After the storm, one town finds 1,000 ways to give
15 November 2005
by Peter Kilborn
"What are you going to do?" she said Ms. Locke asked.
"About what? Ms. Parsee said, putting her on.
"About the storm coming," Kathlyn said. "It's a Category 4."
"I'm going," she said. "Don't count me out."
One hundred and eighteen miles north of Harvey is St. Francisville, a Mississippi River town of 1,700 where John Audubon painted many birds. The seat of West Feliciana Parish, it is the home of one of Louisiana's best public school systems, of poor rural blacks living in trailers and one-bathroom cinderblock houses, of stately plantation homes under canopies of skyscraping oaks, of cotton and poisonous snakes and a few stubborn artifacts of segregation, like the array of flapping Confederate flags for sale on Highway 61, the town's commercial artery.
That Saturday, the Rev. Joe Ratcliff called the 15 deacons of his wide red-brick, predominantly white First Baptist Church. On a slight knoll, encircled by acres of lawn and asphalt and near the intersections of Highways 61 and 10, the church is a conspicuous port in a storm.
"They all said, 'Open the shelter,' " Mr. Ratcliff said. "We chose not to be a Red Cross or FEMA shelter. We wanted our own people to sacrifice to take care of the needy."
With that, First Baptist threw St. Francisville's first spark to ignite the kind of ad-hoc, small-town philanthropy that would help hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina's accidental homeless restart their lives. For two months, West Feliciana Parish went to such lengths to succor evacuees - like scrubbing their clothes and commandeering a New Orleans school bus to deliver their meals - that some 300 are expected to try to settle here.
At the peak of the exodus, weeks before the arrival of the cavalry - the household names of charity and federal government assistance - the parish's half white, half black population of 15,000 would serve close to 1,000 evacuees. Hundreds scattered to private homes. After First Baptist took in 57, the parish Police Jury - the local government - signed up all 101 rooms of the Best Western motel for a shelter and set up a parish community center to take 46 evacuees. The second week after the storm, the Rev. Ronald E. Hardy Sr. and his wife, Robbin, known in the church as First Lady, opened the sanctuary of their black Faith, Hope and Love Worship Center to 23 more.
Help sprang up everywhere. Anne Butler, owner of the Butler-Greenwood Plantation, a bed and breakfast, used $2,000 that former guests had donated to buy $25 gift certificates for 80 children to get clothes at Fred's Super Dollar Store. Facing a surge of new shoppers, Fred's manager, Susan Hammer, gave 10 evacuees $5.35-an-hour cashier jobs.
One was Evelyn Roach, 47, who spent three days on New Orleans rooftops before a helicopter lifted her out. "That Saturday I left on a bus," Ms. Roach said. "I thought it was going to Dallas. But Dallas was full, so we went to Fort Smith, Arkansas. They checked us into the Army base up there." She caught a ride to the bus station and went to Shreveport. Her nephew picked her up at 1:30 a.m. and took her to St. Francisville, where her sister lives with her husband, three children and two grandchildren. "I felt," she said, "I'm back home!"
Her sister gave her a room. At Fred's, "I filled out an application, and Susan hired me," she said. Her brother-in law lent her a truck to get to work.
At Fred's Pharmacy, the Police Jury picked up the tab for filling prescriptions for the week until a foundation took over. The sick turned to the splendid new clinic of Chaillie P. Daniel and Timothy R. Lindsey, young family doctors.
"Everyone was seen," Dr. Lindsey said. "In September we saw 250 evacuees. Of the 250, about half could not pay and had no insurance. For the most part they were people running out of medicines or needing preventive care, routine labs, tetanus, hepatitis."
Dr. Daniel said, "We treated postoperative people." One lady had had two knees replaced 48 hours earlier. "She had no follow up," he said. "She came in in a wheelchair. We had a lady with acute pancreatitis, in a lot of pain. She definitely would have required a hospital. She wanted to fly to San Francisco. We looked up a doctor in San Francisco, and she had surgery the next day."
As for the payments, Dr. Lindsey said: "We have kept track of it as office overhead. We will probably turn in some charges to FEMA, but we don't know if we will be paid."
