Tuesday, March 14, 2006

photos by Virginia Hart

Meet Claude and Cookie Bello. They lost everything. The trailer on the right is home now, and a church group built them a shed. The trailer is small and cramped and though they dream of a home of their own they don't complain. They are just happy to be alive.

Take a good look at Claude, you may not realize it but you are looking at a hero. His story will break your heart.

Before the storm Claude and Cookie were content. They owned a small piece of land near the river that Claude loved. His income from crabbing supplemented Cookies pay from her job answering phones 10 hours a day. Claude and Cookie had a nice little trailer with three bedrooms that they had bought with Claude's aunt. They had moved her in so they could take care of her. When she needed a handicapped accessible home she moved on and they kept the trailer. It was still in the Aunt's name, she had found out that if it was in her name only they wouldn't have to pay property taxes because the aunt was elderly so Claude's name was taken off the title.

And then came the storm...

Claude and Cookie did not evacuate and soon they were joined by family members who couldn't leave. They went to Mr. Russes place. It was a beautiful old place directly behind and to the left of Claude and Cookies place. It had survived Camille and Mr. Russ offered it to them as shelter from the storm. Mr. Russ and his family had evacuated because his wife was ill and his son handicapped.

They stood in the living room and watched the Pearl River, directly across the road from Mr. Russes house. They watched as the river crossed the road, Camille had not crossed the road. Soon the water was up and even with the porch. They watched as it crept towards the glass doors and started seeping into the house. As they stood in ankle deep water the cellphone rang, it was Mr. Russ. He wanted to know how close the water was to the road. "It is ankle deep in your living room Mr. Russ" Cookie replied. He seemed not to understand and asked again "how close is it to the road?" Cookie handed the phone to Claude. "Cookie doesn't understand me Claude", Mr. Russ said, "I asked how close is the water to the road?" Claude replied "we are now knee deep in water at your dining room table."

"My God, Claude get your family to the attic, that river is going to wash away Pearlington" yelled Mr. Russ. At that same time an announcement came over the battery powered radio. "Thank God for miracles, the storm has turned north" "it is now headed up the coast of Mississippi along the Pearl River"

Dear God, thought Claude it is headed right for us, we have got to get higher. He forced open the door in the rapidly flooding living room and got everyone else headed upstairs. Just as he was turning to go up himself the glass doors burst inward and he went under. He could feel himself pushed into first one wall and then another. He wanted badly to breath but knew if he did he would die. He fought the current and pulled himself back towards the entrance to the attic, under water all the way, his body bouncing against the ceiling of the flooded house. When he felt the corner that would take him to the attic he pulled himself around it and the current shot him upward. He came out of the water gasping for breath and weak, and needed help standing.

The rafters shook and heaved with the force of the water and they knew that even then they were not safe. The only possible exit, a small window. Claude kicked out the window and pushed everyone out. The roof was metal, and the women could not hang on. Only one of the women could swim, and they had the baby in a plastic tote. After shoving the women back into the flooding attic Claude knew their only hope was a boat. The water was at the roof line now and the house was being battered by the current and debris. Claude scanned the horizon for a boat and when he spotted one he left the relative safety of the roof and jumped into the water. Somehow even though the wind and current were strong, he managed to get that boat back to the house. There was no rope or anything to tie it to the house, but there was a metal pole at the end of the house that had been in place since before Katrina. One of the other men got in and helped hold the boat in place for the women.

Frankie sent the baby down to Claude in the tote, and Claude put him in the boat. A strong wind picked up the tote and lifted it out of the boat and the water started to carry the baby away. "I thought we had lost him", Claude said, "and I jumped in again and grabbed him saying God help me, help me save that baby." After everyone was loaded into the leaky boat it was very heavy. The wind was blowing hard, the current lifting them up only to smash them back down, and Claude held onto that metal pole. They had nowhere to escape to, and as the full force of the hurricane hit they huddled in that boat, secured near the house only by the strength of Claude's arms. It lasted for hours, though there was a brief period of calmness while the eye passed and still Claude hung on. "I knew after the eye passed we would get the other side of the storm and we had no place to go". Then it hit again, with even more force. They could yell, but the wind was howling so loud that you couldn't even hear the person sitting next to them. Claude looked at Cookie and she was screaming.

Claude said "I couldn't hear her, but I understood her. She was saying don't let go baby, please don't let go." "I looked down and my arms were bleeding from scraping on the pole, but I didn't let go. " "I knew if I did we would all die." And so they hung there in the driving stinging rain, held in place only by Claude's arms, until the storm had passed.

When the storm passed they made their way to what was left of the firestation. Claude said "I knew that the pump truck had just been filled and we could use it to clear of a piece of concrete so we would have somewhere to rest." They had no food and no water, only the clothes on their backs. After getting the women settled the men went out looking for survivors. They pulled some people from the rubble of their homes and got them back to the station. Others straggled in until there were 12. And they waited for help. "After three days with no food I knew we had to feed the women, and I told Frankie that if we could find someones freezer with a good seal there may be food in it that we can use," said Claude. And they got lucky. "When I opened that freezer and the cool air came out I yelled" "there was hamburger and some shrimp in it". They managed to make a grill out of things they found and used sticks to turn the meat. "Lord was that food good."Claude remembered.

They woke to the sound of chainsaws on the fifth day. Forestry Rangers were out by the main road trying to cut their way in. Help was finally coming.

Claude is my hero, he saved those people. He only has one lung, he lost the other to Cancer some years ago. And he is diabetic. But he is a survivor and he is strong when he needs to be. His strength let others live when they would have died.

Because they didn't own their trailer Claude and Cookie are not getting compensated for it. They were able to collect for contents only. They had to use what little money they got for a car so Cookie could get to work, and that car needed tires. Claude's boat is gone, and he got nothing for it. They applied and were turned down for a SBA loan to repair the boat.

Now it is six months later and they are living in a cramped FEMA trailer. They have used old cars, some clothes and a shed. Cookie still works 10hour days and they get by. Claude has Cancer again, they cut it off his ear and it was so large he had to have a skin graft. Their cheerful optimism is starting to fade. Some church groups are sponsoring a few young families and providing homes for them, but there will be no help for Claude and Cookie. The twisted steel frame of their old home lays mangled in front of their property as a constant reminder of all that they lost. They are not bitter, but depression is beginning to get hold of them.

Please help them. They need a place to call home. A good used larger trailer or even a modular home. If you want to help or know someone who can please email me at RNFrosty@woh.rr.com

UPDATE - Got some wonderful news during my last visit!!! While they hesitate to believe as they have been disappointed many times, it seems that Claude and Cookie are getting a house. A church group is building them a new home. The lumber is set to begin arriving on September 11th or 12th. When I spoke to Claude on Thursday he said that in fact some Amish men were already at work doing some pre-fab. I am planning my next trip so that I will be able to put a few nails into that house myself!! Anyone want to come along?? Maybe take some housewarming presents....

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