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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 0:03 EDT

Tough trip to safety for die-hards

September 8, 2005

By Mark Egan

ALTON, Illinois (Reuters) – When die-hard New Orleans
resident Terry White woke up on Wednesday he had no intention
of leaving the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

By nightfall, he was one of 138 people sleeping in an
Illinois mental hospital, evacuated by plane from a place most
did not want to leave.

With an estimated 10,000 people still remaining in New
Orleans, police have upped the pressure to get everyone out of
the city, where foul flood waters and rotting corpses have made
conditions unsanitary.

Many of the reluctant refugees are finally going, but their
trip to safety is not an easy one.

They are shuffled from place to place, forced to wait at
the airport and finally flown away to a destination not
disclosed until they get off the plane.

White’s departure began at 8 a.m. on Wednesday when he
walked outside of his home in the impoverished 9th Ward to
check on a friend and was greeted by a group of New Orleans
police officers.

They told him that if he did not leave, they’d be back to
kick down his door and take him by force, he said.

“If the cops hadn’t told me I had to get out, I never would
have left,” White said. “I had everything I needed in my house,
but what was I going to do? They had guns.”

He and others from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods
were trucked to the convention center, where there was a
National Guard staging post for evacuees.

They arrived looking tired and filthy. Some brought
much-loved pets. Most had suitcases and others just the clothes
they wore. There were couples with children, the old and
infirm. None knew their final destination.

“I’ve always wanted to go to California,” one young black
man mused as he waited to board a bus.

The bus took them through the ruined city to the airport,
where Red Cross volunteers greeted people with toiletries and
food and doctors treated those needing help. Soon the crowd
massed at departure gates, still unaware where they were
headed.

And despite their plight, they bantered.

“You gonna come back,” one man hollered at a friend.

“Oh yeah, sure I will,” his friend replied. “I just gotta
go to Las Vegas first and marry me a rich one.”

TIME TO REMEMBER

During the long wait, the men’s restroom became an
impromptu smoking lounge. They huddled and recalled the dead
bodies they saw, spoke of people they rescued and acts of
heroism, and of proudly of sticking it out despite all the
hardship.

Joseph Berrio, 46, said he used music to keep away the
armed looters who came to his street each night on a boat.

“I put my stereo on my porch and played ‘Alice in Chains’
really loud,” he said, referring to the heavy metal rock band.
“It scared the hell out of them. I heard them say to each
other, ‘Stay away from that crazy white boy.”‘

In the departure lounge, people spoke about how New
Orleans’ horrid devastation might have a silver lining. Maybe
the city could be cleaned up and there would be fewer drugs,
guns and gangs on the streets, people said. Maybe the
rebuilding will bring high-paying jobs and maybe the criminal
element will not come back.

Linda Johnson, 47, was among those mulling a fresh start.
The transsexual drag queen and burlesque dancer said she lost
all her sequined costumes and was broke, but insisted, “I’ll be
happy anywhere I go.”

Mike Bailey, 45, clutched his only remaining possession —
a large mixed-breed dog called BoBo — and said, “Most of these
people were born and raised here and have never been out of New
Orleans.”

With just $140 to his name, Bailey is nervous about his
future. “They say it could be February or March before we get
back. I’ll try to get a job and survive; it’s all I can do.”

And like many, he was also nervous of flying for the first
time.

When they were finally boarded a chartered Boeing 727, they
still had not been told their destination, which annoyed many.

One man shouted “You’re treating us like criminals.”

An hour and 20 minute flight took the group to Scott Air
Force Base in Mascoutah, Illinois, where they were herded onto
buses and finally told their destination was the mental
hospital, now a shelter for the Katrina displaced, near the
town of Alton. They were 700 miles from home.

“We’re going to a funny farm,” said Gary Mansky, 44. “They
must have figured we’re from New Orleans so we’d fit right in.”

They were the first to arrive at the facility, which can
house 250 people sleeping six to a room in cots.

After handing out clothes and toiletries, offering food and
giving out room assignments, staff said assistance would be
discussed in the morning. Many of the evacuees want to reunite
with friends or family elsewhere, while some were considering
staying here for as long as was possible.

But White, a house painter who likes his independence, was
unimpressed.

“I can’t live like this. This is like a prison,” he said,
smoking a cigarette shortly after arriving here at almost 2
a.m. “I do appreciate their generosity, but a man needs a place
of his own. I’ve got to get back to New Orleans.”

Upstairs in the cramped sleeping quarters, men chatted
about what might await them when they eventually return to the
city they love. Putting aside their despair, they joked.

“Did you clean out your fridge before you left,” one man
asked another.

“Had no time,” was the response. “And it had meat in
there.”

“Oh, brother! When you go back, that fridge is going to be
talking.”