Hurricane survivors join relatives in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, September 08, 2005

ANCHORAGE - After Hurricane Katrina and the sweltering nightmare that followed, Alaska represents one word for survivor Josette Autry.

"Peace," the New Orleans woman said Wednesday, two days after arriving in Anchorage with her 10-year-old son, Kahlil, to take refuge with her daughter, sister and other family members who live here. Autry, 36, is among a dozen hurricane victims joining family members in the state, thousands of miles from their drenched, flattened homeland.

"It was scary, but we all made it out," Autry, her voice breaking, told officials and others gathered at the Anchorage office of the American Red Cross of Alaska. "Some families didn't make it out and it hurts to say it."

Autry wiped away tears as she later recalled an ordeal experienced by thousands. And like many, Autry was unable to flee New Orleans as Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast. An uncle offered family members a ride out of the city, but Autry's mother chose to stay to watch out for other relatives, so Autry stayed, too.

She would later learn that her house was badly flooded after levees broke and sent water gushing over most of the city.

The day before Katrina touched land, the family went instead to the Superdome, an ill-equipped last resort for tens of thousands of people who couldn't get out of town fast enough.

"It was very chaotic," Autry said. "There were no lights, no water; feces, we were stepping all over it."

It got worse after buses began arriving to ferry victims to other shelters. Autry remembers the shoving, the frenzied competition to flee the stench. Autry's other son, 18-year-old Keith, ran away briefly out of fear, but later rejoined his family. Soon after that, the family was separated again when Autry had to leave with her younger son because of his asthma.

They were later reunited in Houston.

While Autry saw the worst of human nature, she also saw the best, strangers holding hands in a circle to pray and worship God. That was the only thing that got her through.

"Without faith I wouldn't have made it," she said. "Without prayers I wouldn't have made it."

Even though Alaska isn't expected to be a hotbed for refugees, Red Cross offices statewide have been flooded with donations for hurricane victims and inundated by calls from people wanting to help. So far, 60 Red Cross volunteers from Alaska have been sent outside the state on relief assignments and other 250 have gone through volunteer training.

Others also have stepped up with relief efforts. In Nome, on Alaska's western coast, residents set up a donation drive at the finish line of a Labor Day bathtub race, with some of the money earmarked to help abandoned pets. At the other end of the state, almost two dozen members of a Coast Guard crew based on Kodiak Island have headed out to help with relief efforts.

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