Shelter from the storm
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2005
OAK MOUNTAIN STATE PARK &045;&045; Hopes here are like the nightly campfires of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, they burn strong enough but never reach too high.
Refuge comes in different forms at the campgrounds of Oak Mountain State Park, where nearly 200 hurricane victims are banding into a community of humble appreciation and government-issued trailers.
It’s been more than a month since the storm flushed these people from their homes, turning them into residents of Shelby County’s newest, most peculiar little village.
&uot;It’s like someone has picked us up and set us on a another planet,&uot; said Sable Gaspard, who left her home in Avondale, La., before the storm and eventually wound up in a FEMA trailer in Shelby County.
So far, they have had little trouble finding all of the basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter &045;&045; all things that Katrina took &045;&045; thanks to the generosity of local groups and individuals.
Despite contributions nation-wide, none of the high-profile relief organizations have had any sustained presence here.
FEMA did supply at least 60 trailers but like the American Red Cross, they have no permanent representation at the campgrounds.
In fact, nearly all of the relief efforts at the Oak Mountain shelter have been organized by a handful of unlikely volunteers.
Linda Gable was camping with her family when the first evacuees started trickling into the grounds at Oak Mountain State Park
on Labor Day weekend.
Looking for an opportunity to help, she fired up the grill to feed some of the displaced people and wound up cooking all day.
She hasn’t left since, except occasionally to check on her Columbiana business, Mark’s Quick Stop filling station at highways 26 and 70.
The same is true for Geri Knotts, Joyce Cain and several others, who spend their days manning a cabin converted into a &uot;store&uot; for hurricane evacuees, where those in need can find anything from paper plates and charcoal to canned food and toiletries, all for free.
&uot;If you don’t go to up there to the store, they come looking for you to be sure you’re OK,&uot; Gaspard said. &uot;It’s like these people are here for the sole purpose of making you comfortable and whole again.&uot;
Gable has led the volunteer effort, seeking donations from local businesses and organizing contributions from area churches.
The group decided early on not to accept any more clothes, but volunteer Richard Knotts didn’t have the heart to tell Huey Baldwin he couldn’t accept the offering of his late wife’s wardrobe, which Baldwin brought to the shelter last week.
&uot;Turned out, we had a lady walk up 15 minutes later who needed clothes and they were just her size,&uot; Knotts said. &uot;Mrs. Baldwin has done some good here even after she’s gone.&uot;
‘THIS IS MY NEW HOME’
Owen Giordano has no intentions of returning to Slidell, La., where his mother had to cling to a stop sign to keep from drowning during the storm surge.
He didn’t find out she was alive until a week later.
After hearing about the campers at Oak Mountain, he made his way to the state park with his girlfriend, who is now considering enrolling at a local high school.
Although he lost a lot in the storm, he found out recently he still has a job at Academy Sports and Outdoors, all he has to do is walk in and tell them he was employed at the Slidell store.
&uot;Everybody’s so nice down here,&uot; Giordano said. &uot;This is my new home.&uot;
Sable Gaspard also has no plans of going back to her home state after settling in with her husband, Runnel, in a trailer on Lot A17.
Because of his health concerns, they don’t feel comfortable returning to their house where they would likely face issues with mold.
The hospital that opened Runnel’s chest for a triple bypass was underwater before it was time to take the staples out.
The Gaspards bounced around Louisiana long enough to get Runnel checked out and back on his feet, before landing in Alabama.
The couple has reached a near celebrity status in this makeshift town that meets for meals at the ring of a dinner bell.
Pretty soon, the community will even have its own name.
A suggestion box labeled &uot;name our town&uot; is filling up at the store.
&uot;I’VE SEEN THE EYE OF A HURRICANE’
Even after all she went through with the storm, Valerie Landry plans to return to St. Bernard Parish, La., when she’s able.
According to her family, her community never got high water in at least a hundred years of storms, so she chose to ride out this one from her house, just down the street from the Mississippi River.
She’ll never forget watching her Halloween decorations float away from her attic and swirl while the winds of Katrina fought against the current of the Mighty Mississippi.
Landry stayed alive by tethering herself to a security door with a garden hose.
She secured herself to the side of her house where the current was blocked and kept her head barely above water for eight hours while the hurricane ripped through.
&uot;I kept looking at my watch and it seemed like 10 minutes would last forever,&uot; she said.
Rescued by boat while the last rains from the storm surge were still falling, Landry was one of the lucky survivors who made it to safety and was later reunited with her family.
Life in the state park is a far cry from the noise and chaos of the storm and the days that followed.
Things are quiet here. Landry falls to sleep each night to the chirping of crickets and the gentle hums camper air conditioners.
But the ‘ride of her life’ is never far from her mind.
&uot;Now I can tell you exactly what the eye of a hurricane looks like,&uot; she said