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Father Recounts Family’s Flight

Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Cain took the weekend hurricane warnings seriously. The New Orleans construction worker was a preschool-age boy when a monster storm named Betsy blew into town nearly four decades ahead of Katrina. He had nearly died then.

“I remember my dad pulling me out of the water, my brother almost drowning,” Cain, 42, recalled of that long-ago scare and the tragedy that scarred his family. “I lost my great-grandmother and my baby sister,” he said.

“All my life my family talked about it.”

So, with warnings about Hurricane Katrina echoing to the depths of Cain’s memory, he needed no special prodding Sunday. He and his family were among the tens of thousands in the early wave of evacuations from southeast Louisiana.

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Grabbing what food and supplies they could load into five cars, Cain and his relatives headed east in desperate flight -- to nowhere in particular, but away from the advancing storm.

Wearing the same blue slippers, jean shorts and black T-shirt he had on when he fled, Cain spoke about the experience by phone from a Red Cross shelter in Birmingham, Ala.

“We had several discussions before the storm hit,” he said. “We tried to reach out to all family members to have an understanding about traveling in the same direction. We talked about it, got things together, got some food together, clothes, our most important documents. We left. I’m lost on days. We left -- what is today? -- we left Sunday at about 2 p.m. We were in about five vehicles, about 22 or 23 of us. We range from 3 months old, my nephew, to 78 years old, that’s my grandmother....

“The devastation hasn’t really set in. We’ve lost everything, and I mean everything. We’ve lost contact with some family members. All our houses are under 18 and 25 feet of water....

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“My wife and I carried all the blankets and food supplies and one kid in my van. The rest of the kids were distributed through the rest of the vehicles. Altogether, we have 13 kids and 10 adults, five senior citizens. It took us 15 hours. We rode through every obstacle. We had some gas stations not give us gas. It was dark. We had rain. We didn’t have any plan; we just wanted to get to higher ground. With the levees gone, we had water 13 feet high, and news commentators were talking about water surges 25 feet higher....

“We were worried we weren’t going to make it. We were just running for our lives, trying to get out of there. The eye of the storm was approaching and the mayor said that after 2 p.m., you won’t be able to leave....

“This is our first day [at the shelter]; it’s one of the only signs of relief. Our first night we slept in a parking lot of a Best Inn. A woman at a Waffle House told us where to go. Whenever we do get out of here, I want to send her a thank-you note, because she” -- Cain began to cry -- “that lady brought us here. And I can see in my kids’ faces, my grandmother, my mother, their relief to be out of harm’s way....

“With the last few storms getting so close and then turning away, a lot of people expected the same thing this time. I’m so glad we didn’t take the chance. Had we stayed, I don’t know what would have happened to us. There are a lot of poor people down there [who] didn’t have enough money to leave....

“I do think they should have called for a mandatory evacuation earlier. I know I have lost friends. A friend said there are bodies floating in the water. There are children’s bodies. People trapped in attics who they haven’t even gotten to yet. I’m not angry at New Orleans officials. I don’t think they would intentionally put us in harm’s way. But when the mayor and other officials moved their families, then it should have been mandatory for everyone’s family....

“We’re in a big gymnasium now. The people here have been extremely helpful. We haven’t spoke to FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. Red Cross helped with sandwiches and water, clean bathroom facilities. It’s like an open dormitory, roughly 75 cots all over the floor. We have a group together for our family; there’s another family, a few lone people. The kids are making the best of what they have....

“It will be from six to eight weeks until we can get back into the city. We’re trying to draw strength from each other....

“This is God’s will. There’s nothing we could do about it. I’m hurting and confused, but I can look over at the table and see my mother and grandmother there. The best thing is, we made it out together. We might not have no money, we might not have no place to live, but we’re together and we’ll take it from there.”

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