Flood of emotions

Hurricane Katrina refugee happy to land at WOU


Lisa Guzman looks at a photo of her former home in Louisiana. A victime of Hurricane Katrina and its floods, she and her husband are starting a new life in Oregon.

SALEM -- Everything was going according to plan that last week of August, Lisa Guzman said.

The 26-year-old had just started her post-graduate work at the University of New Orleans, earning credits toward a medical degree.

Her husband, Eric, was an electrician's apprentice with the local union. And the young couple had just sold their house -- and were a couple of days from closing on a new one.

But Guzman said her life, like hundreds of thousands of others in Louisiana, changed dramatically the moment Hurricane Katrina blew into the state.

"We always knew something like that could happen, but I never thought it would occur during my time," Guzman said. "It's hard. Every facet of your existence has gone and changed."

The Guzmans fled their home in St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans Aug. 28, just hours before the community was submerged. They relocated earlier this month to Guzman's parent's home in South Salem for a new beginning in the Northwest.

And her grandfather, James Martinez, a survivor of the flooding at St. Rita's Nursing Home that killed 34 residents, has also joined them in the Willamette Valley.

Guzman said they're off to a good start. A last-minute call to admissions at Western Oregon University allowed her to begin classes this week in Monmouth. Eric has already been put to work with IBEW Local 180.

But that hasn't stopped Lisa from monitoring on a daily basis the news detailing the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and now Hurricane Rita, seeking word from family members, many of whom lived in the shadow of the Big Easy.

Seated in her parents' dining room, she pauses over a photograph of her childhood home in St. Bernard Parish.

The one-story unit stood on a raised foundation to protect against flood damage.

It and 200 others like it no longer exist, Guzman said.

"The house had been there for 100 years," she said. "Now the cinder blocks, even the foundation ... gone.

"It's hard to comprehend."


Lisa and Eric Guzman had been glued to the TV set for two days before Katrina blew into the southeastern portion of Louisiana. They were debating whether to evacuate their community or stay.

"When you leave before a storm, you have to have a lot of money or place to stay," Guzman said. "We had no money."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's grim warning to citizens about water breaching the city's levee protection system and a frantic early-morning call from Martinez convinced them to flee.

"Grandpa called at 5:30 and told me to come and see him," Guzman said. "He gave us $1,000 and told us to get the hell out of New Orleans.

"If it wasn't for him, who knows what would have happened," she said.

The couple piled in their car, a week's worth of clothing their only belongings. A mass exodus of drivers on the interstate highways leading north and west out of Louisiana forced the couple to drive east to Florida "for two nights in a roach motel."

For nine days, they wound through storm-damaged sections of Alabama back toward Louisiana, in an attempt to contact family members. When no hotels were available, they slept in their car.

They'd dial Lisa Guzman's parents in Oregon for updates on other family members, specifically her grandparents at St. Rita's.

On Aug. 29, water had broke through the levee and flooded the facility in Chalmette, outside New Orleans.

"I had been wearing a life jacket that morning," James Martinez, 83, said. "I had put it on right after breakfast."

The owners of the nursing home had not evacuated staff and patients, fearing the safety of some of the more fragile individuals, like James's wife, Peggy. She's bedridden with Alzheimer's disease.

Once the levees gave way, the water had risen "8 or 9 feet in no time," Martinez said. In 40 minutes, the water had nearly reached the ceilings inside the building.

Martinez strapped a life jacket onto his wife. The two of them were among the last to be whisked to safety by community members in boats.

"They got 36 of us out," Martinez said, adding softly: "There were 34 that didn't make it."

Martinez ended up living on a trawl boat for several days. Because of her condition, Peggy was taken to a shelter and was separated from family.

"She was lost from us for nine days," Lisa Guzman said. They found her eventually -- in San Antonio. Because Peggy was unable to speak, volunteers there were able to identify her by her wedding band and an e-mailed photograph. She's still in Texas, but safe.

Lisa Guzman said they left the New Orleans area in a sort of caravan. One of her relatives had arranged a school bus to pick up Martinez family members. Dozens rendezvoused at a spot on an interstate north of Lake Ponchertrain and drove to Baton Rouge, then Houston.

"It looked like a family reunion," Guzman said.

Lisa and Eric drove for two straight days to Oregon. They were lucky, Marc Martinez, Lisa's father, said.

"There's a lot of families out there that don't have anywhere to go," he said. "They're still living in motels."

Guzman said once she arrived in Oregon she contacted Western Oregon about enrollment. Not only was she in time for the first week of school, she'd be paying in-state as opposed to out-of-state tuition.

"They (WOU officials) have been awesome from the beginning," Lisa Guzman said.

She said they've been very fortunate in settling in Oregon, particularly because they had sold their home before the flooding.

Last week, she said she's heard rumors that in three months they might let people back into the parish to salvage their belongings.

She doesn't worry about that. Everything -- her diploma, her books, Eric's footballs -- are gone. She still finding a few "interesting things" in her car, like transcripts and report cards.

She has been busy every day this month, trying to get her bank account straightened out and searching for a place for her grandmother to live.

As for her grandfather, he'll remain in Oregon, too. The community he remembers doesn't exist anymore. He'll never go back.

Neither will Lisa.

"I have to move on and start a new life ... I can't wait for it to be rebuilt," she said.

"Some people may try to go back and salvage what they had," she said. But "I'm an Oregonian now."


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