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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Katrina disaster hits home in Inland Northwest

Lately it seems whenever an event makes the national news you can count on someone from the Inland Northwest being involved. The disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is no exception.

Here are four stories told to The Spokesman-Review of how Eastern Washington residents or their loved ones have been caught up in the tragedy.

Hurricanes run in the family

A Pullman mother and her two daughters visiting a New Orleans exhibit of a Civil War-era ship sunk by a hurricane 140 years now find themselves stranded by Hurricane Katrina.

Sylvia Hutton and her daughters, Cecily and Leah, tried to catch a bus to Houston on Wednesday, but their bus was “commandeered” by authorities, said Sylvia’s husband, Dave, who has been in contact with his stranded family from his home in Pullman. He believes the bus was needed to evacuate the Superdome.

The women were staying at the Monteleone Hotel near the French Quarter of New Orleans until Thursday when the hotel closed after running out of food and water, Dave Hutton said. They were visiting the exhibit of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a company that has uncovered the wreck of the SS Republic, which sank off the coast of Georgia in 1865.

The Huttons arrived in New Orleans last Thursday to view the exhibit because Sylvia’s great-grandfather, Col. William T. Nichols, a regimental commander at Gettysburg, was on the paddlewheel steamship when it foundered in a hurricane during a voyage from New York to New Orleans. Odyssey discovered the wreck of the Republic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean near Savannah along with some of the ship’s cargo, 20,000 $20 gold pieces, according the August 2003 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Now the Huttons are caught in the wake of another hurricane, Dave Hutton said. After riding out the storm in the Monteleone, Sylvia, 59, Cecily, 27 and Leah, 31, are safe in another New Orleans location.

“It’s just such a nightmare,” Dave Hutton said. “Even though where they are is dry, the routes to get them out are flooded.”

He said his family members hope to find a way out through Houston or Pensacola today.

‘Like Beirut under water’

Maggie Merrill of Spokane lived four years in New Orleans and still has a boyfriend there, who paid the price of not evacuating, barely managing to flee his home with family members.

Leon Dupclay, 33, walked three miles to his uncle’s house in Bywater (9th Ward) to fetch a raft in which he towed his mother, grandmother and aunt to Interstate 10, said Merrill, who works for the Spokane Regional Health District.

The family walked up an on-ramp and was offered a ride by a man in a stolen U-Haul truck who was picking up refugees along the way.

“My boyfriend and his family piled in the back with several other people and were driven to Baton Rouge,” Merrill said. “A woman in the U-Haul died along the way.”

Halfway to Baton Rouge, the U-Haul ran out of gasoline, Merrill said, but the group was rescued again by a woman who was driving up and down I-10 with gas cans to help stranded motorists.

Merrill said Dupclay’s stepfather refused to leave his home in Gentilly, which is badly flooded, and the family has not heard from him since Sunday.

“He does not know how to swim, and they fear the worst,” Merrill said.

She said it breaks her heart to think of all the destruction in her former home, and her boyfriend said many of those left behind are living in fear of looters.

“People look like zombies walking around,” Dupclay told her. “He said it looks like Beirut under water.”

Cruise to oblivion

A weeklong pleasure cruise to Mexico ended unpleasantly for a husband and wife from Spokane when their ship dropped them off Saturday at the Port of New Orleans.

The bus Denise and Ronaldo Stathes took to the New Orleans airport got caught in the exodus of people trying to flee ahead of Hurricane Katrina and the couple missed their flight out, said Denise Stathes’ sister, Paula Jordan of Chicago. Since Saturday afternoon, the Stathes were stranded at the Best Western hotel near the airport in Kenner, La., where they rode out the storm early Monday morning in the bathroom of their hotel.

After the hurricane passed over them, they called Jordan to tell her they “had made it through the worst.” The Stathes were safe, but the hotel, which was full, sustained considerable damage, Jordan said.

After that, there was no power or water in the hotel, but a nearby Denny’s restaurant fed the hotel guests. On Tuesday night the hotel was evacuated and the Statheses made it to the airport, where they caught a flight out Wednesday night on a commercial airliner that had brought in relief supplies to the stricken city.

The Stathes were expected to arrive at Spokane International Airport on Thursday evening, Jordan said.

No home to return to

Sandy Hawley of north Spokane said her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé and her young grandchildren have apparently lost everything they own in the home they had to abandon near Keesler Air Force Base, which suffered a direct hit by the hurricane.

Keesler, home of the 81st Training Wing, received extensive damage, and about 50 percent of the base was under water, according to the Air Force.

Bethany Hawley, 24, a 2000 Mead High School graduate, lived four blocks from the base with her fiancé, Staff Sgt. Vince Lewis, 29, and her children, Vincent Jr., 22 months, and Kaiyana, 9 months, her mother said. Judging from aerial videotape they have seen of the area since Katrina struck, “they assume everything is lost,” Sandy Hawley said.

Fortunately, the Air Force ordered its Keesler families to evacuate or take shelter on the base. Bethany Hawley and her family drove to Robins Air Force Base in Georgia to stay with her sister, Tracy, who is married to an Air Force sergeant stationed there.

“The military told them to take enough stuff for a week,” Sandy Hawley said. But Bethany, being an optimist, took only three days worth of clothes, her baby books and birth certificates. It is all the family has left.

“It was a beautiful place,” Sandy Hawley said of Biloxi, where she visited recently. Her daughter lived in a three-bedroom home like you would find in the Shadle neighborhood of Spokane, only it was six blocks from the beach.

The Air Force has not told the family when it could return.

– Kevin Graman, staff writer

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