NINTH WARD EXODUS

Walk in Cherlyn Ruffin's home and you'll see how nothing goes to waste. White lace linens, donated from a local church, cover a coffee table and end table in the living room. Two kitchen table chairs serve as stands for a small TV and a cell phone plugged into the wall.

FEMA trailers are notorious for being the barest of housing necessities, Ruffin is making the most of her humble accommodations.

Her three-bedroom mobile home in Scott is larger than the standard-issue one-bedroom travel trailers that many families of three or more have received. The mobile home also came with some new furniture, as well as a box of kitchen supplies. It's a big adjustment, but considering the trauma she has suffered in the past five months, it's a comforting place to be.

"It's nice," Ruffin says. "It's much better than how it was then. I like Lafayette. I'm not going back to New Orleans. Nooo. Not after what happened to me."

The 46-year-old Ruffin is a fast, matter-of-fact talker who keeps her new home immaculately clean and orderly. Until recently, she had lived her whole life in New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward. For 16 years, she worked as kitchen help at Johnny and Josie's — a Metairie restaurant that was sold almost a year ago. Prior to the restaurant closing, Ruffin quit her low-paying job in order to care for her 64-year-old mother, Yvonne Thomas, who is suffering from severe diabetes and needs four insulin shots a day. Ruffin also cares for her two grandchildren, Mya Marie, age 6, and Michael, age 11.

Despite past hardships, nothing could have prepared Ruffin for what she would go through the week of Hurricane Katrina. Prior to the storm, her mother and grandchildren evacuated with other family members, but Ruffin stayed behind. "I was going to see if it got too bad, then I was going to leave," she says. But after levee breaches sent water surging into the Ninth Ward, there was no way for Ruffin to get out. Forced to retreat to her attic, Ruffin watched as the water began taking over her house.

"I smelled the gas when I saw my stove leaning in the water from the pipe," she says. "I'm lookin' down, everything was floating. I was so scared I said, 'Oooh Lord, I gotta get out of here.' The Lord fixed my eyes — I didn't shed a tear, scared as I was. I was in my attic for four whole days. I still have nightmares. I wake up, and I'm still in that water."

Ruffin managed to tear through her roof and was rescued four days after the storm. Her face was severely burned either from long exposure to the sun or from chemicals in the water. She finally got treatment a day later when she was taken by helicopter to Lafayette and rushed to Lafayette General Medical Center. She arrived at the Cajundome with bandages wrapped around her head.

"I think I was the talk of the Cajundome," Ruffin says. "I walked in there with my face all burnt. Hoo, I talked to some people in the dome. I was so tired of telling people what happened.

"That's why they called me 'Survivor'," Ruffin continues. "Cause I've been though it all. Hoo, Lord yes. Everybody says the Lord kept me here for a reason."

Religion has been one constant consolation for Ruffin. She keeps an open Bible that she reads every night on a stand by her bed. "I never miss a night," she says.

After losing so much, Ruffin is starting anew and has taken her mother and grandchildren back in with her. "They wanted to come stay with me," she says of the kids. "So I got them down here and put them in school."

Luckily, she's found some helpful hands in Lafayette. Ruffin doesn't drive, but a woman she met while staying in the Cajundome still comes and gives her a ride when she needs to go to the store. She says the Cajundome's staff has always been helpful. They still help her when she needs to fax in paperwork to FEMA.

Navigating FEMA's bureaucracy has been frustrating for Ruffin. She says she often gets mixed messages from the claims reps she has been talking to on a daily basis. Ruffin has collected about $4,000 thus far from FEMA but says she and her mom have been denied on their personal property claims — claims she has heard of other people collecting.

"I lost everything," she says. "I don't know why it's so hard for them people. I had to send all this to FEMA. Now they're talking about an inspector calling me, and the inspector ain't called me yet."

For now, the family of four is surviving on less than $600 a month from her mother's social security retirement checks. She needs to reapply for food stamps since her disaster relief program has expired. But, as Ruffin sees it, she still has a lot to be thankful for.

"I almost lost my life," she says. "I could have been dead. Thank God I'm here today. I always say that." — Stubbs

 


RENAISSANCE IN GRAND COTEAU

Like so many New Orleanians, Randi Kaufman thought she would brave Hurricane Katrina, even after her friend Patrice Melnick invited her to seek refuge in Grand Coteau. "I was going to ride out the storm with a pregnant friend at Memorial Hospital," says Kaufman.

But as news reports began showing the monster storm heading directly for the Crescent City, Kaufman, who manages a public health program in New Orleans, got increasingly nervous. She hopped in her vehicle in the wee hours of Sunday morning and arrived in the St. Landry Parish home of Patrice and her husband, Olan, at about 4 a.m.

