CAR GUYS KEEP LA. RESCUER ROLLING

That Jeep escaped hell and high water. That Jeep survived when other cars died on the highway.

That Jeep transported 14 desperate men, women and children out of the watery grip of Hurricane Katrina and for two days, they squeezed and shifted and lay atop each other inside it, for hundreds of miles, until they finally reached the safe ground of a strange city called Detroit, a place most of them had never seen.

That Jeep got them here.

And then it got stolen.

“It’s gone,” Earl Walker told me Tuesday afternoon. “Somebody took it.”

I had asked him to come to the WJR-AM (760) radio studios to do an interview that might raise funds for another trip he planned to make to the ravaged areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. Folks there had been calling him asking if they, too, could come north and start over in Detroit. His plan was to leave Friday.

Now the Jeep was gone. Walker had parked it a few blocks from the Fisher Building in the New Center area of Detroit.

When he went to retrieve it, there was nothing left but shards of busted glass.

Stolen? It seemed too harsh an ending to a story that was already too harsh. Heck, the car wasn’t even his! It belonged to the mother of Sabrina Washington, who, with her three children, was part of a caravan that Walker brought north from the New Orleans apartment complex which he managed.

Earl had urged the residents – whom he calls friends – to get out, to follow him to Detroit, his former hometown, because, as he would later put it, “this ain’t just another hurricane.”

Several families heeded his advice. They left hours before the storm hit.

And as their cars broke down, one by one, they piled into the one and only vehicle that kept puttering along, the gray Jeep Grand Cherokee.

It wasn’t much of a vehicle at this point. It was nearly 10 years old. But it lasted. It made the trip. It got here.

And some crook couldn’t keep his hands off it.

Plenty of Good Samaritans

Still, sometimes the best and the worst of a city can intersect.

I felt terrible about the theft for all the obvious reasons, as both a citizen of this city and someone who has gotten to know this stalwart group of evacuees, who are living now in adjacent rooms in the Best Western Sterling Inn in Sterling Heights, thanks to the kindness of its co-owner Victor Martin.

So I made a few phone calls to car dealerships.

This is, after all, the Motor City.

And wouldn’t you know it? By the end of the day, the good people of Southfield Chrysler Jeep, Chief Executive Officer and president Dan Frost and vice president Paul Steel, had pledged a 2002 Chrysler Concorde.

And the generous owner of Page Toyota in Southfield, Bob Page, had promised an equal-quality used vehicle and some insurance as well.

Thanks to these people, Earl Walker will be able to bring more survivors to a new life, and Sabrina Washington and the others will have means to find and get to new jobs.

Those car dealerships didn’t have to do that.

They did it, anyhow.

But wait. There’s more. On Wednesday afternoon, the police called.

They’d found the Jeep, abandoned, near Cameron and Mt. Vernon streets.

It was badly damaged; the right front tire was obliterated, the right front panel was bashed in, the dashboard had been stripped, the steering column broken, a window had been smashed and all the door handles had been removed.

But showing the same resilience that carried it from Louisiana to Michigan, on back roads you couldn’t find again if you tried 100 times, that Jeep survived its captors and soon will be back in the hands of its owner.

The towing company, Boulevard and Trumbull Towing in Detroit, promised to do the repairs. For free.

It didn’t have to do that.

It did it, anyhow.

A flood of biblical proportions

“You know, when we were leaving New Orleans, I tried to talk so many people into coming with us,” said Walker, 40, who already has been back once to bring up more survivors. “And this one old man, he didn’t want to leave his place. He was religious. So I reminded him about the story of Noah. I told him, ‘Remember how everybody thought Noah was crazy? And he tried to warn people? But when the water came, it was too late?

” ‘Well, I’m your Noah.’ “

On such moments can a life change.

And on such moments, lives are changing all across the country. People are opening their hearts and wallets to the thousands of people this natural disaster displaced.

Whatever stumbling our government agencies suffered is being countered by the proud and straight posture of average citizens like those in Michigan, who drive by these shelters or hotels and hand over envelopes of money, or unload crates of clothing, or anonymously drop gift cards in baskets, or look through their fleet of cars and say, “Here, you have a need, we have a resource, let us help.”

And so, if the fates be kind, in a few days, Walker will head back south to play Noah’s Ark again, and Washington will have a way to get to that hospital job that she interviewed for Wednesday.

And the never-say-die Jeep, that old gray mare, who ain’t what she used to be, will be back among the living. Resilience is something else, isn’t it? Be it engine or human heart.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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