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Evacuees' adjustment not easy Dislocation, delays plague New Orleans woman, her grandson in new life in Buffalo

Jeanette Birdstraw knows that in Arkansas she had a comfortable hotel room with a refrigerator and three meals a day at a nearby shelter.

That much is certain, but little else is these days, not since Hurricane Katrina washed out her New Orleans apartment.

Evacuated first to Arkansas, Birdstraw bounced to Buffalo a week and a half ago to be closer to family.

She's further from home, though, and on her fifth day here she wonders why she is so far away, living in cramped quarters with relatives and waiting for a city inspector to deem an apartment habitable. Waiting for the Salvation Army to deliver a stove and fridge. Waiting for the utility companies to turn on the electric, gas and telephone. Waiting for the food stamps to arrive. Waiting for her 16-year-old grandson, Antonio Merrick, to be enrolled in high school. Waiting, waiting and waiting for some sense that the tide of the storm has ebbed and she's standing on terra firma again instead of sinking into the muck.

"I was in Arkansas in a hotel. I was doing much better than I am here," said Birdstraw. "I was just trying to get up here to get stable and get Antonio in school."

Birdstraw and Antonio are two of about 520 people who have settled in the Buffalo area after being vanquished from the Gulf Coast region.

The News has kept tabs on their acclimation the past 12 days. The adjustment has been tedious and draining, despite offers of help from a variety of individuals, community groups and layers of government.

Although poor and disabled, Birdstraw, 53, at least had stability in New Orleans. She and Antonio lived in public housing a few blocks from the French Quarter. But she knew her neighborhood and could navigate outside it in a 1985 Lincoln when necessary.

"I left it sittin' under water," she said.

She doesn't know if she can afford another one.

Birdstraw and Antonio arrived in Buffalo Sept. 16, courtesy of a flight paid by True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street. They were greeted with hugs by Birdstraw's niece, Tammie Clay Duplantis and her husband, Clyde.

Birdstraw last visited Western New York more than 30 years ago and only has a vague recollection of the region.

Asked what he knows about Buffalo, Antonio responded: "I just know I got family here."

Antonio pushed his grandmother in a wheelchair, giddily twirling her around in the airport parking garage. Birdstraw simultaneously shrieked and laughed, nearly falling out of the chair.

On her lap, she carried a wide-eyed Chihuahua named Paco, which she refused to leave behind when an air boat rescued her and Antonio from the floods.

By 1:49 a.m., grandmother and grandson -- and Paco -- were off to their newest temporary home, the Duplantis residence on Goodyear Avenue.

> Long journey to Buffalo

They awakened several hours later to a steely sky and drenching rain. At the American Red Cross offices on Delaware Avenue, volunteer Les Furman asked Birdstraw to recount how she ended up here. She rattled off the chronology: Left her North Tonti Street home Sept. 3 by air boat, taken to a truck, dropped off at a bridge, airlifted by cargo helicopter to Armstrong Airport, wait eight hours, taken to Fort Smith, Ark., and finally driven to Fort Chaffee, Ark.

On Sept. 7, she and Antonio rode a bus for six hours to Jonesboro, Ark., where they were turned away from the Red Cross shelter because it didn't allow dogs. They were put up in a Days Inn instead.

For six years, Birdstraw and Paco have been inseparable. A hurricane wasn't about to change that.

"She feels as if she's donated DNA to that dog," Antonio said.

Birdstraw and Antonio spent their first few nights on Goodyear Avenue, but by the third night, Birdstraw had had enough. Both Tammie and Clyde smoke, and Birdstraw suffers from asthma. Antonio slept on a sofa, Birdstraw on a mattress. Paco had no room to roam.

An apartment on Moselle Street, owned by Birdstraw's sister, offered more space overall. But, on first sight, Birdstraw and Antonio were disappointed by its tiny bedrooms and general uncleanliness.

Birdstraw found a pleasant surprise in the neighborhood, though.

One of her first impressions of Buffalo was the plethora of boarded-up homes. Yet, on her block of tree-lined Moselle: "It's a nice area," she said. "All the houses look like they're kept up."

Amid the frustration of lives uprooted, Birdstraw and Antonio experienced moments of lightness and joy, too.

At 1:35 p.m. on their sixth day in Buffalo, nine boxes arrived at the doorstep of Moselle -- manna from Arkansas, including clothes, toiletries and other personal items.

Antonio was especially excited as he loaded the delivery into a bedroom.

One of the boxes contained an Edna Karr Magnet School Class of 2007 knapsack full of marble composition books.

"This is my pride and joy right here," he said.

The books, some tattered and torn, are full of poetry. Antonio has been writing in these books since eighth grade. He hopes someday to pursue a career as a magazine journalist.

"Whatever's going on in my life at that particular time is what I write about," he said.

In New Orleans, Antonio and a friend were planning to start a school newspaper at Edna Karr this fall.

He's not quite ready to begin writing about the hurricane yet.

> Some Catch-22 situations

Twelve days into her arrival, Birdstraw still didn't have telephone service at the apartment. It was another item she couldn't check off the list on a yellow pad she carries.

"I'm really getting [upset]," she said. "I'm still going through hell trying to get a phone in here."

The phone company, she said, told her a worker would show up again today, sometime between 8 a.m and 5 p.m., meaning Birdstraw will have to stay home until he arrives.

She can't get a refrigerator and stove from the Salvation Army until she presents the agency with a lease agreement or a copy of a utility bill.

But the Duplantises didn't plan to have a lease and Birdstraw hasn't received a utility bill yet. So the appliances were on hold.

And Birdstraw had harsh words for FEMA and the Red Cross.

"Where's all the money goin'?" she asked frequently.

She said she's tried repeatedly to apply for FEMA aid, but was rebuffed because the agency claimed her social security number didn't match her date of birth.

"FEMA keeps saying I don't exist," she said.

There was progress elsewhere: Antonio started his junior year at South Park High School, and, at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, Birdstraw picked up a chair, dresser and a twin mattress and box spring for Antonio, who had been sleeping on the floor.

But Birdstraw still wonders whether stability is on the horizon.

In New Orleans, she paid $157 a month for her apartment, which included gas, water and lights, she said.

She might pay more than that on heating costs alone during a Buffalo winter.

Tammie and Clyde have helped Birdstraw and Antonio get settled, but there's only so much they can do.

Besides, said Birdstraw, "I'm an independent person. I'm used to taking care of myself and my own."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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