Erica Fry, 23, is a long way from home. Not in miles, though. Her home, or whatever is left of her home in the Garden District of New Orleans, is only a 12-hour drive away. But as she stands on the patio of the Estero hotel that has become a home away from home for herself, her mother, Jane Fry, and her boyfriend, Brian Farley, she can’t help but feel that “going home may not be that easy.”
Fry, her mother and Farley left New Orleans among the first wave of residents escaping the path of Katrina. She remembers everything happening so fast, changing so quickly.
“Saturday night we were planning on staying,” she said, “and Sunday morning we were gone.”
Fry said the news reports were saying that evacuation was mandatory, so at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, with only the clothes on their backs, their two cats, and a single change of clothes, the trio piled into the car and left New Orleans. Fry remembers that the traffic wasn’t very heavy yet, most people were still planning on riding out the storm at home, and many who were leaving headed west into Texas.
Farley’s father, however, lives in Fort Myers, so they headed east on I-10. Fry is grateful that they had a reason to head east instead of west.
“People in Florida have been through this, so there is a lot more outpouring of help, and of understanding,” Fry said. “In Houston, though, they are getting tons of victims, but they don’t really have as much direct experience with the devastation of hurricanes, so there is sympathy, but not as much understanding.”
Fry said she doesn’t even know if she has a house to go home to. They have tried to contact their landlord, but with communication in and out of New Orleans sporadic and unreliable at best, they have not connected.
“We are hopeful,” Fry assured. “There was just a report in Newsweek showing a map of damaged areas, and the Garden District seems to have escaped most of the destruction.”
But there is still the very real possibility that they have lost everything, either to Katrina, or at the hands of looters. Until they can talk to someone, or see for themselves, Fry said, there is no way for them to know how much they have lost.
“It’s not about the “stuff” anymore,” said Fry, “but about ‘what now?’” Decisions on what happens next are the top priority.
“Do we make a new home here? Search for a new place to live? Or just keep hoping to go home? Those are the big questions now,” Fry said.
Fry is very adamant about wanting to return home. She was born and raised in New Orleans, as was Farley. Her life is there — her family, her friends, her roots, her job and her home.
Farley is a construction worker in the New Orleans area, Fry is a bartender in the French Quarter, and her mother was in the process of helping to open a new hotel in the Garden District. All of them want to go back, to help rebuild their city, to pick up life where it left off; but “when” is an unanswerable question right now.
Disease is the main reason the trio hasn’t returned to New Orleans yet.
“You can get vaccinations against some things,” Fry acknowledged, “but there is no vaccination against malaria or typhoid, and those are major concerns.”
Fry has friends who decided to stay in New Orleans. She said they have gathered together, in commune fashion, at a residence with a pool that they treated with large amounts of chlorine tablets. They use that water for cleaning, and were given drinking water and food by the National Guard, she reported.
“I’m not sure how accurate these reports of forced evacuations are,” Fry said.
She talked to her friends that remained in New Orleans a few days ago, and they told her they were walking the streets with the National Guard Units, helping them to clean debris.
When asked about the controversy over the government’s slow response to the disaster, Fry’s only response was to distance herself from the debate. Fry reasons that everyone was in a state of awe, wondering what to do first. “Maybe our leaders could have moved a little faster,” she said, “but I am staying as far out of the blame game as possible. Everyone is pointing fingers,” she added, “but I don’t know were the blame lies, except with Katrina.”
Blame and accusations have little to do with the day-to-day life of surviving a disaster the magnitude of which Katrina visited on the place that Fry and her family still calls home. It is more about looking ahead, she insists, and about being thankful for what they do have, and the way people have pitched in to help.
Fry worries when she watches news reports on the plight of some victims of Katrina.
She said it’s hard to see people cramped together with families, living in crowded shelters, and to see the conditions in the Astrodome and the Superdome, when they themselves have been so fortunate. Looking around the luxurious surroundings of their host hotel, Fry said she feels lucky she ended up coming to Florida, where people have the empathy to go along with the sympathy, and are going beyond the call of duty to help out.
Fry calls the assistance from the Red Cross, and from the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort, nothing short of amazing. She said the hotel staff has been wonderful to them, not only donating the room they are living in temporarily, but feeding them in the employee cafeteria, providing use of a staff washer and dryer, and giving them access to all the hotel services and facilities.
“We had no idea so much help was available at first,” Fry remembers. But when they contacted the Red Cross, they were not only put up at the hotel, but given WalMart vouchers ($260 for the couple, $180 for her mother), as well as a voucher to replace Farley’s prescription glasses that had been lost, boxes of dry goods, toiletries, and clothing, as well as a $485 debit card for herself and Farley, and a $180 card for her mother. In addition, FEMA just announced Wednesday the availability of $2,000 debit cards for victims.
“We filed online for those yesterday,” she said, “but no matter how generous the help, it still might not cover the lost wages or travel.” Nor can it make up for the trauma, or the possibility that they have lost their home and everything in it.
“This is very relaxing,” Fry said, her gesture encompassing the landscaped pool and waterfall as well as the luxury hotel itself, “until we remember what is going on at home.” But with nothing left to do but play the waiting game, Fry and her family are grateful for their home away from home, and the generosity of their new Lee County neighbors.
For more information on how to donate money, service, or time to the Red Cross for the Katrina Relief effort, call 278-3401, or log on to arclcc.org.