As Donald Henry clung to the side of his New Orleans house and watched as his brother and niece were plucked from his side and drowned by Hurricane Katrina, he had no way of knowing that his own life was about to change dramatically -- for the better.
A few blocks away, Cash Smith floated his two children on laundry hampers and plunged into chest-high waters. It was a journey that would begin in heartbreak but end in tears of joy, as Cash and his family found themselves delivered from a neighborhood under sea level into a new life a mile high, in Denver.
For Henry, Smith and a third evacuee, Vylandrus Dupree, who is now being housed at a resort in Arkansas, the unimaginable disaster has led to an unimaginable gift. Through a series of chance encounters and random decisions made by relief workers, these young African American men find themselves in parts of the country they had never seen before, and each believes there is no going back.
Their stories illustrate the game of chance that the resettlement effort is for so many victims of Katrina. Evacuees enter the relief roulette wheel with little idea whether they will emerge in a dreary shelter or in the cool air of the Ozark Mountains.
"It was just a blessing for me," said Henry, 28, who stepped off a rescue plane and found himself in Michigan for the first time in his life. "I am going to make Michigan my home. I know I ain't going back to New Orleans."
These men know better than most that their stories are exceptional, that thousands of other survivors, including some of their own family members, are still in crowded shelters with few options. Each remains keenly aware of all he has lost. Henry's voice chokes as he describes his drowned family. Dupree's house in Orleans Parish is "totaled." But while Katrina destroyed nearly everything each man owned, it also gave each the kind of options and opportunities that just did not exist for a poor black man in New Orleans: Strangers in strange places are behaving like family.
"I am going to start all over here in Denver," Smith said, speaking from a Marriott TownePlace Suites that has given his family free lodging for two months. Volunteers are helping to set him up with a job.
Dupree, 20, has enrolled at the University of Arkansas, where his tuition, books and supplies are free for the first semester. A clergyman has helped him find work.
"Everyone's friendly, and everyone's willing to help," he marveled. "I am going to try to stay in Arkansas forever."
'A New Beginning'
Donald Henry remembers the last thing his brother Clifford told him before they leaped into Katrina's raging floodwaters in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans: "If I don't make it, make sure my kids do."
The two brothers and Clifford's girlfriend tethered three children with straps and stepped outside. A neighbor refused to let them in, so the group hung to the side of their own house.
Clifford was the first to go under, after he lost his grip on his brother's ankle. When Henry turned his attention back to the children, pulling on the strap that held them, he found his niece, Serena, had drowned, he said in an interview.
Around them, houses were unfolding like paper, he recalled. A second child had his life jacket ripped off, and went under. Henry, Clifford's girlfriend and the last child finally clambered onto a roof, and then to a higher one. Henry broke into an attic for shelter.
When the rescue boats came, the survivors slept on a bridge the first night. People were being taken to the Superdome, but Henry wanted none of that because he had heard rumors of crowding and rioting there. He wandered around for days, finally getting to the New Orleans Convention Center, from where he was airlifted to the airport.
When he got on an airplane, no one told him where it was headed. After they closed the doors, the word came down: Chicago.
But when the plane pulled into the Windy City, the group ran into a bureaucratic problem. The airplane took off again. When the doors opened, Henry and hundreds of other evacuees emerged to find themselves in Michigan, where Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) had offered to house 1,500 evacuees. Henry was taken to a National Guard facility at Fort Custer near Battle Creek.
"They just got on a plane only knowing they were going to be taken somewhere for shelter, and they ended up happening to come to Battle Creek," said Capt. Aaron Jenkins, a spokesman for the Michigan National Guard. "That's what happened to a lot of people."
When Henry got off the bus at the base, people were holding signs saying "Welcome" and "I love you."
Henry said he was glad to have been given a way out of New Orleans. He talked about the violence and drugs that had surrounded him there, the "harassment by police" and "false promises" by politicians.
