Couple picking up the pieces in Suffolk after harrowing hurricane experience

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 26, 2005

As Hurricane Rita barreled toward the Gulf Coast Thursday, Sonya Goudeau just shuddered.

The 1993 John F. Kennedy High School graduate and her fianc\u00E9, Dennis Navarre, were safe and dry in her parent’s cozy Lake Kennedy home. But it was less than a month ago that they escaped the putrid floodwaters that swallowed their New Orleans home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Although neighbors have reported their house is still standing, it was flooded for days, said Goudeau, who lived in Louisiana for more than decade. They lost everything, save a couple of family photographs, two cellular phones and set of keys.

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&uot;I have new respect for the weather,&uot; she said. &uot;A very healthy respect.&uot;

Goudeau, 32, and Navarre, a New Orleans native, didn’t hear calls to evacuate the Crescent City until hours before the deadly storm began pounding the Louisiana coastline Aug. 29. But because they lived near one of the levees, they had packed up a few supplies – enough non-perishables to last a couple of days and a change of clothes – and gone to a friend’s house on higher ground.

But it wasn’t high enough.

As water began seeping under doors and through windows, the four friends sought refuge in the attic. Then, when the dirty water continued to inch upward, they used a crowbar to knock a hole in the roof.

&uot;We tried to evacuate on a raft we built in the attic,&uot; Navarre said.

They ripped sheets into strips that they used to tie empty five- and three-gallon water jugs onto a wooden door. Although the raft stayed afloat, they decided the water was too rough to venture from the rooftop.

&uot;The water was not just choppy,&uot; said Goudeau, sipping an iced tea on her mother’s back porch recently. &uot;Imagine having the Virginia Beach oceanfront crashing through your front door.&uot;

After several hours on the roof, a neighbor rescued them in a small boat and delivered them to dry ground. The couple hiked 10 miles, plodding through water that was waist-deep in places, to reach the New Orleans Superdome.

&uot;While we were walking, you could hear people stranded in houses calling out to you,&uot; Goudeau said. &uot;They could see you but you couldn’t see them…and you couldn’t get to them because the houses were surrounded by water. It was awful.&uot;

They finally arrived at the Superdome, expecting to find relief.

What they found was sheer chaos.

‘Like the end of the world’

More than 30,000 hurricane evacuees – old and young – were crammed into the Superdome. There was no food, no water and little hope.

It was sweltering – the temperature sometimes reached 120 degrees inside – and the stench of death and disease was everywhere.

&uot;You would have thought we were in Sudan or Rwanda,&uot; she said. &uot;It was like the end of the world in New Orleans.

&uot;Women were raped…and at least five children were killed in the five days we were there,&uot; she said. &uot;We stopped a child from eating out of a trash can…and people were stealing anything that could be stolen.&uot;

People became desperate, Navarre said.

&uot;There was a lot of fighting in there,&uot; he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a scar received while trying to stop one man from clobbering another with a lead pipe. &uot;A hungry man is an angry man.

&uot;When they began dropping (bottled) water on the floor of the Superdome, people would stampede toward it like a herd of animals.&uot;

A sense of lawlessness prevailed inside the Superdome, Goudeau said.

&uot;People would be sleeping and all of a sudden they would hear gunshots,&uot; she added. &uot;They would wake up and start running, stepping on pregnant women, children, anyone in their way.&uot;

Finally, after five long, restless days and hours standing in line, the couple made it onto a bus bound for Fort Worth, Texas. There, a Red Cross volunteer and her husband &uot;adopted&uot; the couple and gave them a place to sleep, dinner in a restaurant and bus tickets to Suffolk.

&uot;They were wonderful to us,&uot; Navarre said.

Neither he nor Goudeau wants to go back to Louisiana to live.

&uot;It is going to take years for New Orleans to rebuild,&uot; Goudeau said. &uot;I would not be comfortable living there again…and I don’t think life would be the same if we moved back anyway.&uot;

Admittedly, she said, there is much about the city she will miss: the food, festivals, its diverse culture.

&uot;New Orleans is a 24-hour city that never slept…and it is a melting pot of cultures from every continent,&uot; she said. &uot;I have become part of the fabric of New Orleans…and I will miss it.&uot;

Changed people

Both Goudeau and Navarre believe surviving Hurricane Katrina’s wrath has left them changed people – more patient, tolerant and with a stronger faith.

&uot;I believe things happen for a reason,&uot; Goudeau said. &uot;Just a couple of weeks before all this happened, I had thought about moving a little closer to home.

&uot;…This has made me realize that while you have to work to support your life, there is no life without family.&uot;

As Hurricane Rita threatened New Orleans with another round of flooding this weekend, the couple said they are angered by the local, state and federal government’s slow response to Katrina.

&uot;We’re seeing a lot of people playing the blame game right now,&uot; Navarre said. &uot;These politicians need to understand they are playing with people’s lives. A lot of lives were lost because of them.&uot;

Goudeau agreed

&uot;The governor’s head should roll,&uot; she said. &uot;…Those levees should have been fixed years ago.

&uot;And with the technology that is available today, they should have had people heading out of there a week before the storm hit.&uot;

The couple has spent the past couple of weeks preparing to rebuild from the tragic ordeal.

They have been checked out by doctors, catching up on sleep and filling out the paperwork to receive federal disaster relief.

Soon, they will begin aggressively looking for new jobs, probably in the Washington D.C. area.

The Suffolk Department of Social Services has been helpful in leading the couple through the maze of paperwork that needed to be submitted to federal agencies, Goudeau said. Several local businesses and organizations have dipped in their pockets to help the young couple cover their basic needs.

&uot;Without our church family and friends, we would have been destitute,&uot; Sonya said. &uot;We are so grateful for their assistance.&uot;