Search for a Haven
Sunday, the morning before the hurricane, Mother Rose; Ms. Locke; two other daughters, June Hollins and Niya Parsee; Ella Montgomery, a niece; and 10 others packed into two cars and a pickup for a grinding, often frantic 12-day search for asylum from their homes in the New Orleans area. Crossing Louisiana, they stalled in traffic entering Texas and turned back, to Georgia and Florida, then moved into New Orleans and out again.
"We were 'The Family of 15,' " Ms. Parsee said, to motelkeepers and the manager of a Chick-fil-A in Valdosta, Ga., who fed them free breakfast and lunch.
Their cash dwindling, the caravan stopped in a working-class resort in Florida near Disney World, where Ms. Locke owned a time share allowing them to stay.
Ms. Parsee said the developer offered her, Niya Parsee and Ms. Hollins $100 each to attend a 90-minute time-share sales pitch. Pitch over, the developer pressed the women to use their $100 for down payments. Instead, they took the money and ran.
Over the Labor Day weekend, the family heard that New Orleans was drying up. Hoping their odyssey was over, they returned and stopped at the house of June Hollins and her husband, Tim. "It was like, gone," Ms. Hollins said. Mother Rose said, "My house looked like a monster ripped it apart."
Then it was off to the long abandoned house that Mr. Hollins's late grandmother owned in La Place, 30 miles west of New Orleans.
A Town Pitches In
In St. Francisville, volunteers were swarming. There were ladies doing 30 pounds each of evacuee laundry a day at First Baptist. A retired registered nurse, Carolyn Porche, visited shelters every day for six weeks. "People just lined up," she said. "It was hard to quit."
The Happi Llandiers, a charity of retired black schoolteachers, scrounged up uniforms, shoes and supplies for evacuee schoolchildren. To help evacuees register online for housing aid, Linda Fox, the parish librarian, brought in tutors and more computers and stretched the library's hours. Over the two weeks after the storm, evacuees filled out 2,658 FEMA forms, 160 unemployment forms, 85 food stamp forms and 40 missing person forms.
Anne Butler's cousin Bob Butler, 51, a courthouse lawyer in St. Francisville's pretty historic district downtown, thought about food. He got catfish nets stretched across the Mississippi. He went to the David family, owners of the town's two supermarkets. "What do you have in your coolers?" he said he asked them. "They said: 'Take whatever you want. We've got 352 pounds of Boston butt,' " or pork shoulder.
Wednesday morning, two days after the storm, Mr. Butler hurried over to the office of W. Conville Lemoine, executive vice president of the Bank of St. Francisville and a friend since first grade. "We've got to feed those people," Mr. Butler told him. Mr. Lemoine set up a Katrina victim food fund to which donors gave $47,744 through 3 Novembe. He called in the bank's executive secretary, Kim X. Riggle, and asked her to work full time overseeing food services.
Wednesday evening, Mr. Butler and Ms. Riggle called a meeting in the West Feliciana Middle School dining room. Among those present were Bert F. Babers 3rd, president of the Police Jury, Floyd L. Younger Jr., the jury manager, Alline Baker, a school system food services manager, Lloyd Lindsey, the superintendent of schools, Pastor Ratcliff and clergy from three other churches. "Here's my idea," Ms. Riggle said Mr. Butler told the group. "We can feed these people."
For nearly six weeks, starting at 11 a.m. after students' meals had been prepared, volunteers took over the school's industrial kitchen. They cooked 1,000 biscuits a day. They pitched a wide meal tent outside First Baptist. Inmates from the city jail cleaned it up and made $5 and $10 contributions from their work accounts into Mr. Lemoine's fund.
Volunteers ferried meals in plastic-foam boxes to isolated homes that had taken in evacuees, like the widow Rosa Pate's 50-year-old place on eight acres up rural Parker Road.
One story, with one bath and two bedrooms, the house has cinder-block walls painted turquoise. Rosa planted the crape myrtle trees in front. Close to the house she also has live oaks, pin oaks, a gun tree, a pecan tree and a hickory tree.