Patrice, who teaches creative writing at Xavier University during the week and has a second residence there, had come home to Grand Coteau Thursday before the storm just as she did every week — totally unaware what she was escaping. "I thought it was going to Florida," she says.

Quickly realizing they would be returning to work in a city that was a shell of its former self, Kaufman and Patrice looked to downtown Grand Coteau for a new beginning. In late November they opened a small retail shop, Casa Azul, nestled between Catahoula's Restaurant and the post office on antique-store-lined Martin Luther King Drive. They've tied a lot of what makes the city special into their new shop, which means "blue house" in Spanish. For now, they both still commute to New Orleans during the week, where their homes suffered little damage. Patrice, however, will leave her teaching position at Xavier at the end of July, and Kaufman is seriously considering a permanent move to Grand Coteau.

"I really like it," Kaufman says. "I have other friends in Lafayette, too. I've always evacuated [there]." For now, she is content to spend her weekends in Grand Coteau, where working at Casa Azul is a three-minute commute — by foot — from her camper in the Melnicks' back yard.

Casa Azul is a little like stepping into an eclectic French Quarter shop; a subtle whiff of burning Thai lemongrass candle greats shoppers, who can choose from a variety of colorful silk Vietnamese purses, woven rugs or hand-painted gumbo bowls featuring whimsical crab and crawfish images from Covington artist/New Orleans native Tika Hasslock Valis. "We try to have things from all over the world. It's a little bit funky," Patrice says.

Though neither has retail experience, both have traveled extensively — Patrice spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic and speaks French, Sango and bit of Brazilian Portuguese; and Kaufman, who is fluent in Chinese, studied and worked in China and Taiwan.

The shop represents a kind of renaissance for the women — especially when fellow New Orleanians come by. Over the holidays the duo helped customers choose gifts to send relatives and other loved ones displaced to other states by the storms. "It actually did surprise me how much emotion is attached to objects," Patrice says. "People wanted to buy handmade items for people who had moved away. They represent new beginnings."

"It kept me busy. It kept me focused," says Kaufman of the project. "To go through this with such a close friend was therapeutic. I had this tremendous, manic energy."

Getting the store open took a lot of work, but the women found a big helping hand in Patrice's husband, who is the maintenance director at St. Charles College, the Jesuit seminary in Grand Coteau, and Hilary and John Slaughter, their landlords and owners of Catahoula's. When Patrice went back to teaching on Jan. 17, Casa Azul hired its first employee — a fellow New Orleans evacuee. — Turk

 


A DOCTOR'S JOURNEY

There's no furniture other than a bare desk in Dr. Victor "Ted" Tedesco's new office on Hospital Drive. No art or framed diplomas on the walls. No rugs or curtains. Not even a phone. The paint on the walls dried yesterday, and today he has a desk and chair. Tedesco has been in constant motion since he evacuated New Orleans Sept. 1.

Tedesco is a fourth generation New Orleanian whose family arrived in New Orleans from Italy in the late 19th century. Educated at Brother Martin and LSU medical school, the cardiac and vascular surgeon was head of staff at Touro Hospital in New Orleans. In the days before the storm, Touro readied its generators, stocked up on food and water and lined up two shifts of staff to ride out the hurricane. It's standard procedure for the hospital, which is charged with caring for those who cannot evacuate.

Tedesco's blue eyes are tranquil and radiate calm as he begins his Hurricane Katrina story.

"There were 250 patients," he says. "We had support staff. People's families came, and brought their pets. So we had about 2,000 people in there, including dogs and cats when the storm hit, but other than losing power, it was pretty normal. It was the second day, Tuesday morning, when the levees broke that things started getting hairy. There was looting and gunfire. The city got crazy. That's when we made a decision that we were going to start evacuating patients."

The generators started failing. Air conditioning, lights and elevators in the building became inoperable. Telephones didn't work, and the hospital found itself cut off from communication.

"It turned into a debacle — having to deliver food, having to deliver medicine and care for the patients on 10 stories," he remembers. "We formed human chains in the stairwells to deliver food. Staff and other people there are feeling threatened about whether they're going to get out, what's going to happen, and people started leaving. One minute someone's there, and the next minute they're not. As people leave, you lose services at the hospital. Your radiology techs leave, and you can no longer take X-rays. As your people drawing blood leave, all of a sudden you've got no lab. You turn into no longer a hospital but a hot box, trying to keep patients alive. And we were losing patients because their temperatures were 106 degrees, and we've got no air-conditioning. We started knocking windows out, just to get air to try to cool things off."

On Wednesday, Tedesco found a pay phone in the emergency room that had a dial tone and started calling for help. He got in touch with a helicopter company. With a helipad on the top of a third-floor parking garage, it was a way to evacuate patients.

