Rita drives family out of Texas

From the Savants, nothing but kudos for city's welcome

Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lynda Savant wants to see bears. After a week in Juneau, the victim of Hurricane Rita said she has already seen eagles fly over mountains, and a spirit that makes Juneau special.

"Everyone's been so nice to us," she said Tuesday, about six weeks after fleeing Beaumont, Texas, and Hurricane Rita with her husband, John, and their 2-year-old son, Damen.

"We came here with just our clothes," she said, expressing the family's gratitude.

Her husband was working in his new job at Karl's Auto and Marine Repair. He worked in a shipyard in Texas, she said.

In their new Channel Terrace apartment on Douglas Highway, she said hospitality has gone beyond the friendliness of people who know her as a hurricane evacuee when they hear her Texas drawl.

People she knows only by their first names have given them things, Savant said. Annie gave her "a bunch of stuff," she said. And then there was the Moose Lodge. "And Ken gave us a bed" - a king size bed, a mattress, box spring and a wood frame.

Sheryl Tichenor, the Channel Terrace resident manager, said she isn't surprised by the generosity, but what is most impressive is the quality of the things people have given the Savants.

They were the first family the U.S. Department of Agriculture placed in Alaska, working in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Administration, said Keith Perkins, area director for rural development at the USDA in Sitka, who visited the new Savant home Tuesday.

He said the reception the family has received in Juneau doesn't surprise him, either.

Everything seems to have fallen into place, Savant said.

Even the apartment only just became available, Tichenor said. She was screening applicants when for the two-bedroom apartment when she got an e-mail telling her that hurricane evacuees were to be given priority for available rent-assisted housing. Later that day she got an e-mail telling her an evacuated family from Southeast Texas was looking to relocate in Juneau.

When her family left the Beaumont home, Savant said, she expected to be back after the storm ran it course. She said she has seen hurricanes, but Rita was different.

They evacuated to Kerrville, Texas, northwest of San Antonio, and went to a shelter in Lufkin in the eastern part of the state - "it was not a place for kids," she said. After two weeks, the family returned home, where they learned from FEMA their house was not habitable. They went to Galveston, on the Gulf Coast, about an hour from Beaumont.

When FEMA staff members asked if they had any relatives in another part of the country, she said she had a brother in Juneau.

But even getting to Juneau required help. Emergency relief funding would only fly them as far as Seattle, Savant said.

"Somebody donated money so we could get here from Seattle."

Aside from the bed, the apartment still lacks furniture, and Savant said she didn't have a telephone hooked up so she could thank people personally. Where she came from, there are still people without electricity, she said. "There were no lights for miles."

Damen now has room to run around, though.

"We've lived out of hotels for a month-and-a-half," she said.

"Every day's going to get better," Tichenor told Savant, returning to lend some toys for her son to play with.

Savant said Juneau is a beautiful place, but a different world from what she knows.

"I didn't know it rained all the time," she said. And it's cold. "I'm not going to drive until spring."

Food is more expensive than in Texas, she said. And she doesn't know how the family would be able to pay the rent for the apartment if the federal subsidy were to disappear.

Perkins said the emergency placement funding from his agency will be there for six months but he would work with the family longer than that if they needed it.

Tichenor said she had no question everything will work out. She has seen Juneau residents come together to help others before, she said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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