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Fleeing Katrina to Atlanta: One Family's Story


Selwyn and Chiquita Smith have lived in New Orleans their whole lives. They're in their early 30's and have three children - ages 14, 11, and 9. When they heard Hurricane Katrina was coming, the Smiths didn't want to flee. But they took the mandatory evacuation order seriously.

The day before the storm struck New Orleans, they packed their children and a niece into their small car. "We couldn't really get everybody in there, we had to leave somebody out," Chiquita says. "My mom opted to stay with my grandmother 'cuz she's older, and it's like the worst mistake of our life to leave 'em," she sobs.

Like thousands of other evacuees, they decided to come far enough east to escape the storm, and got off the highway in Atlanta, which forecasters said would be spared. The Smiths ended up at a Comfort Inn just west of downtown. After the 1,200-kilometer trek, Mrs. Smith spoke with her mother and grandmother by phone. Her mother described the pounding rain and massive winds, and said they were trapped in the attic.

"She was crying when I was talking to her on the phone," Chiquita says between sobs as she recalls the conversation. "I don't know if they got rescued or nothing."

Chiquita's niece, Tranetta Luque, 10, says she never wants to go home. "I want to find my family. But I don't want to come back 'cuz it look bad. And I don't want to stay in no city that have dirty water and dead bodies floatin'."

The Smith family has no home to go back to. They've watched helplessly, as TV news coverage showed their old neighborhood -- and the new one they were about to move into -- destroyed. "We just actually moved all our furniture and everything was sitting right in front of the door," Selwyn Smith says, adding that they saved for years to buy a modest single-story house in the northern part of the city. "It's like a long-arm process that was coming to an end and now it's about to start all over again."

Mr. Smith says they have virtually nothing. They brought just a few clothes and have only enough money to last another week at the most. "We went to Wal-Mart and just bought stuff that we knew would last, like bread and meat and the ice chest and just trying to stretch it. We've got to stretch it 'cuz everything counts right now."

There are hundreds of other evacuees at this Comfort Inn. They're in the same predicament. Donations are coming in, and the hotel has reduced its rates. Still, it's unclear how long this can last. At home, Selwyn Smith is a loan officer at a lending company and his wife is a hairdresser. Both of their businesses were wiped out.

"Within the next two weeks we have to do something or find work or something," Mr. Smith says. "It may have to be in this area until I can make some money and get out of the area, or closer to New Orleans or whatever."

But even with all the uncertainty, he says there's clarity about what matters most. "Even if we never made it back to New Orleans, if our family members are safe that's the only thing we worry about right now really. That's the only thing we worry about."

The Smiths say all they can do now is take things one day at a time. They can't plan their futures, but hold out hope that they'll find their way. And everywhere they go, they carry a cell phone, desperately awaiting that call from home.