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With Samaritans, luck, Rita survivors find some satisfaction

LIVINGSTON, Texas—Many who survived Hurricane Rita emerged somehow the better for it. Their mettle was tested and they passed. Here are some cases:

Talk about a house party.

When Texas coast evacuees gave up on clogged U.S. 59 north out of Houston late last week, lots of them stopped at First Baptist Church in tiny Shepherd, pop. 2,100, for help.

The church provided restrooms, some food and a place to rest, but its insurance restricted its use as a shelter.

That's when Carlos and Dora Ochoa and their three daughters stepped in.

"Eight or nine Hispanic families said, `Where will we go? We have no gas,'" said Dora Ochoa, a native Colombian who teaches bilingual education. "I said, `OK, my house is not that big, but you can come.'"

About 50 people stayed at the Ochoas' six-bedroom home Thursday night. The number grew to 65 on Friday. By Saturday night, just one family was left and Dora Ochoa was exhausted but satisfied.

"I felt like my house was a celebration, a family reunion," she said.

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How did Nolia Barnett live to be 102? Endurance, endurance, endurance.

Barnett evacuated from Nederland, Texas, with her family Thursday and headed for Livingston, 80 miles northwest. The drive took 31 hours. Doctors at a local hospital treated Barnett for heat exhaustion and dehydration, then turned her out because she didn't need intensive care.

So Barnett spent Saturday resting on the only couch at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Livingston.

"I'm doing all right," she said.

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When Hurricane Katrina hit Lake Charles, La., four weeks ago, Joe Heacook did what he's known for: He started cooking gumbo for evacuees and rescue workers.

"We've been here since day one of Katrina," said Heacook, the executive chef and department head at Sowela Technical Community College in Lake Charles.

He was evacuated to nearby Oberlin with other rescue workers and returned with them Saturday. Post-Rita was just like pre-Rita in Lake Charles, with bedraggled evacuees and rescue workers milling around the civic center with big bowls of gumbo, asking anyone without one, "Did you get something to eat?"

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People discover things in hurricanes. For example, it's a good idea to:

_Keep a spare carton of cigarettes in the closet.

"I left to get cigarettes and clean water three hours ago," said Kurt Esthay, who was stranded by a police roadblock erected between a convenience store and his home in Beaumont, Texas.

_Choose your moment.

The 80-mile trip to Huntsville, Texas, could take a whole day late last week on Houston's clogged highways. Not for Jeff Nesmith, however, who left late Friday and made it in two hours. Nesmith, 28, said he had a second edge: "I know a lot of roundabout roads."

_Have an airboat owner for a neighbor.

Nothing skims across shallow water or just plain wet grass like an airboat, police in Louisiana's Vermilion Parish discovered as they rescued at least 60 stranded residents around Abbeville over the weekend. Many of the airboat rescues occurred in wind too high for helicopters.

In New Orleans, East Ninth Ward resident Charles Calzada, who was flooded out for the second time with his English springer spaniel, Petot, said they again owed their lives to one of the world's noisiest forms of marine transport. "Thank God for those airboats," Calzada said.

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How high were Rita's winds in Vinton, La.? So high that patrolman Chad Porterfield joked that he was going to put out missing-persons reports on two trees.

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What does it take to terrorize a reporter?

Jack Douglas Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found out Saturday morning, when power lines blocked his way and forced him back over the 177-foot-high Rainbow bridge between Port Arthur and Orange, the highest in Texas. The bridge's railings were out in places and the wind rocked the vehicle harder and harder as it approached the bridge's peak. According to Douglas, driving over the hump scared him "more than three times more" than anything he'd ever done.

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Lula Mae Enders, 58, of Dayton, Texas, can't stand up straight because of recent spinal surgery, but she drove 58 miles in eight hours Thursday before running out of gas. Figuring she'd die, she wrote her driver's license number on her thigh and her Social Security number on her arm for easy identification. "I just knew it was going to be me and my dog in the car dead," she said.

Then a nurse and her husband stopped and gave her a gallon of gas, which got her to a junior high school shelter in Livingston.

"They were my angels, and I don't even know their names,'' she said.

At the school, Larry Langois, 50, is watching out for her.

"All my family got hit in New Orleans," he explained.

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(Root of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported from Livingston, Texas. The Star-Telegram's L. Lamor Williams in Huntsville and Traci Shurley in Shepherd, David Sneed of The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune and Aaron C. Davis of the San Jose Mercury News in Vermilion Parish, La., Katherine Corcoran of the San Jose Mercury News from Oberlin, La., David Klepper of The Kansas City Star in Beaumont, Texas, and Nicholas Spangler of The Miami Herald in New Orleans contributed to this report. Greve compiled their reports in Washington.)

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

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