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This is home

Post Independent/Kelley Cox

Editor’s note: Post Independent staff members Kelley Cox and Dennis Webb visited Austin, Texas, this week in connection with a local effort to find Hurricane Katrina victims who might be willing to relocate to Garfield County with the community’s assistance.

AUSTIN, Texas ” Myrtle Jones is a pampered person these days.

As caretakers ushered the Hurricane Katrina survivor around Tuesday in a wheelchair at the Austin Convention Center, seeing to all her needs, it was hard to imagine her overcoming the deprivations and challenges she had endured to get there.

Barely able to walk, she navigated the streets of New Orleans by foot.

Unable to swim, she waded through chest-deep waters.

Sometimes unable to eat and get medication for her diabetes, she battled through dizziness as she pressed on.

Not ready to die, she showed the fortitude and resourcefulness needed to live.

“You all right?” a pastor stopped by to ask her in the convention center hall as she told her story in vivid detail, sometimes pausing to compose herself.

“God bless you, you know we love you,” he said before moving on.

“I am blessed to be alive,” Jones said as she thought back over her experiences since Katrina struck.

She’s also ready to make Austin home, having no plans to try to return to live in New Orleans.

“There is no New Orleans now,” Jones said matter-of-factly, if somewhat wistfully.

If the city is gone, its spirit lives on in the indomitable nature of former residents such as Jones.

“You know what it is not to have clothes, not to have water and food?” she asked, before pausing as her eyes moistened.

“These are tears of joy, not sadness,” she then said forcefully, and with a smile. “Tears of joy.”

And why not cry for joy, after what she’s survived? Why not cry out of relief, after having seen the bodies of the dead, and knowing what might have been?

Before Katrina hit, Jones said, a friend invited her to stay with her in a home not prone to flooding. If they needed to evacuate, they figured they could go to Baton Rouge.

The water managed to reach her friend’s house, so they spent a night in an attic, and were rescued from the home by a boat. Then Jones had to walk, and at one point managed to flip her 350-pound body over a concrete barrier and onto Interstate 10 before finding a ride in one of a caravan of trucks to the city’s convention center. But it had no water, food or electricity, and Jones decided to move on, walking two or three blocks at a time before pausing for breaks.

She had joined an exodus of despair.

“Everybody was confused, not knowing what to do, where to go,” she said.

As she walked through the French Quarter, she thought of the historical value of what was lost to flooding in New Orleans, and she said she came to realize “the city would be positively unlivable.”

Jones’ Achilles tendon became inflamed. Then she reached floodwaters. As she worried about drowning, two men came by in a Ryder rental truck and offered her a lift. How she got in the truck, she can’t remember. But she remembers that all she was wearing ” the only clothes she owned ” were a dress, undergarments and some tennis shoes she had found. It also hit her that she had no identification.

The truck made it to the house of the mother of one of the men, and Jones was invited to stay. Somehow she summoned the strength to make it up the home’s steps, and she slept on a floor with a sheet for bedding.

When they drove on, police pulled them over, guns drawn. Suspicious that the men had stolen the truck, they ordered them to leave the county, Jones said. Meanwhile, Jones made her way to a school gym in Westwego. It lacked food, water and electricity, but eventually some sandwiches were brought in. A licensed practical nurse, Jones helped coordinate teams of refugees to clean bathrooms, and they broke a lock so they could access a sink area and use it for washing themselves. They also organized a prayer group.

“I know faith in God really did it,” Jones said of how it came about that buses arrived at the school to pick up the refugees.

Jones was flown to Austin.

“I immediately made up my mind on the airplane, ‘Look, Lord, I’m going to stay ” wherever you send me I’m going to stay.'”

“I’m an Austinite,” she now proclaims to listeners, and raises her index and little fingers as she says with a smile, “Go Longhorns.”

Jones is enjoying a Texas-sized welcome in Austin. She now has more clothes than she knows what to do with. Relief workers found an oversized wheelchair for her so she can get off her feet, and ushered her around to various stations in the convention center so she could obtain new identification, start looking into housing options, and otherwise begin the process of starting a new life.

“I don’t have the want for anything,” she said. “They’re doing everything for me.”

“It’s a new beginning for me. It’s like standing on another planet,” she said.

Jones said an Austin couple insisted that she come home with them rather than sleep in the center, and on Sunday she enjoyed a hot shower and slept in a bed. The swelling in her feet and legs went down 50 percent, she said.

Jones’ closest family is a son, 39, who was living in a group home and was safely evacuated from New Orleans. In Austin she’s on her own but hardly alone. She’s adjusting to being catered to ” after having always been the one doing the giving and looking out for others in New Orleans. Someday she plans to give back however she can, through her time, her money, her work.

“To be the one that has to receive, and knowing that I have to have these things, and they give it to me ” they have accepted us,” Jones said of Austin’s relief workers.

“… The Jesus in me sees the Jesus in these people.”

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

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