Katrina evacuees adopt Columbia after its ‘tsunami of goodness’

Herbert Collins was evacuated to Columbia from New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. He lives with his brother, Joseph, in Arrington Manor. Their mother, Isabell Collins, passed away about a year after arriving in Columbia.
Herbert Collins was evacuated to Columbia from New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. He lives with his brother, Joseph, in Arrington Manor. Their mother, Isabell Collins, passed away about a year after arriving in Columbia. tglantz@thestate.com

“Silky” Robertson still remembers the angels that a decade ago embraced him and some 2,000 other Hurricane Katrina evacuees after their flights from devastation landed them in Columbia.

Robertson and a half dozen other evacuees said this week that a thousand miles from home, they discovered a capital city that turned their fears and desperation into solace and gratitude.

“They were awesome, man. They were angels,” said Eldridge “Silky” Robertson, who is among those who never went back to the Gulf Coast. Now 61, he lives in an apartment off Two Notch Road. “I’m still here after 10 years.”

Even some evacuees who left Columbia maintain strong ties here.

Larry and Ossie Davis, who met in Columbia during the storm’s aftermath, came back from bayou country so they could honeymoon in room 208 at Motel 6 on Two Notch Road. It’s the same room where she once took care of the deeply depressed riverboat welder.

The Category 3 storm and its gales that reached 140 mph made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina pummeled much of the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans. Within days, the Crescent City’s levees began to fail and much of New Orleans was underwater.

Katrina still stands as the third most deadly hurricane to strike the U.S. Some 1,500 people died because of the storm and the flooding that followed.

New Orleans residents were ordered to leave. But many didn’t. As the flooding continued, many residents were whisked away on buses and planes to other states.

Columbia businessman Sam Tenenbaum helped assemble and coordinate much of the city’s assistance to evacuees. They began arriving at the airport the morning after Labor Day 2005.

“It was like a tsunami of goodness,” Tenenbaum recalls of some 1,000 to 2,000 volunteers who answered the call for help. “It was people practicing their faiths, of helping their neighbors. They gave their time. They gave their souls to these people.”

Most of the 2,063 who arrived returned to their homes, mostly in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana. It’s unclear how many are still here. No one kept records.

Only a minority of them failed to appreciate the compassion they received and the second chances they got here. A few ended up behind bars in South Carolina and Mississippi, said Jean Suber-Smith, who came out of retirement at BlueCross BlueShield South Carolina to coordinate the insurance company’s volunteer effort for about 125 evacuees.

But some evacuees were “just loony tunes,” said Ossie (pronounced OH-see) Davis, now 52 and living with 60-year-old Larry a half block from the Mississippi River in Reserve, La. “I think they were beyond helping,” she said.

Overall, evacuees feel as she and her husband do. “They were truly living angels for Larry and myself,” Ossie Davis said. “We could have never managed without them.”

Suber-Smith and her husband, Ray Smith, keep in touch with many of the transplants and continue to help some.

“I love the Mother’s Day, birthday and holiday phone calls from these friends, and I am ever so glad to have them in my life,” she wrote in a recent internal BlueCross publication.

The Davises call the Smiths “our white mom and dad.”

Evacuee kept promise to his mother

Painful memories of Herbert Collins and his blind, then 87-year-old mother, Isabell, being rescued by a helicopter from their flooded home in the housing complexes of New Orleans’ Ward 3 faded into a simple but comfortable life in Columbia.

Collins, who turned 69 this week, has settled into an apartment in Arrington Manor near Five Points, where he serves as parliamentarian at tenant meetings and runs errands for those who have trouble getting around.

His mother died in Columbia in 2006, but his youngest brother, Joseph, has moved in with Collins.

Herbert Collins’ life revolves around Christ Faith Fellowship Church in Northeast Columbia, which welcomed him from the moment he arrived here. He loves the church and its pastor so much that he made the church the beneficiary of $9,000 life insurance policy.

