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Forced from home, New Orleans families found sanctuary on North Fork

09/03/2015 10:00 AM |

09-15-05T

Ten years have passed since Stephanie Jacob and Kathleen Donaldson uprooted their families from the suburbs of New Orleans to stay with family on the North Fork. Like most Gulf Coast residents, Ms. Jacob never expected the kind of catastrophe that unfolded in late August 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, Ms. Jacob can’t help but get emotional as she thinks back to one of the most challenging, yet uplifting, times in her life.

“I’m lost for words,” she said. “It’s such a feeling of helplessness and not knowing what you can do for your family.”

Ms. Jacob, along with her husband and three children, found a temporary home in Mattituck after evacuating Slidell, La. It was an experience that forever changed their lives.

For about two months, Ms. Jacob’s family lived in a house provided by Mattituck Presbyterian Church that a pastor had previously lived in. Her sister-in-law, whom Ms. Jacob described as her “little sister,” also stayed with them after evacuating the area. Ms. Donaldson arrived on the North Fork with her two children, then 8 and 4 years old, while her husband — a New Orleans firefighter — stayed behind.

“We had no idea the kind of community support that we were going to receive,” Ms. Donaldson said. “It was truly, truly humbling.”

Ms. Jacob, 46, and some family from New Orleans returned to the North Fork this past weekend to celebrate a family member’s surprise 80th birthday party in Southold. She has an aunt and uncle in Southold and cousins in Cutchogue and Riverhead. It was a bittersweet moment to return to the North Fork, Ms. Jacob said, on the 10-year anniversary of the storm.

“I’ll always love going back and looking at the church and the home we stayed in,” she said.

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In the immediate days following their arrival on the North Fork, nothing was simple for either family.

“We were all kind of in a state of shock,” Ms. Donaldson said.

Neither family envisioned becoming refugees, even though evacuations for an impending storm are fairly common on the Gulf Coast. At the time, Ms. Donaldson said, she had no idea the potential threat Katrina posed. She evacuated at the last minute, heading north into Mississippi — a move that still left them squarely in the storm’s path. After their hotel lost power, they headed farther north to Nashville, Tenn., to stay with relatives for a few days.

Then, reality began to set in: They were not returning home anytime soon.

Ms. Jacob and her family evacuated to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and experienced the same misfortune as Ms. Donaldson. The tail end of the storm was enough to knock out power in their hotel. They then joined Ms. Donaldson in Tennessee, where they stayed around a week. Their relatives then flew them to Long Island.

One day after settling into Mattituck, the families enrolled their kids in the Southold school district, where their cousins were students.

“We tried to make life as normal as possible,” Ms. Donaldson said.

That was easier said than done. Ms. Donaldson and Ms. Jacob would take walks together to take their minds off the news reports back home. With five of their kids in school, Ms. Donaldson’s youngest daughter, Isabelle, then 4, kept them busy.

“It was tough,” Ms. Jacob said. “It was very tough just knowing what family members were doing in New Orleans and [wondering] if everyone was OK.”

Both women’s homes escaped any serious damage in New Orleans. But there were no shortage of friends and relatives who weren’t so lucky.

Ms. Jacob’s mother’s and sister’s homes totally flooded. Her niece, who was 8 at the time, had to swim with her father out of their home.

Ms. Donaldson went four days without hearing from her husband shortly after the storm.

“It was a very stressful time,” she said.

Given the destruction that occurred, both families were quick to return to New Orleans. Nothing quite compared to that initial drive back toward the city.

The closer they got to New Orleans, the more the world turned upside down. All around them was an eerie emptiness. Street lights didn’t work, the National Guard was patrolling the streets.

“It was apocalyptic,” Ms. Donaldson said.

It was a difficult decision to return as soon as they did after the storm with two young children, Ms. Donaldson said.

“Taking them back somewhere that isn’t quite ready yet was questionable to me, but it did work out well,” she said. “It was a little scary because we were in this near-empty city.”

After they returned, Ms. Jacob avoided driving into the city at night, even though her husband, a musician, would play shows there.

Life slowly and gradually returned to normal. Today, the city is thriving again, both women said — to the disappointment of the occasional tourist who visits hoping to see post-Katrina destruction a decade later. They do their best to put the tragedy behind them while never forgetting their good fortune and the kindness of the many strangers who came to their aid.

“If I could have thanked every single person individually, I would have,” Ms. Donaldson said.

For many, the 10-year anniversary of Katrina brought the storm back to the forefront of their minds. For Ms. Donaldson, it’s something she reflects on each year as the calendar reaches late August.

“Every time this year I think back to where I was and what we were doing,” she said. “It’s not as painful anymore. Everything now has really come together.”

Photo Caption: After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans residents Kathleen Donaldson (third from left) and her sister-in-law Stephanie Jacob (fourth from left) spent nearly two months living in Mattituck with their families. Ms. Donaldson’s daughters, Kailyn and Isabelle, lived with Ms. Jacob’s children, Scott, Ryan and Alissa.

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