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Louisiana family finds relief in Lebanon
Sep 06, 2005 12:00 am
September 2, 2005
Before New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued an SOS for help Thursday, local officials reacted with lightning speed to a similar signal from a Louisiana family who fled to Wilson County earlier this week to avoid the hurricane.
Tina Ruiz, her two children and boyfriend, Ron Galle, arrived at a friend's home in Wilson County close to 1 a.m. Sunday after fleeing from their Gulf Coast home to avoid Hurricane Katrina. Two days later, the family of four learned their hometown of St. Bernard Parish, La., was a "total loss."
Debating on whether to stay in Wilson County or leave, Galle and Ruiz checked into Lebanon's Knights Inn before deciding their next move. However, the desk clerk at the local hotel and others sprang into action, leaving the family "shocked" at the community's charitable spirit and willing to stay in Wilson.
"When we checked in and asked to be pointed in the direction of the Red Cross, we thought we would go get some vouchers for food and maybe get pointed in the direction of a shelter," the 33-year-old mother of two said. "We didn't get the stuff in the room before a deputy showed up at the door."
A few phones calls, a massive e-mail and less than 12 hours later, Galle and the Ruizes had a two-bedroom home to stay in, two interviews for jobs in the area under their belts and money to purchase needed items.
"I've never seen something like this," Ron Galle said of the response from local officials and businesses to their plight. "We're blessed. I don't believe it."
Ruiz explained she and Galle had breakfast with Lebanon Mayor Don Fox and Wilson Emergency Management Agency Director Jerry McFarland. The pair along with officials from the Lebanon/Wilson County Chamber of Commerce were able to locate a home for the family and set up job interviews for Ruiz and Galle at University Medical Center.
"These people need to be in a family-style situation," McFarland said during a press conference with the family at the Lebanon/Wilson County Chamber of Commerce office Thursday afternoon. "They don't need to be on some gymnasium floor."
The WEMA director explained through several connections a local business man offered up his home for the family after hearing about their trek from St. Bernard Parish, La., which is southeast of New Orleans, and their uncertain future.
"It was a wonderful gesture that he opened his home," Tina Ruiz said sitting next to Galle and her two children Thursday afternoon. "I can't even fathom that."
Galle said he didn't think New Orleans residents and officials would act as generously.
"There's no way this would happen in New Orleans," he said, adding the word to describe Wilson Countians' actions in the past 12 hours would be "unbelievable."
Ruiz explained after going through the torment of boarding up her home, "hoping for the best," and then learning the worst, the relief she experienced of knowing she would have shelter and employment was "shocking."
"I'm shocked in having no home to have a complete turnaround from last night and things looking up," she said.
Ruiz's children – Cody, 12 and Caydee, 11 – pointed out they were relieved to have a place to stay and possible school to attend. Local officials are working to enroll the children in school while the family works to build a temporary life in Lebanon.
"It's a big relief," said Cody, who is a seventh-grader. "I'm excited about school."
Caydee nodded in agreement. But both children said they are still worried about their school friends possibly still in Louisiana.
Knowledge about their friends will remain a mystery for some time. McFarland explained Louisiana officials have notified residents a return to their home will not be possible for at least two months.
Ruiz and Galle said their cell phones are not working, but they know their immediate families are safe. She said her family resides in Panama City, Fla., while Galle's family lives in Hammond, La.
Returning to St. Bernard Parish, however, is an uncertainty. Ruiz said she doesn't want to put her children through another hurricane, especially since packing up and running from storms is a regular occurrence. Ruiz and Galle have lived on the Gulf Coast for most of their lives and packed up and evacuated at least four to five times. But they've always returned.
"We were hoping it was the same routine," Ruiz said. "We didn't want to face the fact it was the big one … We were hoping it would blow over."
But that hope perished when the governor declared St. Bernard Parish, La., as a "total loss" during a press conference early Tuesday morning. The pair realized their home and town would "never be the same," Galle said.
"We realized a three-day trip turned into a three-month trip," said Galle, who worked as a self-employed plumber.
But their grief and devastation had a short shelf life as Wilson Countians came to their rescue.
"There's nothing to describe it," Ruiz said. "I'm extremely appreciative … and it's a wonder to see people (react) without hesitation – no hesitation at all."
Expecting other families to arrive as the Ruizes and Galles, the United Way of Wilson County is forming a committee to coordinate its efforts to help Louisiana refugees transition into a temporary life here.
Night News Editor J.K. Devine can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 46 or by e-mail at email@example.com.