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Not My Choice to Move, But It is to Stay

We’ve all seen the pictures on the news … families waiting to be rescued off their roofs, homes devastated, everything lost. Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything in its path. But, watching the news and responding to the call to help are two totally different things.

What do you do when families that have been devastated by Katrina show up in your community? You do everything that is within your power to help. And that is exactly what the Fayetteville community did when multiple families relocated there just a few short months ago.

It started when Dr. Mark Miller, with Fayetteville Plastic Surgery, put together a team of six medical professionals and went to the New Orleans area to see what medical assistance they could provide. Joe Gibbs Racing Team provided transportation for the team to Baton Rouge. From there, because many members of the team had completed some of their training at the Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans, the team was flown by Blackhawk helicopter into city limits.

While in New Orleans, Miller’s team not only met peoples’ medical needs, but they also began to build relationships. With Paul Lawing coordinating efforts in Fayetteville and by working with Operation Blessing (Miller has traveled the world with this organization on other medical mission trips) Miller’s team was able to meet five families (21 evacuees) who were looking to leave the area.

John Lowery, Tasha King and their kids represent just one of the five families who were fortunate enough to meet Miller. Briefly, here is their story:

After surviving the incredible winds, John realized the worst was still ahead … rising flood waters. Nothing could stop the water; not even the windows and walls of John’s house. As the water rushed in, John and Tasha knew they had to get to higher ground.

Taking his family to their rooftop, John looked back just in time to see his children’s computer engulfed. It was at that time he then realized that there would be nothing left in his house worth saving.

John and his family waited several hours to be rescued. Remembering those long hours John says, “I thought we were going to die. The water kept rising.”

After they were rescued, John and his family were taken to the Super Dome. However, due to the horrendous conditions at the Super Dome, John and Tasha felt their family would be better off if they just started walking down the highway. So they did.

A Good Samaritan saw them, picked them up and took them to a shelter in the West Bank. But, conditions at the shelter were as bad, if not worse, than those at the Super Dome so, once again they began walking. An off-duty police woman saw John and his family, picked them up and took them to another shelter where they later met Miller and connected with Operation Blessing.

On September 6, 2004 Joe Gibbs Racing Team provided transportation, a 40-person private airplane, for these 21 evacuees and the medical team from Louisiana to Fayetteville.

Once in Fayetteville the families stayed at the Extended Stay America. It was there that John and Tasha found they had to fight yet anther storm; not one of Mother Nature’s, but one of starting over.

Having left the hurricane ravaged area with little more than the clothes on their backs (they were able to grab birth certificates and Tasha’s driver’s license) they began the arduous task of rebuilding their lives. But, thanks to the amazing generosity and grace of the Fayetteville community this task was a little more bearable.

Each of the five families who came from the New Orleans area in connection with Miller and Lawing were given a contact person from different local churches. These contacts were instrumental in helping to organize the needs of each family member. In John and Tasha’s case, Karen Barkman, Outreach Chair for the Haymount United Methodist Church was their contact. Karen tells of the hundreds of people who wanted to help. Call after call came in; all with the same question: “What can we do?”

The hotel dedicated a room where computers were set up so each of the families could meet with FEMA representatives.

The Red Cross came to the hotel to meet with each family and give them their debit cards.

A local bank set up checking accounts for each of the families so they could use their debit


Fayetteville Urban Ministry, a local interfaith ministry, helped with some of the families’ basic needs.

The school district sent a representative to the hotel to help enroll the kids so they could begin school and try to get back some sense of normalcy.

Camp Ground United Methodist Church and the military men and women at Ft. Bragg provided the students with backpacks and school supplies.

Dr. Ken Belliam and his wife, Kristen, worked with the Care Clinic to make sure every adult was taken care of medically.

Pediatricians, dentists and optometrists all gave of their time to provide exams and any necessary treatment.

Marshall Waren hired John to work at William George Printing, also the printer of CityView.

Church members donated an incredible amount of time, resources, even cars, to helping families get back on their feet.

Gifts for the families included cash, clothes, food, gift certificates, baby sitting, paid insurance, temporary housing, help with driver’s licenses and so much more. The help that poured out of the community was amazing and each of these families benefited greatly. As John said: “We are blessed, really blessed.”

In its own unique way, the city of Fayetteville answered the call for help in every way possible. Perhaps it is because, as Karen said of her church’s membership: “Our purpose is to be the hands and feet of Christ.” If there is a need that can be met, they will try to do so.

Perhaps it is because, as Mark Miller put it, “ incredible peril hap­pening to people down there. Tens of thou­sands needed help. I had to do whatever I could. This was in my own backyard.”

Perhaps the overwhelming response is due, in part, to the fact that much of the Fayetteville community is made up of transplants: people who have relocated there for a number of reasons, not the least of which is serving our country while in uniform. Over 50,000 of the area’s 300,000 residents are military.

With so many military families in Fayetteville it is no wonder that people can empathize with forced relocation. They understand what it means to have to start over, to find new schools for their kids, learn where to shop, meet new neighbors and begin building new relationships, find a new place to worship and the list goes on and on. They can empathize with the pain of letting go of a past life as you struggle to build a new one.

Or perhaps it is the combination of all of these things that made Fayetteville respond with such overwhelming love. Whatever the underlying reason, each of the families who have received help is thankful.

One thing we must not forget, however, is that these families were forced to leave the area they called home by a most devastating force, Hurricane Katrina. They were not able to pack up valuables and bring them to North Carolina. There was not time to “get their affairs in order.” Planning? Most families did not have time to plan their route out of Louisiana much less a complete move. Katrina came. They left. And in John and Tasha’s case, they were not even able to save their daughter’s cat.

When I asked John what was one thing he would like to communicate to the rest of us who only witnessed Katrina’s destruction second-hand he said: “It’s not over. It will take a long time to get over it.”

Once all together in the New Orleans area, John and his extended family are now scattered throughout the United States. Since he left Louisiana, John has only talked to his mother. He has not been able to contact his brothers or sisters. He heard they all made it out safely, but looks forward to the day they can be together again.

John tries to stay strong for his family. He doesn’t even let himself think of all they lost and what was left behind. He can’t. It is just too painful. So, in light of not looking back and never returning to what was once home, John focuses on the future. He is thankful for what he has now … a place to live, a job to support his family, daughters who are doing well in school and Tasha, a helpmate who sticks by his side. n

Writer Stephanie Hester recently relocated from California to North Carolina.