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Information proves scarce for survivors searching for family

BATON ROUGE, La.—Jazzlyn Ezeb leaned over a table, anxiously flipping through thousands of loose-leaf pages.

She searched for three names: Durnell Freeman, Anthony Davis and Flora Long. Her aunt, uncle and godmother.

They've been missing since Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans a week ago. Ezeb, 20, last spoke to them the day before the storm hit. She has no idea where they are.

"I don't know whether to cry or scream or just keep going," she said. "There's all these bodies floating down the street, and you wonder if they're your family."

Hurricane Katrina tore apart families, scattering them across different states and time zones.

At shelters and in cities across the country, hurricane evacuees are still desperately trying to reconnect with family members separated during the chaotic New Orleans evacuations.

They have no idea if their relatives are in Texas or Tennessee. Hurt or homeless. Alive or dead.

Volunteers with shelters, churches and the American Red Cross are working to reunite families. But with hundreds of thousands of people in shelters in at least nine states—and thousands more homeless—the task of finding missing loved ones is daunting.

"It's hit or miss," said Michael Breard, a Red Cross volunteer from Baton Rouge. "People are having a pretty hard time finding their family."

At the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge—where nearly 6,000 evacuees are staying—a table was set up in the lobby to help find the missing.

On Sunday, one woman cried quietly. Another showed volunteers a picture of her aunt. A pastor walked around with a sign looking for his wife's cousin.

Augustine Harris, of New Orleans, has spent the last several days trying to find her daughter, Shawan Jordan, 34, and Jordan's five children.

She thinks they went to the Superdome. She hopes they're safe and comfortable somewhere in Texas. But she has no idea.

"I'm just numb," she said. "I don't know anything. They could be anywhere."

When people fled New Orleans, many had no say about where they were going. That's left a search process that many refugees say can be agonizing and tedious.

Logistics are complicated. Most cell phones in the New Orleans area don't work. Internet access is limited. Text messaging has become the most reliable way to contact someone.

Many refugees, including Ezeb, the 20-year-old from New Orleans, speculated that their families were evacuated to Texas.

"That's our best guess," Ezeb said.

Each Red Cross shelter tries to keep a list of all its evacuees, and some have citywide lists. Anyone can go to there to scan the names.

But a comprehensive list that spans all of the organization's 361 shelters doesn't exist yet. Red Cross workers hope to have one within the next several days.

"It's an immense task," said Dick Burch, a Red Cross spokesman. "We're in the beginning stages of getting a handle on this."

The search for family members could extend for the next few weeks, Burch said.

Evacuees said they have few options if they want to find their relatives—or let them know they're OK.

Mike and Kebra Sexton, husband and wife from New Orleans, have checked the missing persons list daily without luck. They haven't heard from their mothers and several siblings. Some of their relatives wanted to ride out the hurricane. The Sextons now feel helpless.

"I've got to be strong for my family, but this is rough," Mike Sexton said. "I don't know if they're dead or alive. They probably don't know if we're dead or alive."

At the Baton Rouge shelter, Frederick Marcelin, 14, sat quietly by the front entrance.

He and his mom escaped the hurricane. His two younger brothers and older sister may not have. He placed them on every missing persons list he could find.

Now, he spends his time waiting for news.

On a recent day, he watched the shelter's front entrance for an hour, hoping that his lost brothers and sisters would walk in. They never did.

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(Bahari reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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