"The Lord was telling me it was time for a change," he said. "I am going to take this opportunity to change my life and start a new beginning."
'What Do I Have to Lose?'
Chad Ladov and two of his friends in Denver had watched the unfolding disaster in New Orleans as had millions of other Americans. One of the friends, Andrew Hudson, worked at Denver-based Frontier Airlines, and asked his company whether it could fly New Orleans evacuees to Denver free. When the company agreed, the trio immediately left for Houston, where thousands of evacuees were being housed at the Astrodome.
The friends arrived on the Friday after the hurricane. Ladov, who used to work at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had contacts among emergency workers on the ground. He had announcements broadcast over the public address system asking whether there were people who wanted to go to Denver.
The three friends canvassed the Astrodome, putting up signs and posters about their Denver proposal. That's when they came by Cash Smith.
"Hey, dude, do you want to come to Denver?" Smith recalled them asking.
Smith, his wife and their two small children had initially sought shelter at the Superdome in New Orleans, after fleeing their flooded neighborhood. Smith and the children had gotten to Houston, but his wife had not been able to find space on the same bus and was scheduled to arrive later.
"I have no money," Smith replied.
The group told him the airline ride to Denver was free. They promised him help in finding a job and getting on his feet.
"Why not give it a try?" Ladov said.
Smith decided to take a chance. After all, he was surrounded by strangers in the stadium; why not trust these three?
"I have lost everything else," he said he thought to himself. "What do I have to lose?"
Two-thirds of the 18 people Ladov and his friends brought back to Denver had never been on an airplane before. They peppered the Denver friends with questions: "What's Denver look like? What's the racial makeup? What's the cost of living? What kind of food do you have there?"
Henry's wife joined him in Denver a few days later, and the couple had an emotional reunion at the airport.
Jim White, manager of community affairs for the Colorado branch of Volunteers of America, said area hotels had offered 30 rooms free for two months. The group is actively working to help people find permanent housing, and set them up with jobs and supplies.
"My life has really changed," said Smith, who said he plans to stay in Denver. "All I came here with was the clothes on my back. Now I have more than I had then."
'It's a Big Opportunity'
Vylandrus Dupree fled New Orleans the day before the hurricane struck. Dupree, who was getting ready for his sophomore year at a community college, was told to head west. Along with a friend, he drove to Texas, expecting to wait out the storm and then return home in a day or two.
They slept in the car the first night and, when they returned to Louisiana, state troopers directed them north. They hit the road again, and eventually pulled into a Red Cross shelter in Springdale, Ark., 700 miles away.
As more evacuees came in, Red Cross officials decided to move a group that included Dupree 20 miles away to the Mount Sequoyah Conference and Retreat Center in Fayetteville, a scenic 30-acre facility overlooking the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas.
"The United Methodist Church has a policy of open minds, open hearts and open doors," said the Rev. Jack Wilson, a board member of the center and an official at the church, which has run the center for 83 years as a teaching facility and a place for spiritual reflection.
Brian Swain, a volunteer coordinator, said work has begun in earnest to find evacuees more permanent homes, jobs, food stamps and Social Security checks. Twenty children were enrolled last week in Fayetteville public schools, and school buses are coming by the center to pick up the kids.
"We asked people: 'What is your goal? Relocate to northwest Arkansas, or move back or move elsewhere?' " Swain said. "Ninety-five percent said they wanted to relocate to northwest Arkansas."
Volunteers helped Dupree enroll at the University of Arkansas. "It's a big opportunity," he said. "I would have been a fool not to take it."
Dupree said a clergyman he had met at the Red Cross facility had helped him find a job at a Walgreens drugstore.
There was no question of going back to New Orleans, Dupree said. "It's beautiful up here."
going to make Michigan my home. I know I ain't going back to New Orleans."Cash Smith hugs his brother Sam and his girlfriend's niece Demetrius Mathews, both 13, at the airport in Denver, where he moved from New Orleans.