They deeply miss their 11-story high-rise, where every face was familiar and the elevators were never too long a walk away. They pine for the balmy weather, those Mississippi gulf beaches, the casinos and shopping malls that were a five-minute drive down the coastal highway.
At the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington, the elderly evacuees from Hurricane Katrina feel a little isolated, maybe even stranded. Those who managed to keep their cars don't know the area well enough to drive anyplace easily. Unlike the home's sister institution in Gulfport, Miss., the D.C. facility is miles from any major shopping center, surrounded by residential neighborhoods with few attractive commercial strips. The home itself is spread out in several buildings on a hilly, 276-acre campus, just east of the Petworth neighborhood, with striking views of downtown.
The home had about 1,000 residents before Katrina struck, and it can accommodate 1,700. In the past several weeks, more than 330 evacuees from Gulfport have moved in. The evacuees are waiting to hear whether their former home, which was flooded, will be salvaged. They expect to be in Washington at least one or two years.
"I feel like we walk a million miles here," said Betty Lindstrom, who turned 80 last month and had lived at the Gulfport home since 1998. There, she made daily excursions around the coastal city in her car, which Katrina destroyed. Here, she decides each day whether to visit her mailbox or the Post Exchange, because walking to both places from her room or the dining hall is too much for her.
Robert Rutherford, 63, said the biggest shock for him was the number of people at the Washington home. Both institutions are open to people who retired from the military or served during wartime. The Gulfport facility housed about 600 retirees, significantly fewer than the D.C. home.
"If we didn't know your name, at least we knew your face," Rutherford said the other day during lunch in the dining hall, sitting with four friends from Gulfport. "Down there, we were all family."
But, he and others hastened to add, just because they're still adjusting doesn't mean they're not grateful.
"Thank God they took us in," said Sally Manning, 80. "They've welcomed us, given us a place to live, a bed to sleep in. We can't thank them enough."
Many residents of the D.C. home helped prepare rooms, sort donations and greet the evacuees when they arrived, exhausted, after a multi-day bus trip. There were also scores of volunteers from outside the facility, both military and civilian, who labored frenetically in the days just after the hurricane to clean and furnish 400 formerly vacant rooms.
Hundreds of people showed up at the campus to fill a small stucco building with donated clothing, toiletries and linens. One donor brought $70 worth of brand-new bathroom supplies, including the small rugs that cover the bare floor in front of a toilet. Another arrived one afternoon with dress shoes, blazers and slacks that had belonged to her father, who had died recently.
And children from St. John's Catholic Church in Frederick sent handwritten letters and brightly colored pictures, which the evacuees used to decorate their bare walls.
"They heard that we didn't have anything," said Barbara Folk, 82, a native of Long Island who served in a WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) unit during World War II and moved to the Gulfport facility three years ago. "So they all sent us little pictures and notes."
Naomi Pointer, 81, went to the donations center one day in late September, just after the weather had started to turn cool. A pan of brownies had been left by one donor with a note saying, "Please help yourself." There were cardboard boxes filled with shampoo, soap, conditioner, toothpaste, razors -- even denture cream.
Shirts and pants were folded in tidy piles. Dresses, blazers and housecoats were neatly hung along the walls. Pointer, who had lived in Gulfport six years, was looking for some warm outerwear.
"All I have is my light sweater," she said, trying on a soft, thick green jacket and lamenting the two just-finished afghans she'd had to leave behind. "Oh, yes," she said, testing out the jacket's zipper, "this will be fine."
Pointer said the hardest part about adjusting to the Washington home was the lack of proximity to her brother, who was also a resident of the Gulfport facility and who helped her through dizzy spells brought on by vertigo. In Mississippi, they lived one floor apart. Now, they are in different buildings on separate parts of campus.
"I'm all right. I've made it through rougher things," Pointer said. "I'm just so thankful that we had a place to go. So many people didn't."
The Gulfport retirement home was built in 1976, replacing a facility in Philadelphia that had been established for Navy veterans more than 100 years earlier.
