Katrina Refugees Start Over In Rockaway
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.
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.
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.