Katrina evacuee finds a home here
Five years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf of Mexico, causing untold damage, destruction and death along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
More than 25,000 evacuees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas came to Alabama to flee from the storm. One year after hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf coast, more than 20,000 evacuees decided to make Alabama their permanent home.
Wendy Gagliano was one of those evacuees. She came to Demopolis with her husband, David, and her brother, Gary Rabalais and his family from New Orleans.
“He and I were home alone — our children were grown and off at school — so we were not going to evacuate that day, because he worked for the city and needed to stay,” Wendy recalled. “We were just going to ride it out. We had never evacuated from a hurricane before, except for Betsy back in 1965, when I was 5 years old, so we weren’t concerned about it.
“We went to sleep Saturday night, and my husband woke me up at 5:00 Sunday morning, the day of Katrina, and said, ‘You’ve got 30 minutes. We need to go.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘It’s coming straight for St. Bernard Parish,’ where we lived, ‘and they are expecting a 25-foot storm surge.’”
David, who was then a police officer, got permission to take his family, including his parents, away from the hurricane and come back afterwards.
“I thought, ‘Well, this will be just a three- or four-day weekend. I’m just going to pack a few things and clean the house, and we’ll be back in a couple of days,’” Wendy said.
They came to Demopolis because they had family here.
“We came to Demopolis and stayed at the hotel, and that night, when Katrina hit, we were watching it on the television, and my husband was receiving phone calls from his buddies in New Orleans — grown men who were crying and screaming about how horrific it was,” Wendy said. “We knew at that point that we had lost everything — everyone in my family did.
“There is no one in my family who didn’t lose anything: my sister, brother, mother, father — everything. In fact, my husband lost a cousin and a good friend from work, and I lost a cousin by marriage, who all drowned.”
The Rabalais family stayed with in-laws in Demopolis and was offered a house by the Don Lowe family to stay in free of charge until the family got on its feet.
“Initially, the reason we stayed here is because of the generosity of the people of Demopolis, Gallion, Thomasville, Thomaston, Linden — everywhere,” Wendy said. “People who we didn’t know, we would come home and find stuff on our front porch: food, furniture, clothing. The Church of Christ at Canal Heights really took us in and spread the word, and everyone started to help us. My husband said I had more shoes in my closet here than before I moved here.”
Wendy said that the home she is living in now still has most of the donated items.
“I really didn’t have to buy much of anything,” she said. “People brought us so much, and it was all good stuff. Because of that, my husband, who had to return to work soon after, said, ‘Find a place here. This is where we want to be. We’ve been welcomed without question.
“These people have taken us in — people we didn’t know and have not seen since Katrina — don’t realize what they did. You have people who came here with a pair of sandals, two pairs of underwear, no pillows, no pictures of their children or home life before. Because of these people, I had everything that I needed in the matter of a week. So, it’s because of that that we stayed.”
Wendy said the generosity and friendliness have continued well after the hurricane’s destruction.
“We’ve been made to feel like we have always been here,” she said. “God could not have put us in a better place. It’s like it was meant to be. I would never go back and live in New Orleans.”
David still works with the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board and visits on alternate weekends. He plans to retire and move permanently back to Demopolis with his family. One of the couple’s children lives in Northport, while their other three children live in New Orleans.
Wendy now works as the director of marketing for Colonial Haven in Greensboro.
“I’m extremely happy to be here,” Wendy said. “I adore my home and the town, the surrounding counties. I adore my job. Now that I look back at it, I was probably unhappy in New Orleans and didn’t realize it. This is so much better. I don’t even think about it any more. We have gained way more than we lost by coming here. It’s like we were meant to be here.”