Known at the time as the Naval Home, it included all dining and residential facilities in a single high-rise -- "one beautiful building," Folk said wistfully, "shaped like the prow of a ship."
Retirees from the Army and Air Force were eligible to live at the Soldier's and Airmen's Home in Washington, which was created in 1851 on a bucolic, rolling campus that also served as a retreat for President Lincoln during the Civil War. His cottage and three other original buildings still stand on the campus and are national historic landmarks.
The two facilities have been managed jointly since 1991, and four years ago were renamed the Armed Forces Retirement Home -- Gulfport and Washington, respectively. Retirees were allowed to apply to either facility regardless of their branch of service. A new chief operating officer was hired to cut costs and streamline operations.
Officials are working on a master plan to sell 125 acres of the Washington campus for private development, a process that is being closely watched by development firms, city economic development officials and local civic groups.
At a community meeting last week, officials from the home said current plans focus on building townhouses, in keeping with the character of the adjacent neighborhoods. At least some of the townhouses may be reserved for military retirees who are still living independently. While neighborhood groups have called for opening up the golf course and other green spaces, officials at the home say there are no current plans to do so.
For now, officials at the home are assuming the evacuees will remain on campus for at least a year, and perhaps much longer. Several residents said they expect that they will be asked to stay in Washington permanently, and that the Gulfport home will not be rebuilt. Sheila Abarr, a spokeswoman for the home, said the decision is ultimately up to the Defense Department and will be based in part on a damage assessment.
Ideally, Abarr said, "people should have choices" about where they live. "And not everyone likes snow."
The first floor of the Gulfport facility flooded during the hurricane. Evacuees said they sought shelter on upper levels of the building and watched as the home's staff members carried the more infirm residents through the rising waters to relative safety.
There was no electricity or phone service, and without air conditioning, the temperatures grew stifling. Residents said they each got half a cheese sandwich and a half-cup of water to last for most of a day. The rain poured and the winds raged.
"I looked down, and I started to see the cars floating," recalled Thomas Buonfigli, 84. The windows of the high-rise were literally shaking in their frames.
As the humidity rose, the windows fogged, and it was hard to see out. "We could hear things slapping the windows," Folk said -- rain, branches, debris.
Jim Cantore, an anchor for the Weather Channel, had received clearance to report from the building throughout the hurricane. His briefings included updates on the elderly residents, which is how several retirees' relatives first learned that everyone at the home was safe.
Eventually, buses arrived to ferry the residents to a nearby naval base that was not flooded.
From there, most of the elderly residents were evacuated to Washington -- about 250 in a bus caravan that arrived in the District on Sept. 1, others on airplanes or, later, in buses or driving their own cars.
Before leaving Gulfport, Buonfigli waded through knee-deep water to retrieve his tenor sax from its storage space in the first-floor theater.
He has not yet reconnected with the musicians who used to play with him at dances. Nor does he know if their instruments survived. But he said he hopes to get a band going in Washington before too long.
The first days in Washington were filled with medical evaluations and paperwork processing. Since then, the transplanted residents have begun learning their way around.
Folk and Manning were in a group that went to an Orioles game at Camden Yards. Buonfigli won Redskins tickets in a raffle. There was an outing to the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony Orchestra -- "that was thrilling," Folk said -- and this week, a chance to see the Washington Capitals play the New York Rangers at MCI Center.
In between, there are trips to Wal-Mart, Potomac Mills and other area shopping malls, so that those retirees with access to bank accounts or credit cards, or who have already received Red Cross relief payments, can replace some of the essentials and small comfort items they had to leave behind.
After one such outing, Abarr said, several residents approached the recreational director to ask whether it would be possible to locate a Wal-Mart that was laid out like the one they were accustomed to back home.
Calls were made, questions were asked, and the director soon found such a store.
"It was a little farther out," Abarr said, but there will be trips there from now on. "It was easier for us to do that for them."
Although they are filled with praise for those who have helped them adjust to Washington, the evacuees who were interviewed also said they long to return to Mississippi.
"We were home for good. That was our last tour of duty, down there in Gulfport," said Roy Jack, 73. "Then this came up."