10 Years Later: The Stories of Evacuees

The following profiles originally appeared in the Winter 2005 edition of the TRLA Times.

Shirley Melton* didn’t know what to do. Her mother, who had been receiving rehabilitation in a New Orleans nursing home after having survived several strokes and an aneurysm, could not be located.

Melton asked Laredo-based attorney Kelly Fitzgerald for help. Utilizing one of the many Katrina People finder websites, Fitzgerald within a few seconds stumbled upon a possible lead. Fighting tears, she gave Melton the information with the promise that Melton would call her back if she was able to find her mother. Sure enough, the following day, Melton called back and said she had confirmed that her mother was evacuated from the New Orleans nursing home to a location in northern Louisiana.

“It’s not often that we can be eye-witnesses to the impact our actions can have on our clients’ lives,” Fitzgerald said. “I could hear the relief in her voice when I gave her the information and was overwhelmed at the huge impact that a small action on my part, a simple web search, had on her family’s life.”

Few know that Heather Godwin, a recently hired TRLA attorney helping hurricane
evacuees in Austin, is actually a hurricane evacuee herself.

Just hours before Katrina made landfall, Godwin made the 15-hour journey to Austin. Taking only a weekend’s worth of clothing and five or six picture keepsakes, Godwin didn’t think she’d stay in Austin more than three days.

Four days later, Godwin learned that her apartment had been flooded with seven feet
of water. Godwin calls her reaction pure “shock.”

“I couldn’t believe it really happened,” Godwin said. “Just knowing that New Orleans as
I knew it, the New Orleans as everyone knew it, was no more.”

Now, several months later, Godwin is playing a critical role for hurricane evacuees in
Austin. She helps evacuees with questions about FEMA benefits, social security claims, housing, and temporary child custody arrangements.

Having applied for benefits herself through FEMA, Godwin is able to draw from the lessons of her own personal experience as well as her knowledge of Louisiana law to help evacuees secure their benefits as hurricane survivors through the complex legal system.

“I have an affinity for these people,” Godwin said. “I feel grateful for the role that I have for society and it makes me feel good to help people.”

Wilma Taylor*, her three sons, and aunt were rescued from atop of her New Orleans home. Taylor and her two youngest children were relocated with thousands of others to Kelly Air Force base in San Antonio – her oldest child and aunt were moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

During her stay at the shelter, the state’s Child Protective Services removed Taylor’s children from her possession, alleging that she had “abandoned” her children in the shelter run daycare for more than two hours, the time limitation which shelter officials had set. Humiliated, Taylor had her purse and personal belongings confiscated.

Jed Maebius, a volunteer private attorney working with TRLA staff on-site at the
shelter, confirmed that the daycare center was still posting a sign that indicated that
daycare services were provided for up to four hours. He also verified that Taylor
had signed her children in and out within the four-hour period.

With the assistance of Maebius, TRLA attorney Peggy Butler, private attorney
David Henderson, and TRLA Disaster Relief paralegals Patty Villarreal and Shelby
Berchelmann, the case was dismissed. Taylor was reunited with her children and relocated to Georgia to be with the rest of her family.

Tomorrow on 10 Years Later: TRLA fights for justice on behalf of Katrina evacuees when a lawsuit is filed against FEMA to restore housing benefits and get answers.


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