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Shelter from the storm

You are a Hurricane Katrina evacuee. You end up in a foreign town, living with complete strangers. You have no friends, family, or home to return to. You are forced to start your life over from nothing.

Just imagine the situation. Scary? Now, picture yourself as a 14-year-old girl in the same position.

On Aug. 29, Amanda Perdomo was driven from her home in Slidell, La., by the salty rising waters of Hurricane Katrina. Sudden isolation was the reality she faced.

After living out of her father’s truck for three days, Amanda and her Guatemalan parents made the Red Cross shelter at the University of Alabama their temporary home.

Eight days later, the Perdomo family met Red Cross volunteers David and Lisa Orem, who volunteered to take care of Amanda while her family got back on their feet.

“I hadn’t known David and Lisa for 15 minutes before my mom and dad told me I was moving in with them,” Amanda said.

After taking the family on a tour of Demopolis and visiting area schools, the plans were finalized. Amanda would move in with the Orems, leaving her mom and dad to get things in Slidell back to livable conditions, if it was even possible.

At first, Amanda said, she resented her parents for abandoning her, but as time passed, she realized her parents meant well. They simply wanted some sense of stability for their daughter, she said, even if it meant leaving their little girl in an unfamiliar place with strangers.

The Orems enrolled the Amanda at West Alabama Prep, a Demopolis private school, where, at first, Amanda felt unwanted, unloved and scared.

“Everyone was talking about me because they though I was mean, but then I realized I didn’t go there willing to make friends,” she said. “I was in this new place, by myself, and I didn’t know where my old friends were.”

Eventually, Amanda warmed up to her new surroundings and learned to adjust to the situation Hurricane Katrina had blown her into. But just as she was beginning to feel comfortable, Amanda’s sense of stability was put at risk when David and Lisa’s parents became ill.

“I was talking about helping them get winter clothes for Amanda because I knew she didn’t have anything when she came over here,” the Orem’s neighbor, Kay Parten, said, tears welling up in her eyes, ” Lisa told me she probably won’t be here to need them, because (the Orems) had to take care of their parents.”

In just a few weeks, Kay said, the entire Demopolis cul-de-sac basically adopted Amanda as their child and had grown accustomed to having her around.

When Kay broke the news to her 11-year-old son, Rob Boutwell, he said what Kay was thinking since she heard the dreadful news.

“He was actually the one who said we should let her move in with us first,” Kay said, “and when I told (my husband) Perry, he said the same thing.”

“The places she’s accustomed to … they’re all gone,” Perry said. “All of it’s been destroyed physically except for the memories.”

So Amanda’s path took another life-altering twist Oct. 3. Her parents let her move across the Orems’ backyard fence to Perry and Kay Parten’s home.

“Of course it was different. I was living with Kay. Everyone knows her, and her phone number, and I hated going to Wal-Mart with her because she always had to talk to someone,” Amanda said. “Then I had to say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.'”

Southern etiquette was something Amanda wasn’t used to, but the calm living of small-town Alabama meant an even bigger change for a girl raised in a state famous for Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesdays.

“When I first came to Alabama I thought ‘could it get any smaller?’ But then I came to Demopolis and it did get smaller,” Amanda said. “It was just culture shock. People here dress different, talk different and they fry everything.”

One of Amanda’s first Alabamian meals was fried deer steak. Since then, her friends have introduced her to fried Oreo cookies and fried Twinkies.

The girl who once used to eat crawfish and PacSun clothing and Birkenstocks was forced to change her ways to deer meat, American Eagle and Wallaby shoes.

“I remember when I found out what a grit was. I had to Google it. Now I know everything about grits,” she said laughing at herself. “I even say ‘I reckon’ and ‘over yonder’ now. When I first talked to my friends since I’d been over here, they made fun of me and asked what ‘I reckon’ meant.”

In just four months, Amanda said she has been transformed into a “true Demopolite” and “Auburn fan.”

