SHELTER FROM THE STORM
When he first saw her, she was “dirty, sweaty, soaking wet and covered in bleach,” remembers Shanna Hamm, 24, a Red Cross worker assigned to an emergency shelter north of New Orleans just after Katrina. And still, as he watched her use a stick to swirl laundry in a trash barrel, “I thought, ‘That girl is beautiful,'” says P.J. Junek, 23, a volunteer firefighter sent there to help set up running water. Junek found the nerve to ask Hamm out to dinner. “I’m thinking, ‘There’s no power, nothing’s open—and this guy wants to go on a date?'” says Hamm. But she said yes.
Dinner was sloppy joes in Styrofoam cups at Junek’s fire station. They got along—and found reasons to see each other. Hamm showered at the fire station; Junek stayed after his shifts so they could talk. One night he asked if he could comb her wet hair. “It felt so good!” she says. “That was the gentlest, sweetest thing he could have done.”
Then Hamm got reassigned to another shelter. “I just had a sinking feeling I’d never see her again,” says Junek. But Hamm left her phone number on a note beneath his pillow. They met for a proper dinner and have been a couple ever since. Hamm, whose house in New Orleans is still uninhabitable, moved into Junek’s Pearl River home last fall. He wants to get married right away; Hamm, still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from Katrina, wants to wait. But both realize the miracle of what happened to them. “Out of the worst event in my life,” says Hamm, “came the best event.”
HE LOST HIS HOME BUT FOUND HIS LOVE
They didn’t meet so much as collide. Julie Schroeder was walking out of the trauma center at Baton Rouge’s Southern University after spending 12 hours counseling Katrina victims. Earnest Cole was rushing in with two women he found wandering a highway. Then—boom. “He said, ‘Please, you’ve got to help these women,'” says Schroeder, 46, a criminology associate professor at North Carolina’s Fayetteville State University who offered mental-health services at the center after fleeing her Baton Rouge home. Schroeder learned that Cole, 43, a business consultant and political activist, had himself lost everything he owned.
Cole joined Schroeder’s volunteer team, using his connections to finagle supplies. “We started doing street social work,” says Schroeder. In the process, they fell in love. “There was something special about her,” he says, “a sparkle in her eyes.” Still, helping others came first. Schroeder launched a clothing drive that yielded new underwear for thousands of people. She also took temporary custody of 9-year-old twin boys until their mother was found. One day she got a call from Cole, who was traveling in Baton Rouge with Rev. Jesse Jackson. “He told me, ‘Jesse says he can do the deal on the 29th!'” recalls Schroeder. “I said, ‘What deal? Oh, you want to get married!'”
Two months after meeting, they wed before a dozen close friends, with Jackson performing the ceremony at the Mount Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. “Yes,” says Cole, “there was a silver lining in all this.”
A BOY FINDS A NEW FAMILY
Carolyn Stovall was helping Katrina evacuees at San Antonio’s Kelly Air Force Base when she spotted a teenage boy sobbing into a green bandanna. “Who are you with?” asked Stovall, 58, a counselor with a Baptist group.
“Nobody,” replied Ricky Seals, then 15. He lived in New Orleans, mostly with his grandmother, but opted against fleeing with her to Mississippi. (He has limited contact with his mother.) He spent eight days wandering the streets alone, wading past corpses and eventually collapsing on the street, where paramedics helped him.
Ricky’s plight touched Stovall, who, like him, had grown up poor and without a father. “I understand,” she says, “the struggle of life.” Seeing he had nowhere to go, Stovall brought Ricky to the house she and her husband Ted share in a leafy area of San Antonio. Ricky quickly found his place in the family—the Stovalls have two grown children and five grandchildren—making fast friends with grandson Caleb, 13. “He asked if he could call me Grandma,” Stovall says. “I told him that would be fine.” Adds Ted, 55, a financial analyst: “We all fell in love with him.” Within days they arranged for temporary guardianship, and after they made contact with Seals’s grandmother, a judge in December extended the arrangement. Now Ricky is preparing for ninth grade at William Howard Taft High School—and campaigning for a pet hamster. Says Seals: “I am with my family now.”