"We moved 100 patients, the sickest of the sick, down the stairs and onto the parking lot roof. After about an hour the helicopters stopped coming. We couldn't figure out why. Ultimately we found out FEMA confiscated our helicopters, because we weren't in dire enough condition, according to them. So now we've got about 85 patients, unbelievably fragile, sitting out there in wheel chairs and on stretchers on the parking lot."

The staff was exhausted and unable to carry patients back up staircases into the hospital, so they camped out on the parking garage roof for the night.

"We set up a MASH unit, with nurses and IVs and all the medicines we could get out there, we brought food out there for them. And that's where they sat."

On Thursday, thanks to an ABC News television report and a call that Tedesco's father placed to the sheriff of Terrebone Parish, helicopters began descending en masse. "We were handing patients up into the helicopters and rolling them down the ramps of the parking garage to get them into the minibuses. It was like the evacuation of Saigon."

Tedesco finally was able to leave and intended to check on his house on the West Bank. Driving over the bridge, he saw a huge plume of black smoke rising on the West Bank.

"I finally realized it was Oakwood Mall burning from looters. That was my exodus out of the city."

Tedesco spent the first night with his father in Houma. He made contact with his wife and children, who had initially taken shelter in the hospital with him but then left for his wife's family home in New Iberia. Tedesco joined his wife, Sonya, and their two children there. Within a week and a half, he joined Lafayette's Cardiovascular Clinic and started his new job on Sept. 12.

Even though Touro is back up and running, Tedesco isn't returning to New Orleans. "Most people who had evacuated didn't understand the full scope of the disaster. I had deep ties to Touro, and it was really tough to leave. But we all have to make our own decisions for our lives. If I had stayed, I would have had to do it without my wife. She definitely wasn't going back. One side of me feels bad about leaving. I want to stay and support the city where I grew up, but you have to be realistic. All my patients were gone, and they weren't coming back anytime soon."

Tedesco's children — Victor, 10, and Alex, 13 — are attending St. Pius. His wife, a private school teacher in New Orleans, is teaching at Ridge Elementary. Tedesco is affiliated with Lafayette General, Lourdes and the Heart Hospital of Lafayette. The transition for all of them has been easier than they imagined.

"I'm staying, no question about it," he says. Tedesco and his family are renting a house in Lafayette and looking to buy. "It's been a very refreshing experience for me here. The people here are down to earth and honest and just friendly. This is a great medical community." — Tutwiler

 


DISCOVERING THE COUNTRY

Before Hurricane Katrina, Patrick Dunne had two locations of Lucullus Antiques in New Orleans. His French Quarter store reopened in mid-October on Chartres Street, but a tree through the roof forever closed the doors of his Magazine Street shop. Dunne and his partner, Zoubir Taboug, evacuated to Florida, but kept in touch with old friend Robert Smith, owner of Au Vieux Paris Antiques on the Breaux Bridge Highway. "Robert called, and he said, 'Why don't you think about a store in the country?'" says Dunne. "Like everybody, we were sort of dazed and frantic and trying to pull things together, so Zoubir and I sat there and said, 'Why not?'"

Lucullus Antiques found its Acadiana location in a former dress shop on Main Street in Breaux Bridge, and with the help of local Ed Breaux, the space was renovated in about a month. It's now filled with fine French antiques, from 1940s café au lait bowls to $30,000 armoires and full dining room sets. Dunne and Taboug are still reeling from the experience and the start of their new life in the country. They spend half the week in New Orleans at the Chartres Street shop and Thursday through Sunday in Breaux Bridge, living in a two-room cottage on Smith's property.

Dunne never could have imagined the chain of events that led to the opening of the Breaux Bridge location. "Here was another antique dealer [Smith], not worrying about competition, who just wanted to extend a helping hand," he says. "Then there's the story of generosity because we get here, and everybody we deal with from the Cajun carpenter to the painter to the printer to the landlord, everybody was generous." Taboug was also delighted to hear the locals speaking French and used the language when negotiating the price for carpentry work. The grand opening of Lucullus Antiques à Pont Breaux attracted more than 500 people, many of them displaced New Orleanians, and a spread of local delicacies like hogshead cheese and cracklins paired with champagne were a perfect complement to the store's extensive culinary antiques.

Forced outside New Orleans, both men realized how insular their previous lives had become. "Like many New Orleanians and like a typical Parisian, we thought the world didn't really exist outside of New Orleans and Paris, and our life really is between, because we have a place in France," says Dunne. "Before the storm, Robert would say, 'Come up for a weekend.' We'd say, 'God it's so far. How's it possible?' Or if you would have asked me where Arnaudville was… We really had forgotten our neighborhood, and part of the most wonderful thing for us, besides the fact that the store has been so well received, is discovering Louisiana." (Dunne is from Corpus Christi, Texas, and Tabourg from Paris. Their Faubourg Marigny New Orleans home suffered little damage.)

