They lost everything they owned, but in the end each of them truly learned…what makes a place a home.
There was no calm before this storm. Earl Walker raced through the apartment complex he managed. He banged on doors. “We’ve got to go!” he told one woman. “They’ve got body bags ordered.” He told an older man, “You remember Noah in the Bible? Well, pretend I’m Noah!”
He needed money for gas, so he ran to the laundry room and emptied the quarters from his washers and dryers.
And on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28— just hours before Hurricane Katrina would smash the Louisiana coast, Earl started his Ford truck and led a small caravan out of New Orleans. They headed north to Detroit, where his sister lived. “It was the only place I knew where we could sleep for free,” he would later say.
This is a story about losing one home and finding another. Earl’s caravan that day included five vehicles carrying 27 people, many of whom had never been out of Louisiana. They fought through heavy, frantic traffic as Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast behind them. In Jackson, Miss., Earl realized he couldn’t afford gas for all the cars, so he left his truck and got in with someone else. In Tennessee, two of the families decided to stay put, reducing the group to two vehicles. Then, somewhere in Ohio, the Buick Regal carrying the family of Sterling and Lakeisha Adams broke down on the highway, black smoke billowing from its hood. Sterling pushed it off the exit ramp and abandoned it in a parking lot.
That left one vehicle: a gray Jeep Cherokee that already was full with Earl, a woman named Sabrina Washington and her three children. No matter. Sterling, Lakeisha, her father, and four more children crawled inside. On they went.
They were 12 people crammed inside that Jeep. They used every lap. They tried to sleep. They invented games to keep the kids occupied. None of them had brought more than a change of clothing.
“We figured we’d be back in a day or two,” Sterling recalls.
When they finally reached Detroit, it was 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning. They unloaded in the dark at Earl’s sister’s apartment building. The kids fell asleep on the floor. But the adults turned on the TV and were shocked. Devastation flooded their city. Familiar streets, bridges and buildings—all destroyed.
“That,” Sabrina says, “is when I knew we weren’t going home.”
Can you imagine losing everything you know and everything you possess, just like that, feeling as if the doors had been locked behind you?<br> Victor Martin tried to imagine it. For years, he had co-owned a hotel in the Detroit suburbs—the Best Western Sterling Inn in Sterling Heights. Providing shelter was his business. But when he saw Katrina’s devastation, he felt compelled to do more. He called city officials and offered free rooms to any evacuees.
Next thing he knew, a gray Jeep Cherokee was pulling up to his parking lot. And a little girl, one of Sterling’s daughters, ran out and hugged his leg.
“There wasn’t much to think about after that,” Victor says.
The story got out. And in the bountiful days that followed, the former residents of Bayou country witnessed an outpouring of Great Lakes generosity so overwhelming that all the barriers of geography were crumbled.
And slowly, inside all of them, the seeds of a new home were planted.
In that first weekend alone, enough clothes were donated at the Sterling Inn to fill two ballrooms and a large storage area. A wooden gift box in the hotel lobby was stuffed nightly with money, gift certificates and gas cards. Trips to football games, baseball games and church outings were organized regularly. The hotel staff became as familiar as relatives.
“People ask if I expected that kind of kindness from people in Michigan,” Sterling Adams says. “I didn’t expect that kind of kindness from people, period.
”He had worked as a cook in New Orleans, and before long he was being offered cooking jobs in Michigan, including one with a local school district, which he accepted. Sabrina Washington, who’d known nothing about Detroit besides the movie 8 Mile, was offered a job with a local eyeglass company. Earl Walker, who had left his truck in Mississippi, was able to get a replacement car through the generosity of local dealerships.
The children were enrolled in schools. They joined the sports teams. They even learned the local slang. “What we call soda they call ‘pop,’” Sabrina says, laughing. “We still can’t get used to that.”
One Saturday in October, a giant picnic was organized, with live music, tables of food and a virtual amusement park of giant inflatable activities. Dozens of Katrina evacuees mingled with dozens of local citizens. Their kids played together. It was chilly, the start of autumn, and with everyone wearing sweatshirts or jackets, it was hard to tell the new residents from the old.
That was the idea.
What makes a place a home? Is it recognizing the streets? Is it a familiar kitchen for your Thanksgiving meal? Or is it having something to be thankful for—knowing that you and your family are safe and whole and welcome?
“When people ask me what Michigan is like,” says Sterling Adams, “I tell them, ‘Love, love, love.’
”In the months since Katrina struck, the members of that caravan have all, at one time or another, been back to visit their old apartment complex outside New Orleans. Sabrina Washington was so distraught by the destroyed roof, loose bricks and mildewed walls, she quickly left. Sterling’s place was even worse. “There was a tree across it. The smell was horrific. And everything of value was gone—from the TVs to my wife’s purse.
”In the end, it was the end. Whether they had wanted it or not, that part of their lives was over. They came back north—to their new community and their new lives.
Today, Sabrina rents a beautiful townhouse apartment in Sterling Heights, where her children toss a football on the front lawn. Sterling Adams—whose family has been tending to his sick mother-in-law in Atlanta—hopes to buy a house when they get back to Michigan. Earl Walker, the Noah of their journey, has brought several other evacuees up to Detroit in the car he was given.
And Victor Martin, who was teary-eyed when they all said goodbye after six weeks in his hotel, plans to invite everyone back annually for a big Thanksgiving get-together.
“I look at them as members of our family now,” he says.
Hurricane Katrina was a summer event. With winter nearly upon us, it is easy to forget that many people are still suffering from its effects. They need jobs, shelter, a helping hand. It makes such a difference.
Just ask the carload of evacuees who arrived in Detroit that dark, lonely morning. It was hurricane winds that knocked them over but human kindness that lifted them up—to new hope in a new city. “Love, love, love,” as Sterling Adams says. The storm that blew them away also blew them home.