Gustav evacuees find shelter in central Miss.

Published 11:47 pm Monday, September 1, 2008

Joann Smith, a former school bus driver from New Orleans, said she was stranded on a roof, tossed into the chaos of the Superdome, bused to Texas and separated from her children for eight hellish days after Hurricane Katrina.

“I’m not going to lie to you — I was going to commit suicide until I found out where they were,” Smith said Monday at a Red Cross shelter in Richland, just south of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital city.

The 33-year-old mother of three said that as Hurricane Gustav muscled its way up through the Gulf of Mexico, she wasn’t taking chances. She loaded her boys and four other relatives into a pickup Saturday — some in the cab, some in the truck bed — and drove nearly 200 miles.

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Now, she’s thinking about moving to Dallas. People there were kind to her after Katrina, she said. But, more important, it’s so far inland that it never gets tropical threats from the gulf.

“I love New Orleans. I really do. But I don’t want to put my children through that every July or August, to pack up and get out when there’s a hurricane coming,” Smith said as Gustav pounded parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Emergency officials estimated 12,000 people were staying in shelters across Mississippi. Thousands more filled hotels.

Smith wore a blue nightshirt and cuddled her 5-month-old son in the Richland High School gymnasium as her older boys — 8 and 12 years old — listened to their portable CD players and ran around with children from other Gustav-evacuated families, many from Louisiana.

About 80 cots lined the walls and another 70 cots and a few air mattresses sat in neat rows on the plastic-covered basketball floor. Some of the cots had been scooted into family groups, and several had mismatched bedding — leopard-print sheets and a Spiderman blanket covered one.

Dezica Wooters, a 37-year-old from Morgan City, La., traveled to Richland with her husband, their three sons, her in-laws and a brother-in-law. She said the family had been treated well when they stayed in the gym during Hurricane Rita in 2005, so they decided to return.

Her mother-in-law, 67-year-old Judy Giroir, had a cell phone conversation with a 40-year-old son who stayed in Morgan City to take care of the family home.

“He says the pecan trees are snapping in half like firecrackers,” Giroir said. Her eyes filled with tears as she added: “He says the dogs are scared to death.”

Marilyn Washington, 55, evacuated from Louisiana’s St. Charles Parrish with 21 relatives. “Almost like a wagon train,” she said with a chuckle.

Wearing shorts and American flag T-shirt, Washington sat outside the Richland gym Monday listening to weather reports on a blaring radio. Bands of gray clouds zipped across the sky, spitting rain.

Washington said she was praying her mobile home will still be in one piece when she returns. “I got a little piece land I just finished paying for,” she said. “It’s comfortable.”

She said when she evacuated for Katrina, she left her family photo albums behind. This time, she took them.

Washington, who works with elderly people and disabled children, said she is a firm believer in evacuating for hurricanes.

“When they say move, we move,” Washington said. “You can’t take things with you. You can always start over.”