer Danella D. Taylor met them at a Red Cross intake center. “She just came to me and told me her situation,” Taylor says, and she said, “All I want is a shower.” Taylor vowed to help them. “I know my people and I know they need my help.”
Originally from the Eighth Ward in New Orleans, May and her family scrambled to evacuate at the last minute, with no real plan and nowhere to go. Nine people piled into Payton’s ’86 Pontiac Grand Prix and fled Katrina, running away from everything they knew. “We squeezed in and we rode,” Payton says.
First they went to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, seeking shelter and FEMA. They found neither. Then they traveled to Foxworth, Mississippi, where Payton’s sister’s godfather’s trailer served as shelter for all nine evacuees. After a couple of weeks in Mississippi, the three set out to find something better, arriving in Birmingham at 2:30 a.m., and then sleeping in their car. “We had no place to go,” says May, who was seven months pregnant at the time.
Similarly, Cheryl Wilkins Richardson, who is disabled, was in a state of panic and disbelief as she and her husband desperately escaped the chaos in New Orleans. She describes falling through her roof in an attempt to flee the rising flood waters in her house. They finally managed to paddle out on a makeshift raft. After being rescued, they were transferred to three other states before arriving in Alabama.
Despite the lengths many of these people had go through to receive assistance and move on with their lives, most of the evacuees say they are grateful. They are especially grateful for the strangers who have guided them through many difficult days. Sitting in a hotel room, May and her family seem happy to finally have a safe, comfortable place to rest. It isn’t the ideal situation, they say, yet they remain encouraged. “You have to just put Jesus first,” Payton says. “He will bring you out of everything.” May adds.
Chianti C. Cleggett is a writer in Alabama.
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