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Facing the Next Plunge

Rosezina Jefferson's bravery in Katrina was born of crisis. She needs a different strength to leave a church's embrace for the unknown.

October 15, 2005|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

WALKER, La. — "I ain't ready, I ain't ready, I ain't ready."

The woman ambling down the corridor of Judson Baptist Church is talking to herself, not crazy but scared. More than a hundred Hurricane Katrina evacuees ended up in this church, in this farming-town-turned-suburb west of Baton Rouge.

One by one, they left the church for trailer parks and apartments, for places far and wide where family or friends or government workers awaited them. Almost seven weeks after Katrina, most of the 270,000 people evacuated to shelters have moved beyond the first stop on their journey to new lives.

But not Rosezina Jefferson and her two young sons. They're stuck. President Bush had set a mid-October deadline to empty all the shelters, but more than 22,000 evacuees still have not found a way out. Many, like Jefferson, are stuck in every way people can be -- with no car, no marketable skills, no place to go. And most significantly, no means to overcome the paralyzing fear of taking the next step.

She's still recovering from the last step she took: a plunge into floodwaters that could have cost her life.

"I ain't ready," Jefferson whispers again. She shuts her eyes as if to pray to the angels that she believes wander the corridors of this church that has been her shelter since the storm. "But I have to be."

Sooner or later, she and her boys are going to have to leave. The parishioners haven't said so directly, but there have been gentle hints.

"It'll be nice for you to have your own place again, huh, dear?" one white-haired lady asked her recently. This congregation will want its Sunday-school classroom back. The classroom has been "Rosezina's Suite," as it's come to be known, for longer than anyone expected.

It is a long corridor, and Jefferson can walk only one way: slowly. She finally makes it to her door. Jefferson is a heavy woman, like her mother who died of a heart attack at age 35. She fills doorways. She sleeps in a special bed that can support her weight. Her baby, Keith Hall Jr., is sleeping in it now. She goes over to check on him.

"How's my miracle baby?" she coos.

Keith Jr. is how she ended up here in Walker.

If he hadn't been in such a hurry to get born, she would have ended up somewhere else -- maybe Texas, maybe in the morgue like some of her neighbors.

The day the levees in New Orleans broke, Jefferson, 26, and her other son, 5-year-old Ashton, became stranded on the second floor of a neighbor's apartment house.

She didn't evacuate, she says, because she didn't think the storm would be that bad. But when the floodwaters overtook the first floor, Jefferson knew she'd made a mistake. Then Ashton began having an asthma attack.

She had to get help. At the very least, she needed to get some medicine. Jefferson had heard that Coast Guard boats were picking up people at Interstate 610, about half a mile away. There was only one way to get there.

Leaving Ashton with the neighbor, Jefferson, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant, jumped out of a window into churning waters and swam toward the freeway. While swimming and pushing herself off from car to car, she went into labor. The pain almost paralyzed her. A passing Coast Guard boat picked her up, and rescuers airlifted her 75 miles to Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, where Keith Jr. was born at 4 a.m. on Aug. 31.

Jefferson was overjoyed at the birth of her new son but nearly hysterical with worry over the son she left behind. "Confused" is how she describes her state of mind in the hospital room.

Woman's Hospital took in dozens of expectant women who had been evacuated. In the week after Katrina, the hospital recorded 49 births in a single day. Many of the women, like Jefferson, went into early labor because of trauma.

A secretary at the hospital, Shannon Easley, realizing that the mothers and their newborns had nowhere to go, arranged for many of them to stay at her church until they found other housing.

Classrooms and closets at Judson Baptist Church were converted into nurseries and studio apartments. Jefferson and her newborn were among the first to arrive. Ashton, who was taken by the neighbor to the Houston Astrodome, was picked up five days later by a parishioner and brought to the church to reunite with his mother.

It was a screaming, crying, clinging reunion. Parishioners and fellow evacuees rejoiced with them. For a while, the church was like every other shelter: crowded and chaotic, but also strangely unifying. Many evacuees bonded in the crisis. Then, as the days passed, they began leaving.

Today, only Jefferson and her family remain.

Jefferson says the Judson Baptist parishioners are the kindest people she's ever met. They've helped her fill out forms, donated clothes and furniture, and allowed her to spend her days unwinding in front of a television in a guest house behind the church. Volunteers, using the church kitchen, have fixed the family three meals a day.

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