FROM NEIGHBORS TO FAMILY
Katrina was bearing down, but Nita LaGarde—who had broken a hip a year earlier trying to evacuate for a storm—ignored relatives’ pleas to get out. “This time,” the 90-year-old recalls saying, “I’m going to stick with Tina.”
That would be Earnestine Dangerfield, 60, who, along with her 6-year-old granddaughter Tanisha, had lived next door to LaGarde in a duplex for 20 years. A friend who would stop by to cook and clean, Dangerfield now had LaGarde’s life in her hands.
With waters rising, the three were taken by canoe to a bridge, then waited two days in broiling sun. Dangerfield made a plywood shelter for LaGarde and “kept everybody laughing and calm,” she says. Finally, a helicopter came—to the other side of the bridge. “Mama Nita couldn’t walk,” says Dangerfield. Spotting a plastic picnic cooler, she placed LaGarde in it, attached a rope and pulled.
After two days outside the convention center, an Associated Press photographer took a shot of Tanisha grasping LaGarde’s hand as they headed to a coast guard helicopter bound for Houston. Their story so touched Houston retirees Daisy and Joe Maura that they tracked down the trio and offered to rent them a newly refurbished home. A year later, the three are still there, an unusual family forged by adversity. Tanisha, a basketball cheerleader at the local Y, just started first grade; Dangerfield volunteers for the PTA. As for LaGarde, “I’m glad I stuck with Tina,” she says. “She’s sure been taking care of me.”
NEW FRIENDSHIP AND A MISSION
Times were tough for Tammy Agard, 39. She sold her Hamilton, Mont., coffee-roasting business at a loss and was struggling to find a purpose. Then Katrina hit, and she heard a radio plea for Red Cross volunteers. She wound up in Moss Point, Miss., handing out meals. The first day, she met Annie Card, a freelance photographer from Peterborough, N.H., who had answered the same call. They clicked. “I’d worked with hundreds of volunteers, and Tammy was the first who was just as outraged at the conditions and lack of response,” says Card, 44. Adds Agard: “Both of us felt we could do more.”
Their idea: to give big-ticket items like appliances to devastated residents. They bought the first batch with $20,000 raised by Agard’s town. Says Brenda Brewer, 46, who got a water heater and will be receiving a stove, fridge and washer-dryer: “It was like receiving a million dollars.”
That kind of gratitude “shook us to the core,” says Agard, who decided to take their efforts a step further. Moving into a storm-battered travel trailer in Gautier, Miss., they launched the nonprofit Mississippi Home Again. So far the pair have collected and spent some $150,000 to help 200 families. “We feel like we’ve lived a lifetime in the last 10 months with what we’ve seen and shared,” says Agard. Notes Card: “If one of us is having a tougher time than the other, we’re good at talking it through with a little perspective. We’ve taken on a collective rage, and it keeps us steaming ahead.”
FORMER RIVALS GO ALL THE WAY TOGETHER
With basketball season approaching, the big question on coach Al Collins’s mind wasn’t how many games he’d win but whether he’d have a team at all. All but 8 of the 32 players at John Ehret High School in suburban New Orleans had fled the ravaged city with their families. By November attrition and injuries had sliced the roster to 6. “We were a walking MASH unit,” says Collins, 34, the coach since 2002.
Then, an unexpected gift: Players from other schools—still shut down after Ehret had reopened—started signing on. But several were from Ehret’s top rivals, creating a tense situation for both the core team and the newcomers. “The first months were shaky—we were almost fighting on the court,” says Nick Washington, 18, then a player from Walter L. Cohen Senior High School. “Then we started hanging out, getting to know each other.”
That bonding translated to hoop magic. They made it to the playoffs and, in the last few minutes against Baton Rouge’s top-ranked Woodlawn High School, then senior Randy Verdin—one of Ehret’s original team—hit three straight 3-point shots. Then Washington landed a bone-rattling dunk to help the team to a 5-point victory and the state championship. That Hollywood-worthy ending attracted interest from movie producers and landed the team an ESPN-sponsored trip to L.A., where they got an award presented by Matthew McConaughey and spotted Mariah Carey. The dream season “was thrilling for the kids,” Collins says. “Some lost homes, lost stuff. This changed their perspective on life.”
For more information about Mississippi Home Again, contact http://www.mississippihomeagain.org.