Sixty-two years ago Shirley Thompson left her family in New Orleans behind to start fresh in Bay Area. Last week, 13 members of her family, their homes underwater and with little left besides the clothes on their backs, joined her.
Ranging in age from 8 to 88, Thompson’s relatives from New Orleans now reside in Thompson’s three-bedroom house on Hopkins Street where before last week Thompson slept alone. Three of the family members are sleeping in Thompson’s mobile trailer parked in her driveway.
“This isn’t luxury, but I feel blessed that we can have this time to be together as a family,” said Edna Marchand, Thompson’s 88-year-old sister whose home in New Orleans was flooded above the upstairs porch, her neighbors told her.
Hurricane Katrina’s imminent landfall last Monday sent Marchand and her family scurrying for shelter across the South. After a day in a relative’s overcrowded home in Shreveport, La., they packed into a Honda Accord and an Accura Legend and headed to Arlington, Texas, where they spent four nights in a hotel as their money dwindled.
Thompson, an 80-year-old widow, said nearly her entire family lived in New Orleans and that her Berkeley home was their best option to escape the ravaged city.
She said, “I told them, ‘look you guys can come here and we’ll make provisions for you. We’ll be one happy family, just come.’”
The family bought tickets for Edna Marchand and two other relatives to fly to Berkeley, while the rest of them drove across country, five people in each car.
“When they got here on Sunday, I swear I was so thankful that they made it safely,” Thompson said. She added that she had recently tried to sell her trailer on EBay, but couldn’t find any takers.
“I think God knew I’d need some extra room,” she said.
Living under one roof isn’t easy for the family. Thompson has two people sleeping on an air mattress in the living room, two people on beds in all three bedrooms, and three people sleeping in the den on fold-out mattresses that neighbors gave to the family.
“It’s a lot different than having your own three-bedroom house,” said Dana Lewis, a distant niece of Thompson’s who is sleeping with her son and daughter in the trailer. The Lewises are one of three nuclear families staying with Thompson. The others are the Marchands and the Cuneos. While Thompson is close with the Marchands and the Cuneos, she had never met the Lewis’ who are related by marriage through an uncle.
“My uncle is the kind of person who always has a plan to evacuate and we were fortunate he brought us along,” Dana Lewis said. “Everyone has been so welcoming, we feel like we’ve know each other for years.”
The crowded living arrangement won’t last much longer. The Lewises are heading back to Texas, where Dana Lewis has family, Thompson said in a telephone interview Thursday. She said the Cuneos and Marchands have rejected the Red Cross’s offer of apartments on Seventh Street in Berkeley, which she said were substandard.
“For now they’re going to stay with me,” Thompson said.
The Red Cross has offered each family member $320 spending money per person, they said. They are still waiting to see how much aid they will receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or when their they will be able to file a claim with their insurance companies.
“It’s hard to get an insurance check when you can’t get to your house to document your losses,” said Freda Marchand, who said neighbors told her flood waters had risen nearly to the top of her ceiling.
City officials have sought to help the family as they wait for federal aid. On Sunday, Berkeley social workers arrived at the home, and Julie Sinai, an aide to Mayor Bates, took the family food shopping with money from a city’s program for the homeless.
Devin Sanders, Thompson’s granddaughter and a Richmond resident, said her boss’s family at In and Out Burger was raising money to buy supplies for the family.
“We just thought we’d be gone for a night or two,” said Freda Marchand, who packed just a few outfits. “We never dreamed we would not be able to go home or that all of our vital records and personal belongings would be destroyed.”
Jessica Cuneo said that on the Monday that when Katrina struck, she had planned to stay in New Orleans with her mother, who was scheduled to work in the emergency room of a New Orleans hospital. “We got up at 5:30 a.m. and when the news said it was going to be bad my mom told me to pack my bag and be ready to get on the road,” she said. “It took us about eight hours to get to Shreveport.”
With their houses under water and their hometown off limits for at least four months, the evacuees are struggling to settle down in Berkeley.
On Wednesday, Cuneo attended her first classes as an eighth-grader at Albany Middle School, where her cousin also goes to school. “Going to school helped me get my mind off everything,” said Cuneo. She said she hopes to return to New Orleans for ninth grade.
Jessica Cuneo’s sister Sydney, a fifth-grader, and her cousin Ariel Lewis, a third-grader, are attending Berkeley Arts Magnate School. G’nai Marchand, 18, and her distant cousin Chad Lewis, 19, started classes this week at Vista College.
Dana Lewis, who had worked in a dry cleaners, and Nicole Cuneo, a hospital technician, said they were both looking for work in the East Bay.
Marchand, like several family members, said a close friend of hers was still missing. Lewis said his friends were all accounted for, but they had been spread out across the country.
“A lot are in Northern Louisiana, but one is in Chicago, one in Atlanta,” he said. “It seems like I went the farthest.”
While most of his family members said they would like to return home, Lewis said he was hesitant to go back to New Orleans.
“I don’t think it can ever be the same,” he said. “What’s bothered me more than anything is watching what’s happened. It was just like a third world country. Everything is destroyed. It’s unbelievable to think we were one step away from being there too.”›