When Hurricane Katrina tore through areas of the Gulf Coast in late August, it flooded streets, destroyed homes, killed more than a thousand people and displaced hundreds of thousands of Louisiana and Mississippi residents.
The storm and the floodwaters that followed caused billions of dollars in damage and devastated entire communities.
Some Gulf Coast residents chose to stay put during the storm, ignoring evacuation orders and opting to ride out the storm. Others had no way to evacuate from the region. Many more took what few possessions they could grab and fled. Four families made the decision to leave their homes, friends and families for temporary shelter or a new start in the Yampa Valley.
The stories of each of those four families begin the same -- with a decision to leave homes and personal belongings behind as powerful Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast. They faced coping with tragedy and the unknown and dilemmas never before imagined -- how to eat, where to live, where their children would attend school, how they would find work and what would become of their former, familiar lives?
Andrea Wheat is a positive woman, even when she wants to do nothing else but cry. Andrea, her husband, Kendal, and their two daughters, Neylan, 9, and Hilary, 6, have committed to starting over in Routt County after losing everything in Katrina.
The Wheats recently were staying with family in Picayune, Miss., waiting out Hurricane Rita before making the trip to Clark, which they soon will call home. They expect to arrive in Northwest Colorado early this week.
"Our whole family was affected by this storm," Andrea Wheat said about Hurricane Katrina. "We're just lucky this house in Picayune was here. Our whole family has lost everything. Everything."
Home for the Wheats used to be Slidell, La., where their daughters had spent most of their young lives. Telling Neylan and Hilary they never would go home again was the hardest thing Andrea and Kendal have done since the hurricane turned their lives upside down.
"We tried to explain to them that the home was damaged, but they didn't get it," Andrea said. "We drove them in (to see what remained of the home), and my youngest daughter said, 'Yep, mommy, we can't live here.'"
The girls have started to come to terms with leaving the only home they've known and the only friends they've had for a new place explored only through pictures in books.
"Colorado seems fun," Ney--lan said. "I've never really seen snow."
But Neylan is worried about the fate of her friends, many of whom she has not heard from. She also is worried about going to a new school.
"I've never been to a new school before," she said. "I am used to everyone coming to my school."
For Andrea, living in the homes of relatives while trying to prepare for a move to Clark has been tough, and she has kept herself occupied with reading and cooking.
"One of the things my husband saved for me was my pots. I love to cook," she said.
With the exception of the pots, the family members left their home wearing the clothes on their backs and carrying a few pictures, some important documents and three days' worth of clothes.
"There are some days when you're so overwhelmed," she said. "You're used to being busy. You wake up every morning and think, 'I have nothing to do today.' Our house is underwater, we don't have jobs, there is no school to take our kids to. It can be very depressing, but I just try to remember that, above all else, we made it."
Jackie Lyons, a Clark resident and close friend of Andrea, has encouraged the family to move here for some time. It took a hurricane to make the move happen.
"We discussed it for a long time," Andrea said. "We just said, 'Let's make a new life. Let's just do it.'"
The family plans to rent a house in Clark until they get to know the area. Kendal is searching for work. His family's dry-cleaning business was destroyed by the storm.
But the family's first concern is stabilizing life for their daughters, who have played in mud and slept on wood pallets for several weeks.
"We have to try something," Andrea said. "We have to try to find work, to rebuild, to put food on the table for our girls."
Jen Delahoussaye, her three children, Caroline, Clayton and Christopher, and her parents, Pat and Austin McElroy, might have been the first family displaced by Hurricane Katrina to arrive in Steamboat.
They fled their Covington, La., homes immediately after the storm to stay with Mae Greene, Jen's sister.
Greene welcomed her family with opens arms but was unsure how she was going to provide for all of them, especially because she didn't know how long they would stay.
"They were worried about their safety and being able to get gas. I knew that if they came here I would be able to get the resources," Greene said.
So she went to Holy Name Catholic Church and asked Father Ernest Bayer for advice.
In a matter of days, several parishioners had offered the family two condominiums in which to live for a month. A church collection raised money to provide the jobless family with much-needed financial assistance.
"I didn't tell my parents I had everything figured out before they got here. They were definitely stressed out about absolutely everything," Greene said.
During the two-week collection, the church raised more than $8,000, of which $3,200 was given to the McElroys and Delahoussayes. The remainder was sent to a Catholic disaster relief fund.
