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Friday, May 6, 2016

500+ Katrina refugees straggle to Iowa with tales of loss and hope

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

They talked of spending days pinned down on a parking garage rooftop waiting for helicopters. Of driving north in a beat up car with a broken radiator. Of finding hope and a new start after leaving a ravaged city.

More than 500 Hurricane Katrina refugees are now in Iowa, according to the state chapter of the American Red Cross, and their stories are starting to come out.

"There's nothing to go back to," said Claudia Fontenette, 46, who fled New Orleans for Cedar Rapids. "Everything's gone."

President Bush has declared emergencies in Iowa and several other states, enabling officials to seek federal assistance to care for the Katrina refugees.

Benjamin Larson, 26, a Tulane University graduate student originally from Huxley, told a harrowing story of trying to help hospital patients waiting to be airlifted.

They had sought refuge on the roof of a parking garage, but many of the helicopters couldn't land because of gunfire, said Larson, 26, a former paramedic. He said the nights were filled with screams, shooting and Molotov cocktails.

"No one would help us," Larson said. "Everyone was saying, `What the hell is going on?' "

Larson had stayed in New Orleans to help at Tulane University's hospital after the storm hit. He said floodwaters and "armed weirdos" forced the hospital staff, volunteers and about 150 patients to leave the building for a nearby parking garage roof.

Helicopters began arriving, Larson said, but they could take only two or three people at a time. One helicopter came about every hour, he said.

More and more people arrived seeking help and there were no supplies. Larson said people used the stairwell as a bathroom and then gunmen in high-rise buildings around the garage began shooting at the group.

"They had pretty good angles on us," Larson said. "They were shooting at the helicopters. They were shooting at us. They were trying to pick off the doctors, the patients.

"They stopped all choppers from landing. We were taking too much fire."

After about two days, the Marines arrived, the gunmen scattered and large military helicopters evacuated everyone, said Larson, who finally made it to his parents home in Huxley on Thursday.

"I sat there, had some beers and went straight to sleep," he said. "It was good to sleep on a bed."

Tammy Peavy and her two children left their rented home near New Orleans because it had no ceiling and snakes from a nearby bayou had slithered into what used to be their kitchen. They stuffed what possessions they could salvage in her 1988 Mercury Grand Marquis and headed north.

The car has a broken radiator and they had to stop every 45 minutes to fill it with water, she said. But they've found shelter in Des Moines.

The Embassy Suites hotel has given rooms to Peavy and more than 20 other families. Cooks prepare breakfast every day and one room is filled with clothing, video games, food and toys for the families to take as needed

"Now I'm telling people I know down there, come to Iowa," Peavy said. "This isn't like being in Texas. You can't give 35,000 people in one place the same kind of attention you can get here."

Fontenette, 46, arrived in Cedar Rapids Saturday with her sister's daughter, her own daughter, her son and a granddaughter. Her sister, Ethel Milton, a student at Kirkwood Community College, had helped them relocate.

In New Orleans, Fontenette and her family first took refuge in a hotel. When the water began rising, they were taken by boat to the New Orleans convention center, where Fontenette said she saw dead bodies among the crowd.

"They kept telling us buses were coming, but buses never showed up" she said.

They got out on their own with the help of a relative who hotwired a car.

Katrina hit just as Wade Tornyos was to have started classes in Tulane's MBA program. He's now in the MBA program at the University of Iowa, which will allow him to live rent-free as long as Tulane is closed.

The university also gave Tornyos, 29, a $700 gift certificate that can be used at several stores in the area. And faculty in the business school offered him clothes, furniture and household appliances.

"The university has gone above and beyond anything I could have imagined," he said.

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