Evacuees, find new home, hope in city

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Griffin Pritchard / Demopolis Times’ Editor


Exactly one year ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi, bringing with her a fury like had not been unleashed on that part of the country. In its wake, tens of thousands of residents were displaced and evacuated to the surrounding areas.

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The city of Demopolis, as a result of the displacement, inherited a handful of new residents.

“We came here figuring that we’d go back in a couple of days,” said Gary Rabalais. “We just brought a suitcase of clothes, some toys for our son. We came to get away from the storm.”

Gary’s wife, Christi, is originally from Demopolis. So she and her husband and their son, Murphy, hit the road before the storm en route to her father’s home. They brought with them Gary’s mother, Ellie Hanners.

“I went through Betsy and was evacuated from their in 1965 with three small children and an army doc,” said Hanners. “Consequently, I became a coward and anytime a storm threatened I left.”

Also, Hanners’ daughter, Wendy, and husband, David, and their children also made their way to Demopolis courtesy of the evacuation.

“My sister-in-law is from here and we came here for their wedding,” said Wendy Gagliano.

“My husband and I evacuated at the last minute, my husband is a police officer. We knew that his mom had a hotel room so we headed north. We realized that we probably wouldn’t be able to get a room the further north we went. So we got a room here and thought we’d be here two or three days.”

As the days poured on and the floodwaters rose after Katrina disspated, the family decided to make Demopolis their home.

Nearly 25,434 evacuees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas became residents of Alabama following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, respectively. According to a report from the Associated Press, one year after Hurricane Katrina, 20,828 evacuees have decided to make Alabama their permanent home.

Both the Rabalais and the Gaglianos have purchased homes here. Their mother, Hanners is also living in Demopolis in an apartment.

According to numbers from the Federal Emergency Management Association, 5,063 evacuees are in the Mobile/South Alabama area, 3,263 remain in the Birmingham area and thousands upon thousands have been displaced to the Montgomery, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa areas, with no plans of returning to the bayou.

“Coming here was the best decision that we could have done,” said Gagliano. “We knew about two weeks after we got here that we wanted to stay here permanantly.

Mere days after evacuating, Wendy’s husband David, returned to their home in St. Bernard Parish and is currently living there, serving as a police officer until he can retire in January.

“It was a war zone down there,” said Wendy. “David would have his police buddies calling him, crying because of what was going on. The Canadian Mounties got down there before the National Guard ever did.”

Gary and Christi, Ellie, Wendy and David all have made trips back to their homes in Arabi and St. Bernard Parish respectively.

Despite going at different times, the story remained the same. – a total loss.

“I had about 12″ of water standing in my home for about 14 days,” said Rabalais. “My dad who lives in a home about 15″ above the pilons, had about 5″ of standing water in his home.”

“I had about 15″ of water in my house,” said Hanners.

“We lost two motorcycles and three cars,” said Gagliano,” and a house with all the contents. From what we could tell we had about 6″ of water standing for about three weeks. We also had our neighbors float over and live in the upstairs of our house until they were rescued off the roof.”

While this family has gone through tragedy, they have been able to recover in the city of demopolis.

“I can not tell you of the overwhelming outpouring of sympathy and aid people have given to us since we have been here,” said Hanners.

“People literally drove their pick-up trucks to my apartment door and unloaded furniture. They provided things like band-aids, toothpaste, the only thing I bought was underwear and socks, everything else was provided.”

“This is a nice town,” said Rabalais. “Everybody is friendly, and very, very helpful. People would bring stuff and leave it on the doorstep for us. It’s been unreal the generosity of people in town and in this area.”

The outpouring continued when it came time for the Rabalais to find a home here.

“The house that we bought, we stayed in for about six month, the lady passed that owned the home the week before the hurricane,” said Rabalais. “Her children, who lived out of state offered us the house to stay in and to use it as we needed. About three or four months later they called us and said they didn’t want to sell the house to strangers.”

That statement came with a catch for the Rabalais.

“We don’t consider you strangers anymore,” Rabalais said. “After that we bought the house.”

While the Gagliano’s had to get adjusted to small-town life, it’s been a pleasant one.

“We have better friends here now, than the 46 years we were born and raised in New Orleans,” said Gagliano. “People that I’ve never met before, people came from like Thomasville to bring us stuff. It’s different here. We live on Main Street USA and couldn’t be happier. I felt like we Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. People are wonderful here. It’s just like we landed in Oz.”