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HURRICANE GUSTAV: PEOPLE AND PLACES

Taking flight -- yet again

Shrimpers Neang Pum and Sobong In fled Cambodia and survived Katrina.

September 02, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

JENNINGS, LA. — They left the shrimp boat in which they work and live on the Louisiana shore, driving north at noon, daring the hurricane in their red Ford Expedition.

They were running on a tank of gas, and there were no stations open for miles.

Neang Pum, 66, and her boyfriend, Sobong In, 69, came to the United States as Cambodian refugees more than two decades ago.

On Monday, they fled Hurricane Gustav -- which sent palm fronds flying, trees toppling and waves of water across the highway before them.

Pum and In had moved into a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer after Hurricane Katrina three years ago, but the government recently took that home away. So the couple were living in the shrimp boat in Empire, La.

Pum said they hadn't had enough money to evacuate ahead of Gustav, so they decided to ride it out. But as the hurricane crashed along the coast Monday, rocking their boat with terrifying power, the couple decided to head to Lafayette, La., 200 miles away, where they had a friend with food and water to share.

"The hurricane was getting angry," Pum said. "My friend said, 'You must go; you will die.' "

The couple loaded the SUV with a pink flowered pillow, a striped burgundy blanket, a carton of ramen noodles, $40 in cash and their black-and- orange dog, Lucky Boy.

But by 4 p.m., the winds and rain on Interstate 10 had become so severe that they pulled up across the street from the Jennings Travel Center -- home to a casino, restaurant and truckers rest stop -- and hoped police would stop to help them.

Their gas was running dangerously low.

At the travel center, which was boarded up with strips of plywood, its gas pumps wrapped in plastic tarps, a man and woman with guns waved people away. Selina Landry, 43, a security guard in a Tinkerbell T-shirt with a pistol under her arm, had been charged with keeping looters away from the store. She brought her 20-year-old son, his wife and their 6-month-old daughter along. They had spent the night in the warehouse-shaped building, along with three other security guards and their families.

As rain swirled and wind whipped outside the building, children slept on black sofas and watched "Hannah Montana" while the adults monitored weather reports.

Walking toward the sandbags that lined the front of the store -- near the zebra-print purses, popcorn balls, straw cowboy hats and bottles of hot sauce -- Landry said: "We're not scared one bit; we're cautious."

The guards and their families planned to hide in a cooler if the storm got worse, she added. "We're respectful of the storm," Landry said.

Across the street, Pum and In could not find anyone to help them.

The couple were at least an hour from Lafayette -- where one person has been reported killed by a falling tree -- and the winds were pushing 80 mph. Through the foggy windows of their SUV, Pum and In watched the covering on a four-story yellow building flap in the wind.

"Maybe I should stay here and wait until it opens for gas," said In, looking at the shuttered station across the street as fierce gusts rocked the Expedition from side to side. He braced the steering wheel with his tanned, weathered hands, with dirt underneath his fingernails from shrimping.

"No," Pum told him. "It's not open today."

Barefoot and wearing a green jade bracelet, Pum looked away, shaking her head. Lucky Boy jumped into the back seat, whimpering near an American flag, a cooler and a beach towel.

"I don't have gasoline," she said. "I don't know what to do. I'm so scared."

After an hour, with the wind still screaming, the couple decided to keep driving.

--

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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