Sunday, March 1, 2015

KATRINA 5 YEARS LATER: NPR Show Compelled Bakersfield Retiree to Help New Orleans Family


Carolyn and Michael Mattios in front of their New Orleans home.

Michael and Carolyn Mattios and their teenage sons fought their way through streets clogged with cars and fear to escape the floodwaters filling New Orleans. They made their way to Baton Rouge, leaving behind their modest Deers Street home on the border of the Ninth Ward.

A room in a crime-infested motel became the family's "temporary" home. But the stay they hoped would be for only a few days stretched into months, as New Orleans' recovery efforts were overwhelmed by the devastation.

A dishwasher, whose job was washed away by Hurricane Katrina, Michael would sneak back into the barricaded city, camping out in the wreckage of his house to keep looters away.

Carolyn remained at the motel, struggling to keep her family together and her sons in school. The family's predicament grew desperate until one day she was interviewed by a reporter from "All Things Considered," a National Public Radio show.

Asked how she was doing, Carolyn didn't hold back. Insurance money was slow in coming and meager when it arrived. The contractors they hired to fix their house did shoddy work. She doubted they would ever be able to go home.

Thousands of miles away in Bakersfield, Jack Hendrix, a retired East Bakersfield High School counselor and part-time home repairman, listened to Carolyn's sad story. He decided to help.

Hendrix tracked down the Mattios family through the NPR reporter. He recruited Chris Thomas, a young friend with construction skills, and headed to New Orleans. They camped out in a budget hotel, working for six weeks to repair the Mattios' house. And when they were done, Hendrix rented a truck, drove to Baton Rouge and moved the family back into their home.

"We were so surprised," said Carolyn during a recent interview in New Orleans. "After the show, people started sending money. It wasn't a lot of money -- $20 here and there. But it really helped."

"We got more help from people -- perfect strangers -- than we got from the government. We were touched by God. They didn't know us from the man on the moon, but they opened up their hearts and sent us their hard-earned money. They were the heroes," said Michael.

"But Jack was the only one that showed up to help. He pretty much finished fixing up our house," said Michael, 74, who now is retired. Carolyn just turned 62 and is receiving disability retirement. Their two sons are now attending college. The family keeps in touch with Jack, whom they call their friend.

"They are such sweet people," Hendrix said.

Pulling away from the Mattios' home, I waved to workers from Samaritan Purse Disaster Relief who were repairing a house. But mostly the neighborhood was quiet. The families that once made Deers Street a lively community were gone, likely not to come back. There were no children playing in the streets or behind the fences that lined yards.

On the top step of a porch of a nearby house sat Joan Lewis. Before Katrina, she worked for the telephone company. She's retired now. She returned to the wreckage of her home and fixed it up. It's freshly painted. The lawn that stretches to the street is manicured. But the buildings on both sides are abandoned, boarded up and marked with the all-too-common spray painted warnings of the Katrina rescue crews.

"Does that bother you?" I asked her, getting out of my car to chat.

"Yes, it's forever reminding me," she said. "It reminds me of the power of God. But he didn't do this to be hateful. It also reminds me of the goodness of people; all those people who came to help.

"Now it's time to move forward."

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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