Safe and dry at last

Lifelong New Orleans resident Gregory Johnson saw his hometown turn

into what seemed like a war zone whose inhabitants did all they could

to just stay alive.

In the days following Hurricane Katrina slamming into the city,

the 23-year-old truck driver experienced a sense of disbelief as he

saw his neighbors left behind as other residents were able to get


"At nighttime, the only lights we had were the gunshots," Johnson

said. "You couldn't take a wrong turn or you might end up in some

water that you can't get out of."

Johnson was among 90 of the hurricane's refugees brought to Los

Angeles via private corporate jets landing at Burbank's Bob Hope

Airport. They were then taken by bus to the Dream Center, a

Christian-based shelter and assistance center operated out of the

former Queen of Angels Hospital in Echo Park..

The Dream Center is expecting between 250 and 300 refugees from

hurricane-ravaged areas in Louisiana by the end of the week, said

David Hanley, a pastor and spokesman for the center.

Thousands are feared dead in areas hit by the hurricane, which

ripped through the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 with 145-mph winds. Many are

still missing, and the damage caused has been estimated to top $100


The flights to Bob Hope are being coordinated by Missouri-based

Lion Heart Aviation Group. The planes are being made available by

members of the National Business Aircraft Assn.

"It's the richest of the rich deciding to help the poorest of the

poor," Lion Heart Aviation owner Carrie Walegir said.

Elaine West, a New Orleans resident who arrived at the Dream

Center on Sunday morning has no intention of returning to Louisiana.

"I just want to rest and volunteer and help," said West, a retired

supervisor at a candy company. "I want to volunteer my services. You

never know when something like this will be coming again."

Normally serving a clientele of homeless, the working poor, gang

members and parolees, the Dream Center took in the New Orleans

refugees after a call for assistance came from a church in Louisiana.

Services for the usual clientele of job assistance and schooling

will also be offered to the refugees, who will be allowed to stay at

the Dream Center for as long as they need, Hanley said.

"We'll help them get back on their feet," Hanley said.

It's an offer welcomed by Johnson, who likes that the center keeps

its residents active and provides him with a clean shower and three

meals a day.

"I'm just glad it's over with," Johnson said of the ordeal he

faced in New Orleans. "I'll be able to tell my grandchildren stories

about how I got to the West Coast."

* MARK MADLER covers City Hall and the courts. He may be reached

at (818) 637-3242 or by e-mail at

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