Remembering Hurricane Katrina

10 years ago this weekend, the world watched the gulf coast as Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The 125 mph winds stormed the Louisiana levees with fury leaving thousands of New Orleans residents with no home and little hope.

Many of you may remember Gina and Sal Hontiveros along with their 2 year old son, Cade, and both grandparents were evacuees from New Orleans who found their way to Volunteers of America of North Louisiana’s Highland Center.

Lisa Brandeburg wrote in a 2006 memo, “We are not and have never been a shelter but in the hours following Katrina, we became one overnight.”

Gina worked in the cath lab at the VA Medical Center in New Orleans. Sunday, Aug 28th, Gina was on call at the hospital. With no where else to go, weather conditions quickly escalating and volunteers needed, Sal and Cade went to the hospital too.

The hurricane made landfall Monday, Aug. 29th. Soon, the hospital lost all electricity and running water. After having to cope and make it work all week with only bare essentials, Sal and Gina along with their family were evacuated late Thursday night.

Brandy Stroud was the Highland Center Director during that time and she was the first person to meet the Hontiveros family. In the 2006 Cherish the Children of God breakfast video, Brandy spoke about meeting them.

“When I met them initially, I just couldn’t imagine being in the situation they were in.” Brandy said. “The moment I remember the most working with evacuees, is the moment they arrived at our door step… in scrubs and not having showered and having their kids with them. It really hits you when you see it on tv and then the people walk through your door and it’s time to serve them and try to help them get their lives back together.”

The year following Hurricane Katrina, our agency provided over 1,000 days of shelter for 22 evacuees.

The following is an excerpt from an email Brandy wrote in 2005 describing in detail what life was like at the Highland Center in those first few hours.

I can tell you (at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night) that the evacuees that we will be serving are here. They are safe. They are warm, kind and grateful. We currently have 18 people in our makeshift shelter with 4 more to join them this evening.

I am happy to say that those we are serving are in clean, warm beds tonight. Their tummies are full and they know that for the near future, they have a place to call home, even if it is the Highland Center. They know that you all care for them and are willing to help.

So, we are blessed to have the space to serve them. We are blessed to have so many wonderful staff willing to go that extra, extra, extra mile to help those in need. We are blessed to have supporters that jump straight into action at the moment they most needed to serve others. We are simply blessed.

The Hontiveros family stayed at the Highland Center for 2 weeks and lived in Shreveport, LA for 8 months after Hurricane Katrina.

Sal said in the video it was one of the toughest times in their lives, but he is fortunate and blessed that Volunteers of America was here to help. “I didn’t actually know what was going to happen to us. And for them [VOA] to extend open arms to us was unbelievable.” he said.

I recently spoke to Gina and she shared some of their fondest memories.

“During that time, local churches took turns providing meals to us. One night we were walking back to the Highland Center and our son looks up and asks, ‘Mom, are we going back to the hotel?’ Gina laughed.

Cade was too young to remember a lot, but Gina said they always try to tell him similar sweet stories. Cade is now 12 years old and in 7th grade. He is a brown belt in karate, an alter boy at their Catholic church and last week, he made the varsity flag football team at school.

Gina is still working for the VA. She is now the Clinic Manager, RN at a new primary care clinic in Hammond, LA. Sal is a Respiratory Therapist at North Oaks Hospital in Hammond, LA.

In 2007, the family built a new home in Covington, LA. Their new home is located North of Lake Pontchartrainon on higher ground and Gina made sure it is not in a flood zone! Gina and Sal also welcomed their baby girl, Amelia, the following year. She is 7 years old.

Gina said they will never forget Shreveport. “Angels guided us every step of the way after the hurricane. I will always be grateful to the people who helped us integrate into the community.”

From Brandy at the Highland Center who still keeps in touch to the workers at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center who threw the family a going away party, she said words cannot express their gratitude.

And just like the Hontiveros family, Volunteers of America of North Louisiana will continue to serve those who find their way to us.

 

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