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Evacuees Face Holiday Season That Feels Hollow

November 24, 2005|Judith Graham | Chicago Tribune

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas — For hurricane evacuees, the holidays will bring another new emotional frontier. When thoughts turn to home, family and tradition, they will find instead of comfort an aching loss.

Michael and Sherry Chimento feel it in this Dallas suburb, where they live in a bright new home with no memories. On top of losing their home and jobs in Louisiana, they learned a week after Hurricane Katrina that their 10-year-old, Drew, has leukemia.

In normal times, the Chimentos would be surrounded by a close-knit circle of family and friends. More than 60 relatives -- sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews -- lived within a few miles of their house in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. But when Katrina hit, every home, every business in the area was flooded, and everyone scattered.

"Knowing that we can't see Michael and Sherry and Drew, that we can't be there just to sit with them, it's a sadness I can't describe," said Sherry's cousin Erin Dowd, who fled from St. Bernard to Lafayette Parish.

"We're a family that's all on top of each other all the time. And now we're all spread out, and the life we had together is gone," Dowd said.

In this, the Chimentos and their extended clan are like thousands of other displaced Gulf Coast families whose holiday rituals will have a ring of hollowness this year because they can't go home again. "It's going to be hard for people, very hard," said Walter Leger Jr., a resident of St. Bernard Parish and co-chairman of its Citizens Recovery Committee.

There is much the Chimentos have to be thankful for: the compassionate and knowledgeable doctors who are caring for Drew, the many strangers who have lent a helping hand, the deep love that binds their boisterous, multigenerational family together, even at a distance.

But for their family, as for most residents of the parish, returning home is unimaginable at the moment. The wall of water that breached the levee system during Katrina and smashed through an industrial canal left the community of 68,000 people in ruins. As many as 80% of residences are considered unsalvageable. At the school district, where the Chimentos taught, most schools are damaged beyond repair.

Without a plan to restore the coast and rebuild levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, "people aren't going to move back," Leger said.

Only a handful of businesses are open, and the parish has no tax base from which to rebuild, he noted.

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