He, along with others on the flights to Columbia, did not learn where they were headed in 2005 until the planes left Louis Armstrong airport. Collins recalls his sightless mother screaming, “Where are we going? Where are we going?”

“That’s the first time I’d lived outside of New Orleans or traveled anywhere,” said Collins, who was 58 at the time. Carrying little more than the clothes they wore, he, his mother, another brother and a cousin were happy to be anywhere but trapped in the home Collins said was in “the projects” of the Big Easy.

They had been stuck for a week by floods that had cut electricity and most everything else needed for everyday life. They were fed by military rations dropped from aircraft, he said.

“All I wanted was to get my mama to safety,” Collins recalls. “I was always a mama’s boy. I was the one who took care of her.”

Isabell Collins made Herbert promise never to return to New Orleans, which was overrun with violence as local government broke down. Rebuilding was years into the future. Herbert Collins visited the city a year or so later and said he saw little sign of improvement in his Ward 3 neighborhood.

“I made a promise I wouldn’t, and I stuck to the promise,” he said.

Collins said he enjoys his simple life in Columbia. He enjoys walking around town, including running errands for himself, his brother and others at Arrington Manor.

“The longer I stay, the more I feel like I’m at home,” he said. “I'm going to enjoy my life until I’m 120.”

Cooking her way into friendships

Bernice Green was raising a 7-year-old daughter in a rented house in New Orleans and was used to fending for herself and her family. She worked for the city doing street cleaning and had become a supervisor.

“My life was basic,” she recalled.

Then Katrina struck. She and daughter Bernita Benjamin, now 17, huddled in their bed. “We were going to ride it out,” the mother said. “It mostly was a lot of howling ... like ghosts were howling,” she said of the gales.

Once she went outside, she saw her West Bank neighborhood was “totally demolished.” Then the levees broke. But the flood waters diverted toward the 9th Ward, which suffered the hardest hit. Mosquitoes and looters soon followed. Television images captured bodies floating.

When soldiers showed up offering evacuation, the Greens grabbed what they could, especially vital records that would help if they needed public assistance and to enroll Bernita in school elsewhere. Green had to leave the photographs of her childhood that she’d hoped would help tell her life story to her daughter.

They boarded one of the last flights to a new life. “I don’t know what we’re going into,” she recalled thinking. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I’m going to do it. I had to humble myself and accept help.”

The Greens received such a warm reception in Columbia that she soon could see a future here. At the city airport, medical personnel checked evacuees and took those most in need to the hospital. They were able to get cleaned up and were fed.

“Oh, my goodness, it was like a feast,” she said. “It was different from any other kind of experience I ever had.”

Columbia churches and businesses saw to it that evacuees were fed throughout their stays. Lizard’s Thicket, the family-owned, down-home cooking chain, delivered thousands of meals every evening for months, said Jimmy Williams, the chain’s senior vice president. They were reimbursed $5 per meal by the federal government.

Volunteers placed the Greens in Parklane Apartments off Two Notch Road, where they still live. Green got a job at BlueCross, where her cooking developed a following.

New Orleans style greens, spicy baked chicken and jambalaya became favorites at company potluck meals, she said.

“That food does something to you,” Green, 54, said of her cooking. “It makes you feel loved.”

She decided to tone down the spices and switch to turkey for the sake of local tastes and her own desire to live longer for her youngest child. Bernita is a rising senior at Westwood High School.

Green is active with the Salvation Army and attends church at its Farrow Road location. She said she works with the homeless and helps with the organization’s summer camps for children.

She’s been a Salvation Army holiday bell ringer for years, although health issues may prevent that this Christmas.

Green, along with the other evacuees interviewed, repeatedly said they are deeply grateful for the reception they received from Columbians.

She views her caregiver efforts as paying forward the treatment evacuees have received here.

“When they heard we were from New Orleans, they would just hug us,” Green said. “People were willing to give us a hand up – not a handout.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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