09/09/05 — Refugee couple find a party far from home

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Refugee couple find a party far from home

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 9, 2005 2:04 PM

It wasn't anything fancy, Regina Baker's 34th birthday party.

A cake from Wal-Mart, a couple of gifts, a shaky rendition of the "Happy Birthday" song from strangers she had just met Thursday morning.

But that was enough to move the New Orleans evacuee to tears.

Behind the emotion was more than just the birthday itself. She and her husband, James, are in Wayne County to start over.

The couple left New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina struck with three days' worth of clothes, thinking they would return to their home after the storm subsided.

Now in Wayne County, they carry a spiral notebook to record all the information they will need as they begin rebuilding their lives.

The couple first headed to Florida. When money began to run out, they were invited to stay with James's brother, Darren, who moved to Seven Springs in June for a job.

"Amazing," James said. "If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have any place to go."

James said he had never been to North Carolina before, except when he was in the Marines and was sent to Camp LeJeune before his tour of duty in the Persian Gulf.

Now, he and his wife are experiencing a different type of Gulf war - the aftermath of a hurricane that left many residents scattered about the country.

Both said their families were from Louisiana, but most have relocated because of the hurricane. Regina's two sisters and mother went to Memphis, Tenn.; her father, who lived on the west bank side of New Orleans, remained to help the military with food, water and transportation.

James said his sister stayed in New Orleans, where she tells him she can still hear gunshots at night. His 16-year-old son lives in Michigan. James thinks his 18-year-old daughter, expecting the couple's first grandchild, found shelter in another part of Louisiana with her boyfriend's family.

Regina has a 16-year-old daughter, enrolled at Spring Creek High School this week.

"She wants to go home," James said.

The Bakers, married a year ago in June, are also starting over. He had worked as a supervisor of nine drivers for a linen company that serviced restaurants and other businesses. She did the same type of work for a different company.

If it hadn't been for his mother living in Louisiana to be closer to his grandmother, a nursing home resident, James admits he would have left his hometown long ago.

"I lost my will to live in Louisiana," he said. "I lived there all my life, but I don't plan to return. I'll go back to get what I can salvage, but I'm not expecting to be able to salvage much of anything."

They were renting a two-bedroom house.

He said he can understand the desperation some have felt after suffering so many losses so quickly, but cannot grasp all the reports of looting, shootings and carjackings.

"It don't make any sense," he said. "I was raised differently than that."

James said it saddens him to see buildings being burned down, especially in light of the area's history.

"Louisiana's never gonna be the same," he said. "It's going to take at least 10 years to rebuild, but you can't rebuild history."

He said he will miss Mardi Gras and the food, which prompted him to suggest opening up a cajun restaurant in the area. "I could cook shrimp creole, jambalaya, red beans and rice," he said.

The transplanted couple from Bridge City in Jefferson Parish said even before the hurricane hit, they found North Carolina to be a warm and welcoming place.

"Everybody has been just wonderful," James said. "I don't want to leave, and I'm not. I want to stay here and live."

They were encouraged by relatives to seek support from the Red Cross, which James called the "best organization in the world."

"They went well beyond," he said. "Teresa Williams and Roberto Mendoza were both like tag-teaming us."

The couple then found help from the school system this week, enrolling their daughter to start school on Wednesday. They have also made the rounds to Salvation Army for clothes, United Church Ministries for food and the Health Department for health-related services.

"It's been mind-boggling," James said. "You start to give up on humanity. This starts to give you hope again. I'd recommend any evacuees come here."

Regina knows it will take awhile for them to get back on their feet, but said she has had to start over before.

"Even if we were to go back home and get things we were able to salvage, we would have to start all over, so it wouldn't matter," she said. "We can't stop living just because of what's happened."

James said he has held together pretty well so far without breaking down.

"I haven't lost it yet but I have come close," he said.

"Starting over is not going to be easy, but my wife says, 'I will be behind you, whatever you want to do.... As long as I'm with my wife, that's my family."

James said he is still trying to figure it all out in terms of a home and a job.

"I'm not ashamed to admit it," he said. "But I'm willing to do the best I can."

His dream has always been to have a house with a fireplace. Even if it's a mobile home on an acre of land, he said his new dream is to live in Seven Springs.

"I still want a fireplace," he said. "And I would have to have a riding lawn mower."

When officials at the Health Department found out it was Regina's birthday, they were prompted to respond.

Sandra Outlaw, processing assistant, was among the first to meet the couple.

"It broke our hearts that she didn't have anything for her birthday," Ms. Outlaw said. "I asked some of the ladies if they'd like to contribute."

She went to Wal-Mart to buy a cake, deciding it wouldn't hurt to mention the cause.

"When we told the manager, they paid for the cake and asked if a $100 gift certificate would be OK," she said.

Pete Flanigan, store manager, said he wasn't looking for credit but was happy to respond to the need.

Ms. Outlaw couldn't stop there.

"I decided that I wanted to give her a little something extra for her birthday," she said. "I bought her a watch."

She said others on the clinic staff at the Health Department also wanted to help and collected donations.

Several gathered and sang "Happy Birthday," which moved Regina to tears.

"We wanted to do something special for her, to show her that there are people that care about her," Mrs. Outlaw said.

"I'm not used to any of this," Regina said.

The couple have never owned anything fancy, James said. They have accumulated some things, replaced things that needed to be replaced.

"We're safe, we're healthy," he said. "I'm a proud man, but when it comes to my family, sometimes you have to ask for help."

The ripple effects of Hurricane Katrina will affect them for the rest of their lives, Baker said.

"I'm sure the good Lord is gonna watch out for us," he said.