Archive for Thursday, September 29, 2005

Katrina evacuee makes his way to city

September 29, 2005, 12:00 a.m.

Updated: September 29, 2005, 10:31 a.m.

Felix Navarro is a two-time exile. The first time was by choice; the second, necessity. Navarro, 78, left his native Cuba in 1980 to come to the United States. He settled in New Orleans in 1987 but had to leave Sept. 5 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Navarro is now residing in Twin Oaks Retirement Community in Lansing.

"I'm just glad to be alive," Navarro said.

After the hurricane hit, Navarro spent nine days in his apartment building's attic in uptown New Orleans before being rescued by Army soldiers in a truck.

"I don't drive, and there was no transportation," he said. "I couldn't do anything but wait."

All his food had gone bad, and he was caring for an older neighbor who at first resisted leaving, believing Providence would take care of her.

"I told her, 'If you stay here, you'll die,'" Navarro said.

That convinced her. From there, they were both taken to a warehouse in the city and given water and food. Next, they were taken to the New Orleans Convention center, television footage of which has supplied some of the more memorable and tragic images in the wake of the hurricane.

"It was smoother by the time I got there," Navarro said.

He spent only two hours there, and then a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter took him to the Superdome, where he became separated from his neighbor. Because the sports arena was full, he was next flown to Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Ariz.

"I called lots of people there," Navarro said. He also rested for a couple hours and purchased airplane tickets to Kansas.

Navarro came to Lansing because his sister-in-law, Maria Freyer, lives in Leavenworth.

In addition to his family, Navarro has received help from a number of local organizations and businesses: Twin Oaks has waived two months' rent, and Leavenworth Assistance Center donated clothes and household items. These groups have helped a number of families evacuated from areas affected by Katrina, as has Catholic Communities Services, which has helped them find housing, Meza said.

Dr. Ashwani Mehta, a cardiologist of Kansas Cardiovascular Associates, 712 First Terrace, gave to Navarro.

Besides family members in the area, Navarro has a Red Cross volunteer assigned to his case, Pat Meza, from Leavenworth.

Besides Navarro, 36 families have been taken in by Lansing-Leavenworth area residents and organizations, Meza said.

"We've got sponsors from all over town," she said, "individuals that have taken on the families to guide them and take them where they need to go, give them rides and make sure they have medicine."

Navarro said he had enough supplies and clothes to get by day-to-day.

His exile from Cuba was a result of his outspoken opposition to communism and Castro's regime, he said. He was jailed in 1965 for two years, and when he got out he went back to work as a merchant marine. He retired in 1996.

Navarro said he had mostly maintained hope while awaiting rescue in the attic.

"I wrestled death many times," Navarro said, including a fierce storm in 1961 when he was working on a ship in the Pacific Ocean near Malaysia. Even so, after so many days without food and no one coming to his apartment building on his last day in New Orleans, he said he had given up for a few moments just before hearing soldiers come to his building.

As far as the question of responsibility for the inadequate response in the wake of Katrina by federal, state and local governments go, Navarro said he thought there was plenty of blame to go around. But, he said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ought to bear most of the responsibility for having taken five days to begin helping survivors.

Navarro said he thought blame for the delayed response to help New Orleans residents stuck there after the hurricane and resulting flood should be shared by Louisiana Gov. Katherine Blanco, President Bush and FEMA.

"Everybody knows the truth," Navarro said.

But, he said, "You can never throw the blame on the floor, so the blame has got to go on somebody," so FEMA deserved most of the blame.

"The mayor was the only one that was right," Navarro said. "FEMA was supposed to be there before (the hurricane)."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Navarro said, had requested 400-500 buses for evacuation before the hurricane hit, "and nobody came."

Last week, Navarro worried that he'd not heard from any of his friends in New Orleans, and didn't know whether they were safe.

Navarro said he wanted to thank everyone who had helped him since he'd come to Lansing, including Twin Oaks, Leavenworth Homestead Assisted Living Community, the Red Cross, Catholic Community Services and "especially a lady by the name of Pat Meza. I don't know what I'd do without her," Navarro said.

Vicky Walker, executive director of Leavenworth Homestead, 5150 Hughes Rd., Leavenworth, first learned of Navarro's plight when she met him at the American Red Cross Center, 525 Shawnee St., Leavenworth.

Walker had gone there to volunteer as a nurse in the areas affected by Katrina. Because her job didn't allow her to deploy for more than a week, Walker said she was not called up, though all of the approximately 30 other volunteers she knew have since gone to aid in relief efforts on the Gulf Coast. Although she didn't deploy, Walker did her part for a Katrina evacuee. The Red Cross wanted Navarro in a retirement community, so Walker persuaded Midwest Health, which owns Homestead, as well as Twin Oaks, to waive two months' rent for Navarro at Twin Oaks.

Walker did this, she said, "because I'm a nurse. There's a need; he was in a retirement community in New Orleans."

Additionally, Navarro needed medical attention and medication for his diabetes. Wal-Mart wouldn't accept his Medicaid card from Louisiana but did give him a free week's supply of medication, Walker said.

Navarro has not been able to get his Social Security check, and few evacuees have received the promised $2,000 checks from FEMA because, Walker said, they lack the necessary paperwork. Navarro, for one, said the only paperwork he brought was what he could fit in his wallet.

"The bad part about it is that just about every other person down there (in the areas ravaged by Katrina)" is in a similar situation, Walker said with palpable grief in her voice.

Walker said the No. 1 task state and federal governments could do to help victims of the hurricane would be to eliminate the red tape involved in getting assistance to those who need it.

While Walker said she hoped Navarro would stay once his financial situation was stable, Navarro said he hoped to eventually return to his adopted hometown

In addition to his friends, "I miss the food - everything," he said.

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