"It was such an honor to give them this money from the community," Bayer said. "Everyone got teary-eyed."
During the several weeks the family was here, they were able to relax and reflect on their Katrina experience. But they soon grew antsy and felt a sense of guilt for living comfortably here while other family members, friends and fellow Louisianians struggled to get by.
The family eventually decided to return to Covington.
"It was a tough decision, for sure," Greene said. "They had it pretty nice here. They knew what they were going back to."
Against Greene's pleads, her family left Sept. 14 to return to the Gulf Coast.
"I don't think they realize how hard it will be for so long," she said. "But I can understand. That is their home."
"Thank God we have that van," Mark Bordelon said. "If it had a bathroom we could just live in there."
Mark Bordelon, his wife, Terri, and their two sons, Maxwell, 10, and Malone, 12, made the long drive from Louisiana to Steamboat three weeks ago in their Honda Odyssey to stay with Terri's brother, Michael Malone, and his wife and their newborn baby.
"That baby was a perfect excuse to come up," Terri said. "We're temporary refugees."
The Bordelons live in Metarie, on the west side of New Orleans. Their home suffered extensive flood damage but otherwise is all right.
The Bordelons are biding their time until they can return home to clean up and resume their lives. They are intent on returning to Louisiana because their home still stands and they have jobs to go back to.
The Bordelons planned to return as soon as their sons' school reopened. Like the Wheats, the Bordelons wanted to provide some sort of stability for their children. Before coming to Steamboat, the family made a final stop to its home to say a temporary goodbye.
"They boys were depressed to see the house look like that," Terri said. "Maxwell cried when he saw that the water had washed his room away. All of his Harry Potter stuff is just saturated."
The Bordelons fled the storm Aug. 28, the Sunday before the hurricane slammed into the coast. They stayed in a Birmingham, Ala., hotel, expecting to return home a few days later.
"All we had were swimsuits, sundresses, shorts and T-shirts," Terri said. When the enormity of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina became apparent, the family decided it was time to leave the region.
Upon their arrival in Steam--boat, the Bordelons enrolled their sons at the Christian Heritage School. They also found a way to get the boys on a soccer team.
"This will be a defining moment in their lives, but they will have good memories of Hurricane Katrina. They lived through it, and now we will rebuild," Mark Bordelon said.
The Bordelons consider themselves lucky, knowing their home survived and their jobs await them. Terri is a hairdresser, and Mark works for Lexus of New Orleans.
"You never think it is going to happen to you. You never, ever think this will happen to you," Mark said. "But we will pick up, and we will go back."
After losing his work and clients when his New Orleans law firm flooded, attorney David Band just wanted to find some work in the Yampa Valley.
Band's decision to come here, where he and his wife, Ilonka, have owned a condominium for 18 years, was made easier when he was told that a requirement that he pass the Colorado Bar Association exam in February before he could practice law here was waived at his request.
"It's a wonderful feeling," he said.
But leaving New Orleans for Steamboat was not the Bands' first choice as Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast region.
"I was reluctant to leave when the news kept telling us to get out. I have never left for a hurricane in the 50 years I have lived there," he said. "We didn't know where we were going to go."
The Bands stayed with friends in Houston and then with their daughter in Denver. It made sense for them to come to their Steamboat condo.
"I need to come here," David said. "I need income. I have mortgages, credit cards, rental property, my law firm. All that needs to be paid for."
Band said he has received several work offers from local attorneys, and he is working on a project for a Denver attorney. But he knows the jobs are only temporary.
Like other families, the Bands did not bring clothes or other personal items with them because they left in such a rush.
"I couldn't even get my pictures," Ilonka said.
Steamboat has been good to the Bands, but it's not home -- yet.
"It's not bad being here, but you think about what you're going to find when you go home," Ilonka said. "At the time, we just wanted to get out. It was like running for your life."
David said that if everything falls into place, the transition to moving to Steamboat could take several months.
"I dread that drive back into town. They say the city doesn't even look the same," he said about New Orleans.
But, like the Wheats and Bordelons, the Bands have kept positive. They even snuck in a trip to Yellowstone National Park to clear their minds.
"Everything is relative. We're certainly one of the lucky ones," he said. "Maybe we'll be stronger because of this."
--To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234
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