Darling, Ms. Pate's family nickname, took in her Williams family relatives - blind and stooped James Sr., 94, his estranged wife, Katie, 88, both under the same roof for the first time in 41 years, and their sons, James Jr., 52, and Peter, 48, both ministers of churches in New Orleans that Katrina washed out. Ms. Pate, 63, moved to the living room couch.
"We stayed in Baton Rouge two nights," James Jr. said. "My brother Peter said, 'Let's call Darling.' She said she was waiting for us to call. She said, 'Come on in, the door is open.' We were just blessed."
The Police Jury begged and borrowed to get out the food. Its cars and trucks tied up delivering meals and care packages of soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant, washcloths and towels. The jury needed more vehicles. So it also stole.
On a rural road just out of town, the jury found a school bus from New Orleans. Evacuees had left the keys and sprayed off their fingerprints with the fire extinguisher. "We decided we would acquire it," Mr. Babers said. The second week of October, he said, the Orleans Parish sheriff called. "He said, 'Lock that bus up.' " Mr. Babers declined. "We said, 'We're using it to feed your people.' "
Didi's Uncle Roy is a deputy sheriff in St. Francisville, Mother Rose learned. Didi told her, "They got a shelter opening."
So into the bleak rural night of Sept. 8, the clan set off north on 61.
"Deers!" Mother Rose recalled shouting. "They have deers outside."
"No streetlights," Ella Montgomery said she said. "Cities have streetlights."
Terrified, June Hollins said, "We have to stop."
"In the name of Jesus," Mother Rose said, "keep going."
Downtown, they came upon Faith, Hope and Love's wide, beige, one-story cinderblock church.
"We made it," Ms. Hollins said later. "It was mattresses, not cots. Sheets, nice blankets." Out of money, they didn't need any. "They brought food, supplies, whatever we needed."
Ms. Parsee said: "We had nurses show up and do checkups. We had flu shots."
Hoary bureaucracies kept putting up road blocks in St. Francisville. The jury needed help reaching unknown evacuees in homes like Rosa Pate's. Mr. Babers asked the post office to deliver notices urging evacuees to register so they could get meals and rides to school. " 'You could never do that,' " he said the post office told him. 'You have to go to the board of governors in Washington.' "
At the parish's small community-center shelter where the Happi Llandiers has its office, Peggy Casanova, the secretary, said that departed evacuees without new addresses still use the shelter to pick up housing assistance checks from FEMA.
One day in late October a stack of letters, two from FEMA, arrived. Affixed to the stack was an unsigned handwritten note from the letter carrier. "The people at this address needs to put up a box," it said, "or I will have to return all the mail. Please correct address. Thanks."
The second week after the storm, Red Cross and FEMA officials began trickling through St. Francisville, but their help was slow. The Red Cross contracted with four local restaurants to prepare evacuee meals beginning Oct. 7.
The Police Jury needed FEMA's help with the Best Western bill that was running $150,000 a month.
"They wanted us to project it for 60 days," Mr. Babers said. "Then they went away with their little forms. We didn't hear anything at all for a while. Then they called and said, 'Within a day or two, we will send somebody with a form to fill out.' I said, 'Wait, I've already done that.' They gave us $23,000 as a first draw."
In late October, the shelter closed, and the Parsees settled in a three-bedroom, two-bath brick ranch house on a tidy subdivision street. A gift from the son of the church's late secretary, the house was fixed up by volunteers with new paint, carpets and appliances, except for the worn-out 1960's harvest gold refrigerator. First Lady Robbin Hardy put her plan for a displaced girls' home on hold.
After church Oct. 23, Pastor Hardy dropped in.
"I have a surprise," he said.
"Thank you, Jesus, thank you Lord." Three joyful women and two teenage daughters whooped and clapped.
"The refrigerator's out, right?" he said.
"Thank you, Lord!" Mother Rose said, taking to her feet.
"So we're going to buy you a new one."
"Thank you, Jesus!" they said.
Outside, Pastor Hardy said: "I did what I would have wanted done to me. If it was me, I'd want you to allow me a season when I can get back up. That's what I'm trying to do."