THE POSTER FAMILY FOR NEW ORLEANS

You are a man in a storm. The storm is rising, blowing your way. Your neighbor, Earl, is saying, “Come on, man, we can go to Detroit. We’ll be safe there.”Detroit, you think? You live in New Orleans. You’re not going to Detroit. Besides, you’ve seen hurricanes before. Water comes up. Water goes down.

But your wife, this time, she’s worried. Earl is going crazy on Detroit. He says, “I’m gonna empty the washers and dryers” and next thing you know he has a big bag of quarters and guess what? That’s your gas money.

The storm is rising. You take almost nothing besides your wife and kids. You get into a vehicle and follow four other vehicles, people from your complex. Suddenly, you are a caravan, hurricane escapees. You’re following Earl, going to Detroit.

The winds blow. Your mother wouldn’t join you. Too set in her ways. The winds blow. Your dog. Had to leave it with a friend. The winds blow. You pray for them all. The water comes. It comes hard. You escape on Sunday, and by Monday the beast named Katrina kicks down your city, then drowns it, leaving most of it underwater. Your home is destroyed. Your memories wash into a big urban tub.

On the highway, heading north, you look over your shoulder.

A long and winding road

You are a man in a storm. Your car breaks down. Another car breaks down. Each time you leave them by the side of the road and squeeze into the remaining vehicles. Soon your caravan is down to one Jeep Cherokee, and all of you shoehorn in, like pennies in a roll. Five adults, nine kids. “No complaining,” you warn them. When you stop for gas, there are TV sets. You see your city washing away.

No one complains.

When you reach Detroit, two days later, you wind up at a hotel in Sterling Heights. A man named Victor Martin, who co-owns the Best Western Sterling Inn, opens his heart – he’s a father of four himself – he gives you all rooms and feeds you in the restaurant. People bring by clothes. People bring by gift certificates. Your story quickly spreads, and suddenly all these strangers with funny Northern accents are wanting to help. For the first time in your life, you are interviewed. Interviewed? You were a cook in New Orleans. Now you don’t even have that. No job. No home. No car. No furniture. You have nothing old, only new. You are a man in a storm.

A place on the school bus

Some nights you cry. Sometimes it’s from the kindness of strangers, sometimes, because, as you say, “What do I do now?” Your mother? Is she all right? There’s no phone service. You pray. You miss Louisiana. The smallest things. Coaching peewee football. The season was supposed to start this week.

You visit another hotel, full of escapees. You give them some of your gift certificates. A few days later, a yellow bus pulls up, and your children get on. They already started school two weeks ago. That was in another state and another time. Now they start again. The new kids breathlessly ask your 8-year-old son, “What was the floodwater like?” and he says, “High.”

You hope for a job. You hope for a house. You privately tell your wife, “We can’t count on people to keep giving us stuff.” You set your sights on this colder, Northern state. Like a pioneer in wet clothing, you try to stake out a new life.

Your name is Sterling Adams. You are a father, husband and one of hundreds of thousands of rebirth stories in the most devastating storm in the history of this nation. “They call me the poster boy for New Orleans,” you say, “but if I could change that, I surely would.” You surely would change everything.

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, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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