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For the Class of Katrina, a place to call home

November 17, 2005|David A. Keeps | Special to The Times

AS Audrey Hepburn gazes down on him from a "Breakfast at Tiffany's" poster, Will Weaver, 17, flips open his laptop on a bed made up with a floral spread.

"I like the color purple," the New Orleans native says, looking at the curtains and bubbling violet lava light in a Studio City bedroom decorated and once occupied by a 17-year-old girl. "I'm kind of shocked that I even have my own room."

The day before Hurricane Katrina hit, Will and his family went to Baton Rouge to wait out the storm. Three weeks later, they returned to find a battered house that "stank horribly" and his school, Holy Cross, in the city's hard-hit 9th Ward, shuttered by water damage. With college applications still pending, the honor roll student made the painful decision to leave home, joining six other parochial school students who are finishing their senior year at the coed sister school Notre Dame in Sherman Oaks. With the horror of the hurricane still fresh in their minds, and with the help of host families, the kids are trying to carry on with their studies and make a home far away from home.

"Typically we write the check when bad things happen, for 9/11 or the tsunami," says Annette Krakowsky, whose family put up Will in daughter Emily's old bedroom. "This time we were able to do something personal."

Overnight, she recalls, "I went from Mom to Ma'am. Will and his friends are such Southern gentlemen."

Another difference, says Emily, "is that we never had a brother before, so we can't walk around the house in underwear anymore."

"Neither can I," Will drolly drawls.

If humor is a therapeutic response to trauma, the families who have opened their doors to Will and his classmates are using gentle jokes as a cure for what ails them: displacement, depression and anxiety about what is happening back home.

Emily Viola took in two of the Bozant triplets, Heather and Ian, setting them up in rooms that belonged to her son and daughter, Notre Dame graduates. Ian and Heather, she says, seemed understandably withdrawn until they adapted to their new surroundings.

"When they first came here the house was so quiet, every time one of them needed something they came out of their rooms in twos," Viola says. "They were glued to the news reports. It concerned us, but you can't deny them that."

Heather recalls her evacuation in a measured way, like a nightmare that has grown less vivid with each retelling.

"There were five of us and a dog sleeping in the car for three days before we could find a hotel," she says. "There was traffic and shortages, which was frustrating, but when we watched the news and saw the devastation, the panic set in because we didn't know what was happening back home."

A grandmother and great-grandmother survived the storm and are living in the rooms vacated by Heather and Ian; their home -- where Heather and Ian spent Thanksgiving and Christmas and played after school -- was washed away.

"The memories will still be there," says Ian, "but that's been a very difficult thing to deal with."

It hits him every time he goes to bed. "You know it's not your room, and that reminds you of the disaster, and you know that everything back home is going to be different."

Notre Dame Principal Stephanie Connelly says "there has been no acting out, nothing but gratitude and joy" among the relocated students, but nonetheless the school recently retained a counselor. The students have a touchstone in Father Joe Moyer, the chaplain at Notre Dame, who formerly taught at Holy Cross in New Orleans.

"Some of these students are from fourth- and fifth-generation New Orleans families and are experiencing the outside world for the first time," Moyer says. "Parents have relocated and are sending their kids 2,000 miles away to live with people they don't even know. Everyone is homesick, but they realize that the home they had is no longer the same."

New Orleans native Bridget Timberlake offers comfort and comfort food in her Woodland Hills home, making jambalaya, shrimp and fried chicken for her guest student, Daniel Bonilla. Often he is joined by his two best hometown friends, Will Weaver and Randy Wood, who also is living temporarily in Woodland Hills, with Notre Dame class president Kevin Homsey.

"We went through the Northridge earthquake in '94, and that made us realize that being with family is what's important," Timberlake says.

Daniel and his friends were able to return to their water-damaged homes and salvage belongings. Marcus Stewart and Arthur Booker IV, best friends since third grade, were not. They lived two blocks away from each other in East New Orleans, which was, Marcus says, "devoured."

Fortunately, Marcus had attended a student leadership conference in the summer and became friends with Notre Dame senior Stevie Jay Stapler, 17, daughter of TV actress Robin Stapler and her husband, actor-director Alfonso Ribeiro ("The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air").

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