After five years, the affects of a devastating storm that killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands are still being felt.
Many former New Orleans citizens will remember today’s anniversary in the place the storm has carried them. Crushing family and financial losses incurred during Hurricane Katrina have forced many to conform to circumstance, both good and bad.
“God has been very good, but it still hurts,” said Christina Thomas, one of three local siblings who evacuated the city in 2005. “Lord, we’d been in that house with our mama all our lives — in that house.”
Christina Thomas, 51, and her brother, Rickie Thomas, 57, are consumers at Independent Living Service, a private non-profit organization serving persons with intellectual disabilities.
The Thomas’ brother, Lee Thomas, also resides in Conway.
“That was a bad storm,” Christina Thomas said. “I was the first to see the water rising. Rickie busted a hole to get us on the roof.”
Joey Rivers, assistant director of Profiles Productions, ILS’s consumer work program, has spent much time with the Thomases, and was integral in their coming to the program.
“The way I’ve heard their story, they saw the water coming to the front door,” Rivers said. “It came into the kitchen so they crawled onto their kitchen’s counter tops. When the water level reached them there, they got on top of appliances.
“The water reached that level, and they got to the attic. When the water reached the attic, Rickie busted a hole through to the roof.”
Christina and Rickie Thomas said this was the series of events that led to the death of their caretaker, their mother, Maggie Laura Thomas.
Crying, Christina Thomas said, “Her heart couldn’t take it.”
“I tried to get our mama up into the attic, but she couldn’t make it,” Rickie Thomas said.
Christina Thomas said while they tried to move their mother, she looked down and “that was it.” She died in the storm.
Rickie Thomas said they also lost a nearby 2-year-old niece in the flood.
The siblings spent four nights and three days on the roof of their Lower 9th Ward home, the portion of the city that received record damage.
“They had no vehicle or way out of the city,” Rivers said. “They stayed with their house. They were in the 9th Ward. It was a fishbowl that just flooded.”
“It was hot up there,” Christina Thomas said. “Our brother Lee burned his feet on the roof real bad.”
Rivers said a “Good Samaritan couple” rescued the siblings from their circumstance by boat and carried them to a nearby overpass. From there, the siblings walked to a convention center where many had sought shelter.
“It was hot in there,” Rickie Thomas said. “People were dying in there. Babies were dying. I wasn’t gonna go in.”
According to Christina Thomas, the siblings established a camp outside of the center and had access to food and water.
With their house less than a mile from the shelter, the siblings saw their childhood home break down, piece by piece, and flow through the city.
Christina Thomas recalled the bus ride out of the city as a confusing time. She said she and her brothers did not know where they were being taken.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” Christinia Thomas said. “We kept asking where they were taking us to. Then they said Conway, Ark.”
Jackie Fliss, executive director of Independent Living Services, was volunteering at the United Way of Central Arkansas as survivors arrived.
“I was asked to go through intake files and see who might need additional services,” Fliss said. “We got a lead on the Thomases then, and we went to the sports center and found them.”
Fliss said that yet another Good Samaritan looked after the siblings’ welfare from New Orleans to Conway, and once convinced that the agency would best protect and serve the brothers and sister, “he faded into the background.”
“They were very shaken and concerned with their mother. We kept hearing it over and over again, along with the loss of their home,” Fliss said. “They lost the home they grew up in, and they lost the most important person in their lives besides each other. They are the most resilient people and they’ve made a new life in Conway. They’re great community members and we’re so fortunate to have them in our program.”
Fliss said the three went several months without knowing the whereabouts of their mother, but with the assistance of Profiles Enrichment Center RN Onlea Dickey, they participated in a DNA test, the results of which were matched with that of a woman in a New Orleans morgue.
With their mother gone, the three carry distinct roles in each others’ care.
Christina Thomas said she pays the bills and cleans their home. Her brother, Lee Thomas, cooks for the three. Rickie Thomas looks out for the welfare and overall wellbeing of his brother and sister, and assists Lee Thomas with various medical needs.
“They now own their own home, are employed and are contributing to the economy,” Rivers said. “There’s fluff and then there’s real. This is the real deal here, a story worth telling.”
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)