Islanders reaching out to Gulf Coast - Hometown is gone

By Mary L. Grady

Lakeridge Elementary School teacher Rhonda Schweinhart's extended family from the Gulf of Mexico lost their homes, towns and possessions to Hurricane Katrina, but they still have each other and a new and even larger Island family here.

Schweinhart recently returned from Florida and Louisiana where she, along with other relatives, rallied to help her parents and other family members piece back their lives after Hurricane Katrina.

Most of Schweinhart's family live in and around New Orleans except Schweinhart and a sister who lives a few hours east in Pensacola, Fla.

Schweinhart knows firsthand what it is like to ride out a hurricane. Born in New Orleans, she grew up in nearby Waveland, Miss., in a house just 500 feet from the Gulf. Her father, Bill Reinhardt, 71, mother, Dolores Reinhardt, 68, and brother Eddie, who is disabled, still lived in the family home. Now, all that remains of the house is the front concrete steps. According to a local television report, ``the town of 5,500 people was flattened by the storm.''

The family home had narrowly missed being destroyed in other hurricanes. When Hurricane Camille brought a storm surge in 1969, the house was flooded and the roof was torn off by the wind. It has been battered several times since, she said, but her parents have rebuilt every time.

The people always come back.

``It is hard to explain why people stay,'' she said. ``We knew the house was vulnerable.''

Using Camille as their yardstick, many people did not think that Katrina would be as bad, Schweinhart explained. But they were wrong.

Speaking with a catch in her voice, the teacher described the loss of her hometown and the widespread effects of the storm.

Her parents and brother drove to Florida as the storm moved inland. The trip that usually takes just four hours took 12, Schweinhart said.

``Mother saw the waves coming,'' she said. ``They knew they had to get out this time.''

At least two of her brothers rode out the storm in small towns not far from Waveland. During the eye of the storm, people came out of their houses, Schweinhart was told. They heard screaming and scrambled to help others.

Family members drove back on Labor Day to pick up another brother from a shelter and to see if there was anything left to save from the house. It took them seven hours to drive from Pensacola, making long detours for bridges that were out. They took along gas cans to fill up with $4 per gallon gas. But it was all for naught. The house and the town are gone.

Schweinhart said she had mixed feelings about going back that day.

``There is no standing structure,'' she said. ``I needed to see it, but now it is in my mind forever.

There were debris fields 10 feet tall. Sometimes they were marked that there were bodies. It is a nightmare.''

Schweinhart returned just last week to her classroom at Lakeridge and her students she had yet to meet. The teacher is beginning her ninth year of teaching at the school. She has been moved by the help and support she has received from fellow teachers, parents and students, she said.

``There were flowers and cards and people handing me checks,'' she said. ``I want to thank everyone.''

The Mercer Island Education Association, the labor union for district teachers, has helped the Schweinhart family with more than $4,000 in cash donations. Schweinhart's parents and brother have used the money to rent an apartment in Florida.

``It is not just that people no longer have their homes -- they have no cars, no jobs,'' she explained.

Schweinhart's parents are somewhat lucky; they are safe and have a car. Her father, now retired, worked as a welder on oil pipelines in the Gulf, the North Sea and in Africa. Her mother raised seven children. Her brother Eddie, however, no longer has his job loading trucks for a salvage business.

Her mother is distraught, she said, that another hurricane is once again rushing across the Gulf. She still does not know the fate of some of their neighbors.

It is doubtful they will ever go back to the tiny fishing town they love, she said.

Rita hits another Islander's hometown

Island resident Helen Gordon grew up in Abbeville, La., a little town that found itself in the direct path of Hurricane Rita. The storm surge from the Gulf swept 15 miles inland to flood much of the town and surrounding area.

``I have been through hurricanes many times before,'' said Gordon last Sunday. ``I have never, ever seen anything like this.''

Gordon has been sleepless with worry about her sister, Audrey Reaux, who lives near the neighborhood where the family grew up. Her sister, a retired school teacher like Gordon, evacuated to a cousin's house in Lafayette, but had to leave her little dog behind.

While dismayed about the response to Katrina and the treatment of the people left behind, Gordon sees hope in how people have come together to help. She was ``tickled pink'' to see her favorite CNN reporter, Anderson Cooper, having dinner in her favorite restaurant in Abbeville, the Riverfront.

Gordon realizes that coming storms may be just as bad.

``It is a worry,'' she said.

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