Hurricane hits home for Craig residents

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Betty Switzler has spent the past three days with the TV on and the telephone in hand praying for any news about a small Mississippi town that was one of the first hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Her son, his wife and their four children live in Picayune, which lies 30 miles northeast of New Orleans and was one of many towns devastated Monday when the hurricane hit.

The family spent Sunday at their church helping to prepare for refugees and decided late that night to take shelter at the church.

That was the last Switzler has heard. Her son, Scott, reached the Picayune City Hall on Monday and was told the church was still standing and a single death had been reported, an elderly man suffered a heart attack.

"I watch the news all the time to see if they say anything about Picayune," Switzler said. "They haven't, and I'm glad."

She said she gets more depressed and feels more helpless as the days pass. She's called every number that promises information and checked all the recommended Web sites.

She still hasn't found the information she's searching for.

She worries not only about the effect of the hurricane, but also about the effect being trapped in a shelter will have on her son.

Alan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He took his medications to the shelter, but his doctor is 30 miles away in partially devastated New Orleans.

"The heat bothers MS people," Switzler said. "I'm sure he's not complaining about that, but I'm sure he's miserable."

The power has been out since Monday with no indication of when it might be restored.

Elsie Najera understands Switzer's concerns. Until Tuesday, she had no idea how her brother and his family weathered the storm.

Her brother, Moffat County High School graduate Junior Najera, his wife and four of his children -- the youngest a 1-week-old baby -- live 100 miles from New Orleans. They planned to evacuate with hundreds of others but discovered every gasoline station in the town was sold out.

"They were in a panic," Elsie said.

They took refuge in a shelter.

Junior called his family Wednesday on a cellular phone.

"We could barely hear, but he said everyone was OK," Najera said. "We're doing a lot better knowing that they're OK."

Although everything surrounding the Najera family's trailer was gone, their home was untouched.

Hurricanes drove Jeana McLellan to Craig -- almost literally.

After enduring three nearly back-to-back hurricanes in Florida, the fourth sent the McLellan family packing. They could see hurricane Gene in the rearview mirror of their U-Haul as they raced to get out of its reach.

McLellan was raised in Florida. She and her husband lived in Craig and Las Vegas before she talked him into renting a house on what was New Smyrna Beach.

They took their grandson, who they've raised since his mother died from breast cancer three years ago.

Their first hurricane -- Charlie -- wasn't so bad, McLellan said. Residents weren't evacuated and there was no damage to their house, though several trees were downed and the power was out.

They stayed in a hotel during Hurricane Francis, something that frightened oxygen-dependent McLellan.

"The disabled shelters were all full," she said. "At that point, everyone panics. Room's limited in shelters and you can't take your pets."

She packed her portable oxygen tanks -- praying it would be enough -- food that could be eaten cold and bedding. The family prepared for a three- to four-day wait.

Windows of the room weren't boarded over, so she closed the mini-blinds and taped them down, hoping that would at least contain the glass if the windows were broken.

Life in a shelter is unimaginable, McLellan said. They're generally full beyond capacity because of the need. Without water, the stench grows every day. Residents are asked to bring their own food, water and entertainment.

"You have to be prepared," she said.

They returned to their home to find a portion of the roof ripped off. The lawn equipment was gone as well as their grandson's bike.

It took weeks for the McLellans to find someone who could fasten a tarp over the hole in their roof. It was done just in time for Hurricane Ivan to rip it away.

After that, the home was declared uninhabitable, but there was nowhere else to go, so the McLellans lived there anyway.

In less than a month, they packed a truck with less than half of what they owned and made a beeline for Colorado with Hurricane Gene following.

"When we heard Gene was coming, we decided to move to Colorado," McLellan said. "Thank God we did because Gene eliminated the beach. There is no beach there anymore."

McLellan said those who haven't experienced a hurricane can't imagine the fear they create and the havoc they wreak.

"It's so random," she said. "One house will be pristine and the ones next to it will be gone."

Rhonda Walmer said she cried when she saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Like McLellan, she and her husband moved to Craig from Florida after facing their fourth hurricane.

"You see light poles falling like dominoes," she said. "You have whirlwinds intermixed with tornadoes, and the whole time it's a torrential downpour. You can't even see across the street. The rain is like needles hitting you it's so strong -- it hurts to be in it."

Walmer's been in the eye of a hurricane and has seen the sky turn blue and the sun start shining at the same time the wind and water attack just a few miles away.

"You're so mentally and physically exhausted you can't think," she said. "I'm so hurt for those people Katrina hit. My heart just bleeds for them. I know what they went through."

Walmer aches for those who have to loot to survive, stealing diapers and baby food to make it through.

"I never understood what anyone was going through until I went through it," she said. "You just cannot grasp it."

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