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Separated by 2 hurricanes, family enjoys an unlikely reunion

LAKE CHARLES, La.—Shamira Menendez of New Orleans had a splitting headache Sunday that turned out to be a good thing.

Without it, she would have been on an evacuation bus out of Lake Charles with her five children and two nieces—and her husband, Damien Brown, never would have seen her.

"I've been by myself since Hurricane Katrina," Menendez said. "At one point I wanted to give up, but I had to keep having hope."

Except for one brief encounter in Houston, work and hurricanes have kept Menendez and Brown apart since late August. He's been working as a chef on a boat that serves offshore oil rigs; she and the children have been bouncing from shelter to shelter in two states.

A few days before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, Brown left for work. His shipbound stints usually last four to eight weeks.

As Katrina approached New Orleans, Menendez and the seven children left home in the city's Lower Ninth Ward for shelter in an elementary school, then a high school and then the Superdome, where they survived five days of mayhem.

Then it was on to Houston—first the Astrodome, then the Reliant Center, then a motel.

Brown, meanwhile, weathered Katrina near Beaumont, Texas, and tried to keep track of his family's whereabouts. When cell phones didn't work, he tapped into a Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site and relayed messages through friends.

At one point, Brown tracked his family down at the Houston motel. But he could spend only a few minutes there before he had to return to work.

From there, Menendez and the children traveled to Lake Charles to set up house in a place Brown had rented. But Hurricane Rita began bearing down before they could move in, so they checked into another motel.

Meanwhile, Brown's boat was sent to Lake Charles to ride out the storm, setting up Sunday's unlikely reunion.

The children were already on the bus at the city's civic center for a ride out of Lake Charles, and Menendez was waiting in line to get pills for her headache when she heard someone call "Mira!"

Brown said that he didn't wait for his employer's permission to leave the boat Sunday to try to find his family.

"I'll take whatever consequences," he said. "My main thing is not losing my family again."


(Corcoran reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


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

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