“When I first got here, Sonic made me sick; now I’m immune to it. Oh, and La Cocina … I even said ‘War Eagle’ in one of my articles,” she said referring to the columns she’s written for The Demopolis Times since she’s been in town.

“Here she has opportunities she wouldn’t have had, like writing for the paper and playing girls’ basketball. All the girls basketball players in her home town are 12-feet tall,” Perry said. “Amanda had the opportunity to find out more about who she is and become more appreciative of what she has.”

“I loved playing basketball. We lost every game, but we had fun,” Amanda said about her Titan hoops experience. “We lose well.”

As part of trying to make her feel more at home, Kay said she wanted to keeps things in her home “as routine as it had been.”

“If we expect our kids to do something, we let her know that we expected her to do the same things,” Kay said.

Although Amanda has a sister who is 10 years older, she was welcomed to Demopolis by three new siblings, one of whom she had to live with, when she moved in with the Partens.

Perry said Amanda gets along well with her new siblings, Rob, 11, and John, 16, and Jennifer Parten, 18.

“John and Jen don’t live with us, but they came to visit,” Kay said. “Rob is a prankster and he spent most of his time with Amanda,” Perry added. “They just do the normal things brothers and sisters do. He won’t leave her alone and they’re always hiding stuff from each other. Rob’s going to miss her a lot.”

“It was interesting having a little brother around. I’m nice to him, part of the time. Rob is everything I thought a little brother would be,” Amanda said. “If I had to pick a little brother, it would be either him or Little Ricky from ‘I Love Lucy.'”

The Partens’ made trips to Auburn for a wedding and the Ole Miss/Auburn football game so Amanda could do things she wouldn’t get to do in Louisiana.

“We saw sights like Locket Dam and we’re going deer hunting Thursday,” Perry said. “Toomer’s Corner in Auburn and Christmas on the River are things she’ll never forget,” Kay added. “She’ll take a lot of memories of the small-town atmosphere back with her.”

To a point, Amanda said, she wishes she could make those memories a reality in the future. She hopes to return to Alabama one day.

“Leaving is bittersweet. I want to stay because I know the living conditions back there and I know what to expect. I have to start all over,” Amanda said, her usually cheerful tone growing melancholy.

After two visits to her home in Slidell since the hurricane, Amanda said the sense of order that once existed in her home no longer exists.

“It’s changed. Of course there’s outside damage, but my mom’s like Mr. Clean with hair, so she used to keep everything so neat,” Amanda said. “Now, everything’s out of order because we don’t have anywhere to put everything. We’re redoing the living room so everything that was in there is in another room and stuff that should be this room is in that one.”

In addition to her family and friends, Amanda was forced to leave her six horses.

“The storm killed the grass for the horses,” Perry said. “They’ve lost weight, but I’m just so excited they made it through,” Amanda said.

“I’ve tried to talk my parents into moving to Demopolis, but my dad doesn’t want to work in the paper mill. It’s 100 percent funk, like Kay would say.”

From listening to Jimmy Buffet, getting hooked on Toomer’s famous lemonade and ironing her clothes to trying dove at COTR and blowdrying her hair, Amanda has done things out of the ordinary from her life in Slidell.

Today is Amanda’s last day in Demopolis, at least until her set-in-stone plans to visit during next year’s Christmas on the River.

“I don’t want to think about leaving,” Amanda said.

“Things will slow down a bit (after she leaves),” Perry said, “but life goes on and we’ll slowly go back to our usual routine.”

“We’ll keep in touch, it’s not like she won’t be back. We were fortunate to be able to give her this opportunity,” Kay said. “I understand why she wants to stay, but as a parent, I know she needs to be with her family and her parents.”

“I have a lot to tell everyone back home. I’ve created so many memories and learned southern manners. I can go back and prove the stereotypes wrong. Not everyone’s a hick. But the first thing I’m going to do is put on a Jimmy Buffet T-shirt, my shorts and flip flops, and go outside with my hair wet just to rebel against Kay Parten,” she said, flashing a bright toothy smile at Kay.