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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Denver Rocky Mountain News



Cash Smith tossed his two young children into plastic trash cans and floated them to safety in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Latrieva Elzy waded through filthy water, terrified of infection after undergoing a life-saving abortion two weeks earlier on her doctor's advice.

Jacques Garnett wept during the bus ride out of town, realizing when he saw bodies on rooftops and corpses floating by that the New Orleans he loved existed no more.

They all ended up in the Astrodome in Houston, where on Saturday their lives took a Mile High turn.

"I said, 'Lord, please, I'm going to go crazy. I can't take it,' " Elzy recalled. "And just then this gentleman came up to me and said, 'How do you feel about Denver?' "

In all, 18 hurricane survivors, including two children, would say "yes" to an unusual pitch: Move to Colorado, stay in free temporary housing and make a fresh start.

On Sunday, outside the Red Cross headquarters in Denver, they gave thanks to their adopted state.

"I would have went to Timbuktu, but I always wanted to come to Denver, so it was music to my ears," said Garnett, a Bourbon Street waiter who turns 39 on Tuesday. "I'm excited about being in Denver."

Likewise for the 24-year-old Smith, a printer who was accompanied by his 7-year-old daughter and 4-year- old son.

"I've been here one day and I love it already," he said. "Oh, man, we've been treated like kings and queens, prince and princess."

Had to do something

John Butler watched the devastation on TV and felt he had to do something.

Butler, a stay-at-home dad who is married to Molly Hughes, anchorwoman on CBS 4, contacted his friend, Andrew Hudson, a bigwig with Frontier Airlines. Hudson in turn called Chad Ledov, who once worked for the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

The three flew to Houston Friday night.

Hudson admitted that on the way he briefly thought of his box seats at Saturday's game in Boulder between the University of Colorado and Colorado State University.

"I was thinking, 'Are we going to be able to pull this (mission of help) off?' " he said.

With Ledov's assistance, they were able to tour the Astrodome on Saturday and make an announcement to survivors about relocating to Denver. Two hotels already had agreed to donate rooms for up to two months.

Some evacuees declined, believing they were just days from returning home.

For Lionell and Betty Daggs, it was the third invitation they'd received since arriving at the Astrodome. They also had offers to go to Galveston, Texas, and elsewhere in Houston.

Lionell, 57, a retired postal worker, and Betty, 60, who was to retire from her utility job in December, had been trapped in their attic before being rescued.

They knew no one in Denver but, as Lionell put it, "that guy gave the best pitch."

Butler laughed at the compliment. "I used to be in sales," he said.

But then he became serious.

"We're just three guys who wanted to make a difference."

At first, joy

New Orleans residents awoke the morning after the hurricane hit and rejoiced. For the most part, they had been spared.

Then the water started rising.

Cash Smith and his wife, Latoya Matthews, put their children, Betty, 7, who is deaf and has other special needs, and Tahj, 4, in plastic trash cans and pushed them through the water to the Superdome. There, they slept on the concrete floor until it was time to leave for Houston.

In the crush of the thousands of people trying to board buses, Smith said he and the children somehow became separated from Latoya.

It wasn't until Sunday, when Smith and the children were already in Denver, that they located Latoya in Dallas with Smith's brother Sam, Latoya's brother Christopher and a friend. All four are flying to Denver today.

As for Latrieva and Reginald Elzy, they initially found shelter at a school, but there was no water there. The 25-year-old Latrieva said she worried about infection because of her surgery. "It was just so nasty," she said of the conditions.

Jacques Garnett, the waiter, said he remembers last year's Hurricane Ivan, when New Orleans residents braced for a direct hit but didn't even get rain.

"For 40 years, we've always been told, evacuate, evacuate," he said. "I think it got to be like the big bad wolf. I knew it was going to be a monster. We've been lucky too long and our number came up."

He and 11 other family members were stranded in a second-floor apartment for four days. They waved white flags during the day and flashed lights at night, wondering why no one was coming to get them.

They had no idea that thousands of others also were trapped, many in far greater danger.

After being rescued by the Coast Guard and sleeping two nights on Interstate 10, Garnett and others boarded a bus for the Astrodome.

"That was probably the saddest point in the whole adventure because we got to actually see the rest of the city," he said.

"At least half the bus wept tears because we knew at that point we had no more city. New Orleans would never be New Orleans. A new New Orleans would never be the same."

He left for Denver, not knowing whether his mother was alive, and not being able to persuade anyone from his large family - he has 44 first cousins - to come with him.

But for now, that's OK.

"To me," Garnett said, "the future is unlimited."


Path to Colorado

Evacuees journey from New Orleans to Houston to Denver

* Numbers: 18 evacuees from New Orleans

* Transport: Flew courtesy of Frontier Airlines out of Houston into Denver International Airport Saturday night

* Processing: Transported by a shuttle provided by the Doubletree Hotel to the Doubletree on Quebec Street and the Marriott TownePlace Suites on Monaco Parkway, which are providing lodging and food for the evacuees for two months

* The next day: Taken to the Red Cross for medical and mental health screening. One evacuee had been stabbed in New Orleans.

* What's next: Two more evacuees, one of whom is pregnant, arrive today via Frontier's 6:20 a.m. flight. Both will go to the Marriott.

* To help: Contact Volunteers of America at 303-297-0408 and ask how to donate to the Rocky Mountain Refugee Fund.

Copyright © 2005, Denver Publishing Co.