Hurricane evacuees settle down in Demopolis

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 21, 2005

After taking refuge in Panama City, Fla., from Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, Robert Reinheimer and his partner, Sharon Zolotoukhine, returned to their devastated home six miles north of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Though they had only lived in Bay St. Louis, Miss., for a year and a half, Reinheimer and Zolotoukhine felt compelled to stay, to help, to rebuild.

Their plans changed, though, when Hurricane Rita delivered a second blow to the area, destroying a month’s worth of reorganization and progress.

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Through connections with other Bay St. Louis evacuees, the couple escaped to Demopolis when Hurricane Rita’s winds and rain threatened. Drawn in by generous and welcoming residents, Reinheimer and Zolotoukhine have decided not to return to Mississippi.

“Nature took our house, but Demopolis gave us a home,” Reinheimer said.

Two days after Hurricane Katrina hit, the couple and their two dogs, Buddy Bear and Shiner, returned to their neighborhood. Their house had been shifted from its foundation into a neighboring business’ property. Their utility room was torn from their house, and their backyard storage facility was a total loss.

Reinheimer and Zolotoukhine said there were no remaining means of communication from their storm-ravished city.

“When we got there, we knew why we hadn’t heard anything,” Reinheimer said. During their evacuation, the couple stayed tuned to the nonstop TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina that concentrated on larger areas like New Orleans, Gulfport, Miss., and Biloxi, Miss.

Power lines and street lights around Bay St. Louis were inoperable and streets were impassable, so the couple entered their neighborhood on foot, using flashlights to guide their way

For weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, Reinheimer and Zolotoukhine lived out of a tent, using camping gear they salvaged from their home before evacuating to Panama City. The couple searched for dry ground, camping in various locations around the city. They ultimately set up camp at the city’s post office.

“The hardest part was being homeless,” Zolotoukhine said, but still they were better off than some.

They returned to their hometown with a vehicle and gasoline, placing them in a leadership role among the evacuees. Reinheimer said they were able to help others immediately by transporting them to their homes and to supply sites around the city.

Thirty-six hours after the eye passed over Bay St. Louis, government vehicles with supplies and aid arrived. The couple commended the police and military for the immediate response, but said the Red Cross didn’t arrive until a couple weeks later.

“It was up to the community to help itself,” Reinheimer said.

During the weeks between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Reinheimer and Zolotoukhine began putting the pieces of their damaged home back together. Much of the contents of their home were scrambled by flood waters.

Their progress halted when Hurricane Rita forced them to evacuate again. They followed a friend’s advice and came to Demopolis where they stayed at the Windwood Inn for four days. When they returned to Bay St. Louis, they found their home flooded and all their hard work washed away. They knew then that it was time to call it quits.

“It was a wonderful place to live,” Zolotoukhine said, “but we don’t see the point of putting all our effort into rebuilding what could be taken away in an instant.”

Self-employed in placemat publishing, with no real ties to Bay St. Louis, the couple decided to return to Demopolis. Considering the warm welcome they received after Hurricane Rita, they could definitely see themselves retiring in Demopolis.

“We haven’t met one rude person,” Reinheimer said. “The town just keeps growing and growing and growing on us.”

They said they were lucky to have run into Harold Johnson upon relocating to Demopolis. Johnson generously provided the couple with a two-bedroom duplex, household appliances and furniture.

While they have completed the necessary paperwork for their insurance company and FEMA, Reinheimer and Zolotoukhine are waiting patiently to see what will be in store for them next.

“We’ve experienced life in a lot of different places,” Zolotoukhine said,” but we’re in Demopolis for good.”