Katrina evacuee values new home during holiday

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In August 2005, the city of Brookhaven became a temporary homefor hundreds of Louisiana residents who were forced to flee fromHurricane Katrina.

The round-the-clock activity of those days more than two yearsago has long since subsided, but many individuals carried here bythe Louisianian exodus have remained.

One former New Orleans resident who decided to plant her flagpermanently in Brookhaven is Eldrid Zeno.

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Born on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao and raised inLaPlace, La., Zeno had moved to New Orleans in 2003 to live thegood life. She was making good wages as a cashier at Bally’s Casinoand lived in “a wonderful apartment” that had its own park and pondwhere she spent her quiet time watching the ducks and geese.

When Katrina spun through southern Louisiana and pushed LakePonchotrain back into New Orleans, all of Zeno’s belongings weredestroyed.

“The day before (Aug. 28) was like a normal day,” Zeno said.”People were dancing, having a good time, poking fun at all thepeople that were scared that Katrina was coming. Lots of peoplewere planning to have hurricane parties.”

Zeno, though, had heeded the hurricane warnings and escapeddestruction herself. She declined the parties and left town shortlyafter 1 a.m. on Aug. 29 with the hurricane approaching behindher.

Zeno was almost too afraid to make the journey because of hercar’s transmission problems. She prayed, “Lord, please let me makeit to Brookhaven.”

And so she did.

With nothing but one suitcase of clothes, Zeno arrived inBrookhaven to stay. She became a Wal-Mart employee and has sincecreated “a comfortable life” for herself here.

However, as is often the case for the displaced, Christmas timecan be a lonely time of year. Zeno’s family is spread between theCaribbean and LaPlace, and she finds herself alone in Brookhavenfor the most wonderful time of the year.

While she may be alone, she is not lonely. She said the peopleof Brookhaven have always made Christmas merry for her.

“Brookhaven has become a new home for me,” Zeno said. “From thetime I got here, people in the community opened their arms to meand looked after me. I don’t feel alone at all.”

Zeno said the Brookhaven community, especially her co-workers atWal-Mart, have become like a second family to her. Since herarrival in town, her new family has always invited her to spendChristmas with them during the last days of December.

“The girls around here take care of me on Christmas,” she said.”It’s just people helping people.”

This Christmas will be no different for Zeno, who will depend onher new friends in Brookhaven for happy holidays.

“I’m going to visit with my friends on Christmas,” she said.”One of my co-workers has taken such good care of me, invites me toher home so often that I call her momma ‘momma’.”

Just like her biological family, Zeno and her Brookhavenitefriends swap presents, share dinners and watch football – with arooting interest in the New Orleans Saints – during the Christmasholidays.

Zeno said the warmth shown to her by the people of Brookhavenduring her first Christmas alone in 2005 was a deciding factor inher decision to stay here instead of returning to New Orleans orLaPlace.

“Brookhaven is wonderful to me,” she said. “That’s why I’m stillhere. Last time I called my mother back in Curaçao, she said,’Baby, are you still in Brookhaven? You must really like itthere.’

“And I do really like it here,” Zeno continued. “I never knewpeople could be so nice until I got to Brookhaven. The people arecaring and the kids are sweet, well-raised; in New Orleans, thekids were always cussing and fighting and carrying on. The kidshere are always, ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am’. I’ve never had a kidin Brookhaven disrespect me.”

The two Christmases Zeno has spent in Brookhaven are worldsapart from the holiday celebrations that occur in New Orleans.

“For Christmas in New Orleans, I worked; that’s what was safe todo,” she said. “Sure, there were a lot more parties and parades andthings to do for Christmas in New Orleans, but it was too dangerousfor me. It’s a violent place.

“Some people overlook it and just do what they want to do, butnot me,” she continued. “I wasn’t going to go out of my way and putmyself in danger just to see some Christmas lights. My momma alwaystold me that if you go where you ain’t supposed to be, you’ll endup in trouble.”

Along with the south Mississippi friendliness that has beenshown to Zeno, she also appreciates the quiet that Brookhaven hasto offer. The local peace has even affected her health.

“I used to have problems with anxiety and high blood pressurewhen I lived in New Orleans,” she said. “I don’t suffer from any ofthat anymore. The environment in Brookhaven has really put me atease. I don’t even need the anxiety medicine anymore.”

This week, Zeno will celebrate her third Brookhaven Christmaswith the same local friends that have brought her peace of mind andmade her solitary transition to a new town less lonely.

She eventually plans to return to Curaçao for a year, andperhaps back to LaPlace for another year. But when her traveling isover, the initial camaraderie that was show to her during her firstBrookhaven Christmas will bring her back to town.