2005-09-16 / Front Page

Katrina Refugees Start Over In Rockaway

The Russell family stands in the entrance to The Wave office after having school papers notarized last week.The Russell family stands in the entrance to The Wave office after having school papers notarized last week. A family who lost nearly everything they owned when Hurricane Katrina ravaged their town and destroyed their trailer-home is fighting to get back on their feet in Rockaway, The Wave has learned.

Suzanne and Billy Russell came to The Wave office last week, not expecting to tell anyone about the losses they recently suffered, but to have school papers notarized for their three young children, Elisa, 7, Billy Jr., 6, and Tristian, 4. The Russell’s were enrolling their children at PS 225, because going home, at least for the foreseeable future, is impossible.

Katrina’s winds ripped off one side of the Russell’s trailer and filled it with debris.Katrina’s winds ripped off one side of the Russell’s trailer and filled it with debris. “They found dead bodies in our fresh water system,” Suzanne explained. “Famine and disease; I don’t want to take my children back to that. All you smell is death,” she said.

The Russell family was forced to abandon their trailer, which was set in the small town of Gautier, Mississippi. Their home overlooked a golf course and a bayou, but Katrina’s winds blew off one of its exterior walls and pulled off much of its aluminum exterior panels. Billy’s auto repair shop, just a few feet from the trailer, was flattened. He is now looking for work in Rockaway as a mechanic.

City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. has offered to collect clothing, food and supplies for the Russell family. Donations will be accepted at his office, 98-16 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, or call (718) 634-6411. Monetary donations will only be accepted in the form of checks or money orders payable directly to the Russell family.City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. has offered to collect clothing, food and supplies for the Russell family. Donations will be accepted at his office, 98-16 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, or call (718) 634-6411. Monetary donations will only be accepted in the form of checks or money orders payable directly to the Russell family. The storm did more damage than a team of vandals armed with sledgehammers. Then came the water, which rose so high that the refrigerator began to float and finally flipped over.

They lost friends and family and four of their pets died or disappeared. The Russells were forced to abandon ship before sunrise on August 28. With their five surviving pets: two iguanas, two cats and a dog, they crammed into a 1995 Nissan Altima and hit the road.

It’s a total loss; Suzanne said the trailer’s model year, 1963, prevented her from insuring it or its contents. All FEMA offered them was ice and water; what they need are school supplies and clothes.

The Russell’s arrived in Rockaway three days after their cramped journey began. “My dad wanted us to come back here,” said Suzanne, who attended local schools and lived here until she was 17. Her father, Gus Mendizabal – who owns a local hairdressing business – lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Beach 95 Street.

The children seemed unaffected by the personal tragedy their parents suffered. Elisa, Billy Jr. and Tristian were well behaved during their parents visit to The Wave office, but smiles and a little bit of horseplay suggested that this is a strange adventure that they won’t completely understand until they are older.

It’s a very different story for the adults, who have to find a way for the family to recover. “It took a long time to get a place that was finally ours,” said Suzanne. “And in one night it’s gone.” And yet, despite the suffering they have endured, the Russells are focused on those who weren’t lucky enough to escape to places like Rockaway.

“Thousands of families still need help,” Billy reminded us.

Brian Magoolaghan

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