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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005 02:19 am

Katrina’s waves

Illinois state workers step up after Louisiana is battered

The Sanders family — Stephanie, Faith, Love and Paul — lost a home in Harahan, La., to fire in 2004, then Hurricane Katrina left them living in a truck. Illinois state employee Floyd Schleyhahn befriended the family during his service in that ra
The Lord works in mysterious ways, and so does the state of Illinois. Floyd Schleyhahn, a network administrator for the state Department of Central Management Services, found that out firsthand in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “My wife and I were watching television,” Schleyhahn recalls. “We thought, ‘Gosh, here we are in the cover of our home. We can just turn it off. The folks down there can’t. We’ve got to be able to do something. They’re only 12 hours away.’”
Schleyhahn called his pastor, who put him in touch with Convoy of Hope, a Christian relief group that was already in the hurricane zone. “They said, ‘When you come, you’ve got to be self-sufficient,’” he recalls. That meant bringing all of the food, water, fuel and shelter he’d need to survive. Just renting an RV would cost $1,200. That seemed a waste, so Schleyhahn figured that he’d just write a check. That was on a Wednesday. The very next day, his boss asked him whether he’d go to Louisiana as part of a state effort to help administer public assistance to folks who’d lost everything. “In a matter of hours, it went from not going to going with everything taken care of, all expenses paid, and I didn’t have to use any of my [vacation] time,” Schleyhahn says. “It was just, like, wow.”
Schleyhahn and the 39 other members on his team arrived in Bogalusa, 70 miles north of New Orleans, on Sept. 11. They were soon in the thick of things, setting up Internet access by way of satellite so that money could start flowing to folks with no access to ATMs or checking accounts. “To me, it was what everyone was thinking Y2K was going to be,” Schleyhahn says. ‘They knew the state of Illinois was coming. There were thousands of people — the line waiting for us was a mile and three-quarters long. The computer systems were down. If they didn’t have cash on hand, they couldn’t use credit cards; they couldn’t do anything. The week we arrived, grocery stores were just beginning to be restocked with food.”
The one-time allotments to purchase food were piddly, ranging from $149 for one person to $611 for a family of six. But no one complained. “These were people who’d never been on public assistance before,” Schleyhahn says. “No one was protesting that this was too little. No one wasfighting. There was no anger. They were just appreciative to get what they were getting.” An 8 p.m. curfew was in place, but one of Schleyhahn’s supervisors arranged to have it extended so that Schleyhahn and his colleagues could do their laundry. Schleyhahn admits to a bit of apprehension as he headed to a Laundromat. “It was right in the ’hood — a rough neighborhood,” he says. “It was getting dark.” Instead of muggers, residents were waiting with quarters. “They said, ‘We’ll do your laundry,” Schleyhahn says. The same hospitality awaited them when it was time to eat. “These people lost their homes, and they wanted to make us meals,” Schleyhahn says. One family in particular stood out. While walking down a line of people waiting for food stamps, Schleyhahn chanced across Paul Sanders, a cattle rancher. Sanders didn’t need food stamps. He wanted to know the way to the closest FEMA office. He, his wife, and their two daughters, ages 1 and 3, were sleeping in a pickup truck because the hurricane had destroyed their homes. Even worse, the truck’s air conditioning had gone out, leaving the family the choice of sleeping with the windows open and being eaten by mosquitoes or closing them and putting up with sweltering heat. After other evacuees complained that their children were making noise, the family had refused to stay in shelters. It turned out that this wasn’t the first disaster to hit the Sanders family. In August 2004, their home in nearby Harahan was destroyed in a fire. Harahan Fire Chief Todd St. Cyr vividly recalls the disaster. Each time firefighters thought that they had the blaze under control, it would pop up in a different part of the house, which had numerous false ceilings and spaces between walls resulting from additions that had been built over the years. “It was unreal,” St. Cyr says. “It was the damnedest fire I ever fought in my life.”
But Sanders, who lost cattle, sheep, and goats in addition to his family’s mobile home in the hurricane, took it in stride. “He kind of had a smile on his face when he told me about the fire,’ says Schleyhahn, who took up a collection and raised several hundred dollars for the Sanders family. At last report, they were living in a tent. “These people, if they didn’t have bad luck, they wouldn’t have any luck at all,” Schleyhahn says.
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