Five years after Katrina, military retirees finally going home to Gulf

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 12, 2010 

WASHINGTON — It's another five-year Katrina anniversary — but with a happy ending for the displaced residents of the Gulfport, Miss., Armed Forces Retirement Home who've been living in the military's sister facility in Washington.

They're going home.

On Oct. 4, a planeload of nearly 100 Katrina evacuees will take off from Ronald Reagan National Airport and land at Gulfport at midday for a welcome ceremony that will be the precursor to the official grand opening of the rebuilt retirement home on Oct. 9. Forty more evacuees are driving down.

It's promising to be a memorable homecoming for the retirees, as a small, lively group gathered in one of the buildings on the Washington campus last week in anticipation of the return to Mississippi.

Sally Manning, 85, remembers being hustled out of the Gulfport building on Aug. 30, 2005, and onto a bus the day after Katrina made landfall. She was told to bring important papers and one bag — for a two-week trip.

"This is the longest two weeks I have ever spent," she said.

Irene Smith, 86, seemed to speak for the group as she kept raising her hands and singing, "Hallelujah."

"I was born in Maine, raised in Connecticut, spent most of my life in Pensacola (Fla.)," she said. "But there's no place like home, and that's Gulfport."

Smith, the comedian of the group who doesn't let her walker slow her down, said of the beautiful Washington site: "I'll miss it when I'm gone, and that's the way I want it — missing it and gone."

The retirees have been following the construction of the new Gulfport facility and seem to know the layout of their new home on a 47-acre waterfront site as well as they knew the old one, which was demolished after Katrina. They all have picked their rooms, by seniority at the facility.

Even without seeing it, some of the women already are complaining about the closet space.

"Men designed it — that's what's wrong," said Smith. However, the new rooms are 450 square feet — three to four times as large as their rooms in Washington.

Like many of the displaced retirees, Barbara Folk, 86, has been counting the days to the return to Gulfport. "Twenty-six," she promptly told a reporter.

Unlike some residents, she has a few good things to say about the Washington home, which is on a beautifully wooded site on 272 acres in the center of the city, with its own small golf course and historic buildings, notably the "Lincoln cottage," where President Lincoln spent summers and is believed to have written the Emancipation Proclamation.

"We've had a great time," said Folk. "We've done the city up proud. . . . We feel very comfortable here, but we want to go home."

Ernest Sylvester, a Gulfport resident since 1991, walked up to the assembled group and said that the Washington site was beautiful and downplayed the complaints of the other retirees: "Don't believe these people."

Marion Ritchie, 93, a World War II Navy retiree who arrived in Gulfport in 1998, said she feels "like a kid getting her first skates." While she'll miss her room with three windows and a view of the Washington Monument, she knows where her heart is: "I want to go home."

Thomas Lynch has lived in and around Biloxi since 1949 — from his time in the Air Force to teaching at Biloxi High School to retiring to the Armed Forces Retirement Home — and doesn't hesitate to say what he wants to get back to. "There is no better shrimp" in the world, he said.

Robert Macy, 81, a Navy veteran who kept track of the number of Gulfport residents in Washington, said that have 175 died.

Macy said he liked the D.C. grounds but, "I'm looking forward to Southern hospitality instead of the D.C. attitude."

"Southerners are more polite," Smith said.

As to what the Gulfport group brought to Washington, Smith said, "We did liven things up — especially the first Mardi Gras they had up here."

The Gulfport evacuees made Mardi Gras decorations and costumes — and they're taking them all back with them.

ON THE WEB

The Armed Forces Retirement Home website

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