NEW ORLEANS—For those uprooted by a natural disaster, the few objects they manage to salvage assume great emotional importance. A cross. A purse. A family heirloom.
In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the experience is multiplied hundreds of thousands of times over.
Some of the objects to which the displaced clung were sensible things that provided comfort in the dehumanizing anonymity of an emergency shelter: blankets, a tent, a radio, diapers.
Sometimes they were practical things that would ease the process of rebuilding: a birth certificate, identification, a computer with financial records.
Others took irreplaceable mementos. A photo album. A departed brother's funeral announcement. The family silverware.
Some objects were utterly ordinary, but assumed great emotional importance because they may be the only material items with a connection to the past. Clothing. A shard of stained glass. A key to a house that may no longer exist.
They are the fragments on which the future might be built.
John Cummings was waiting for a boat to return to his flooded home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
"I've got to get my daughter's clothes," he said. "The only reason I came was to get her clothes."
Cummings, 68, is the father of eight children, ages 16 to 40. The youngest, Kate, is about to be a junior in high school. She won't be returning to the girls' private school where she's at the top of her class. She's now registered for school in Texas, where her family relocated until it's safe to move back to Jefferson Parish.
Cummings said it was important that his daughter have some of her old clothes, not just replacements.
"They can buy clothes, but there's nothing like that favorite skirt," he said. "She said, `Dad, when you go into my room, the closet on the left, can you take everything?' She also wanted a jacket, her jacket. She said it's somewhere in the house."
James Savage and two of his friends were evacuating. Several National Guardsmen searched their luggage before they boarded a truck to the New Orleans convention center for shelter. The guardsmen discovered the bottles wrapped in socks or sweatpants.
"Damn!" Savage mock-yelled each time they pulled out his bottles of cognac and gin. "You guys find everything."
The Guard commander said the rules were simple: No weapons. No alcohol.
Savage, 41, took out his family's silverware, wrapped in a towel. He uncovered it and held out the tarnished forks, knives and spoons for the Guardsmen to see.
"It was my mother's and her mother's. My grandmother's," he said haltingly. The soldiers let him keep it.
Spc. Frank Ranalli continued searching the men's possessions. He looked up at them after finishing another duffel.
"I'm proud of you guys," he said. "This whole bag, no alcohol!"
Angie Rodgers was visiting a friend's apartment in Gulfport, Miss., when the storm approached. So Rodgers took the only thing she had: a black macrame purse containing her glasses, a comb and her ID.
"I just started running," said Rodgers, 44. "I just took what I had."
Rodgers has had no permanent residence since she was released from prison two years ago. She had been drifting among the houses of friends. She fears that she won't be able to get a job in another state because she's on probation for forging checks at the Biloxi casinos. Her home for now is a Red Cross shelter.
She said she fell frequently. She lost all feeling in her right leg two years ago after the Alzheimer's patient for whom she was caring mistook her for a burglar and shot her.
"It's been rough," she said.
Rodgers said an addiction to gambling got her in trouble and that she was happy the casinos were wiped out in the storm. She was still trying to reach relatives, but said she hadn't spoken with her 27-year-old daughter for a while.
"She doesn't think much of my lifestyle," she said.
Rodgers said the hurricane had given her a chance to start a new life. She's taken a voluntary job as receptionist at the shelter.
"I'm scared to leave," she said. "I feel safe here and I don't have a home to go back to."
Carolyn Landry and her husband, Erwin, built their dream home 10 years ago by the Wolf River and Little Bay in De Lisle, Miss. She had been a flight attendant. He had been a battalion chief for the Toledo, Ohio, fire department. He grew up in Mississippi, where they went to retire.
Their home had a long drive and a boathouse amid the pines and palmettos, about 30 miles east of New Orleans. They even installed a 120-year-old stained-glass window from their old house in Toledo.
Now their home is a field of rubble.
"That was my bedroom," she said, indicating where the master suite once was. "And that was my shower."
They recovered what they could. A piece of her parents' wedding china. One of their anniversary glasses. Her high school yearbook, damp but salvageable.
They collected several pieces of stained glass from the window they'd brought from Ohio. They glistened in the sun.
Would they rebuild?
"I don't know if we can. We put everything we had into this home, and it's all gone. But these few things," she said of the bits of china, glass and paper, "these we'll save."
Jayne Davis was fortunate to have ridden out Katrina in one of the most heavily damaged neighborhoods in Pascagoula, Miss. If she'd stayed at home, she said, she might have been among the 30 who died in the St. Charles Condominiums.
Afterward, she made her way back to see what was left. The only possession she could find was a large bronze cross.
"We should have this blessed," she told her husband.
She said he replied: "I believe it already is."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-TREASURES
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