Sunday, March 1, 2015

KATRINA 5 YEARS LATER: Bakersfield woman's family rebuilding lives


Dawn Lusich stands with Ray Cox

Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast when Sandra Boswell in Bakersfield received a telephone call from her family in Mississippi.

“It’s a 5,” she heard.

At first she thought they were talking about the time of day. Then it hit her. They were talking about the strength of the storm. Katrina was a category 5 hurricane.

“Oh, my God. You all have to leave,” she pleaded.

Boswell knew the power of a category 5 hurricane. She rode out category 5 Hurricane Camille in 1969 and vowed “never again. It was terrifying.”

Boswell, a registered nurse who oversees the intensive care units at Catholic Healthcare West’s Bakersfield hospitals, has many brothers and sisters still living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her husband, Bill, also has family around Bay St. Louis.

The couple moved to Bakersfield in the 1980s so Bill could work in the oil industry. Bakersfield “grew on them” and they never moved “back home” to Mississippi.

When Katrina landed, Boswell’s brother and two of her sisters “lost everything.” Her sister Dawn Lusich, whose family had a catfish farm and oyster beds, stubbornly stayed to protect their business.

But as the churning ocean filled Lusich’s neighborhood with water, she and her two young children fled with neighbors into her home’s attic. Rain-filled winds ripped the roof from the house. Flood waters caused it to drift from its foundation.

When Katrina moved on and calm returned to the devastated city, Lusich, her children and neighbors were rescued from the attic rooftop.

“She thought she was going to die,” Sandra said.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, Sandra and Bill Boswell began collecting clothing and supplies for their families and friends in Mississippi. With the help of a Bakersfield television station, a collection point was set up. When the first tractor-trailer rig was filled, it headed east. Just a few days later, a second 18-wheeler was stuffed with supplies and sent to the Gulf.

“Sandra called and said Billie was on his way,” recalled Lusich. “When he arrived, I could not believe the outpouring of help from Bakersfield.”

A few weeks later, Sandra traveled to Mississippi. “We had no Gulf. It was all gone. It was horrible. All I did was cry,” she said.

The Wal-Mart in nearby Waveland, where Lusich worked in the customer service department, also was gone. Manager Ray Cox told his bosses at corporate headquarters in Arkansas that the place “looked like Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped.”

Company trucks began arriving with water, non-perishable food and supplies. For the next 30 days, Wal-Mart gave away — free of charge — life-sustaining medications. Tents housed a temporary Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, Cox, who also lost his home, dispatched staff to check on employees. Using payroll records, they fanned out to account for everyone. Sadly, Edgar Bane, a worker on the loading dock, and his family of four had died in the storm.

Every employee received a $1,000 check to get them through the early days of the crisis. And when they were able to return to work, jobs were waiting for them. Eleven months after the storm, Waveland’s new Wal-Mart opened for business.

“Like everyone else around here, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Cox said. “It’s made us stronger.”

Lusich credits Cox and Wal-Mart for getting her through the hard times.

She and most of her neighbors have rebuilt their homes. Lusich’s house is not as grand as her old one.

“Katrina took a lot from me, but it also gave me a lot,” Lusich said, explaining she is closer to her family and friends today.

I called Cox a few days ago to see how his community was fairing after the BP platform explosion. Many of his customers and neighbors are fishermen. They now work for BP. Instead of pulling shrimp and fish from the nearby waters, they are laying boom and sucking out oil.

“We’re persevering and just waiting to see what happens,” he said.

This July 10, 2010 article written by Dianne Hardisty is one in a series that was printed in The Bakersfield Californian about the results of Bakersfield volunteer projects to help rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Dianne Hardisty and her husband, John Hardisty, traveled to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in April 2010 to report on progress.

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