"I think it was a reconnection with the countryside," says Taboug. "Living in a big town people tend to get snobbish and ignore the rest of the world." Dunne and Taboug now frequent Café Des Amis, have befriended the owner of Chez Jacqueline and shop for groceries at Poche's. They've also abandoned Interstate 10 and take the back roads from New Orleans to Breaux Bridge.

"I think this is the real clue to how countrified you've gotten," says Dunne. "We always come up 90. My heart begins to be happy once I've gotten past Jeanerette."

Dunne lost some of his New Orleans staff, but his core group, including Rebecca Rider, Kerry Moody, Michele Bray and Robert Ramsdell, remained with him and take turns working in Breaux Bridge. "One of the key people in our group that has been with me from the very beginning, Kerry Moody, told me definitively he was not a country boy and while he'd help us get set up, he was not coming here to the country to work," says Dunne. "Now, they fight over who's going to work here. They've all discovered the Cajun bars. They've discovered they have friends in Lafayette. They're having such a good time, they pout now if they're not the ones coming for the weekend."

Dunne and Taboug, along with Lucullus' resident bulldog, Clovis, also have a hard time leaving Breaux Bridge. "One of our problems is Sunday evening when we're closing up the store going back to New Orleans," he says. "Even the bulldog doesn't want to get in the car." — Zaunbrecher

 


BACK ON THE BAYOU

Jonno Frishberg is no stranger to Lafayette. "The oilfield brought me to Louisiana, not music," he says. The Arizona native first came to Lafayette looking for work in 1979, and found it offshore in the oil service industry.

But the classically trained violist also found Cajun music. "I loved the blues," Frishberg says, "and when I heard the Balfa Brothers playing the Cajun fiddle, it was bluesy, but it was so full, and there was so much thickness to it. That big deep whole round sound — and the fact that it wasn't all fast and furious — really appealed to me. It moved me." Frishberg played with the Cajun rock band Mamou during the late '80s and early '90s and is a member of the Cajun band Charivari. (He's proficient on both the accordion and the fiddle.)

In 1993, Frishberg relocated to New Orleans. "I went straight to New Orleans for the express purpose of being able to make a living playing music and be home every night," he says. With regular gigs at Mulate's, Cajun Cabin and Ye Old College Inn, Frishberg played Cajun music for the last 13 years with his band, Jonno, and its latest incarnation, Bayou DeVille.

Before Hurricane Katrina stuck, Frishberg packed up his family and headed west to Lafayette. "We packed for three days," he says. "It looked like it could be 'The Bad One,' so we brought both cars, the dog, and a couple of valuable instruments." For seven weeks, Frishberg and his wife, Maria LoVullo, and their two children, 13-year-old Colin and 11-year-old Eva, lived with Ken and Anne Broussard of Lafayette.

In late October, the Frishbergs moved to a bed-and-breakfast cabin along the Vermilion River, even though they still own a home in Gentilly. "We're renting it out because I wouldn't even know how to sell it right now," Frishberg says. "I wouldn't want to sell it. I don't know what's going to happen. We weren't even sure if we were going to stay here any longer than the school year. We're just taking it a day at a time."

His wife was able to find work teaching gifted students, but Frishberg has spent most of his time fixing the Gentilly house and recently bought a new home in Lafayette. "Relocating is hard to do," he says. "And here's the most uncomfortable thing: if somebody from here says, 'So you've resettled here? You're going to stay here?' I don't know what to say. I don't want to say no, because maybe I have. I just don't know yet. I may have relocated here. There's certainly a lot right with it. But we're going to take it a school year at a time. We're on the one-school-year plan. I don't want to plan any farther or any shorter than that."

Frishberg says his major focus has been getting his kids enrolled at L.J. Alleman Middle School. "I don't know if my decisions are always good," he says, "but Lafayette has a lot to offer, and it's things you can't measure. The kids were at a very high performing school in New Orleans, but you can't measure what's here. A lot of it's learned outside of the classroom. There's a culture. There's something left still after all of this time. They haven't totally lost the Cajun thing, even with TV and everything."

Frishberg hasn't even had the time to seek out any local gigs. "I don't know if there's work," he adds, "and as a musician, I don't expect to be making a living in Lafayette. But I couldn't make a living playing in New Orleans right now either. I'm just waiting for the next step. Once I get in the house and get my family situated, then I can put my energy into 'OK, now what?'" — Fuller

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