TOP STORY>> Families welcomed to area after ordeal
Leader managing editor
The lights were bright, the air conditioning was running at full blast, and a 31-inch television was blaring the sounds of a weekday afternoon sit-com.
Pretty good conditions for a group of New Orleans-area residents staying in Jacksonville after being forced to leave their homes in the days before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.
Chandra Tigler, 36, and Shantell Chess, 31, are two of 20 family members from the Jefferson Parish area of New Orleans staying in a back room of Around the Clock Child Development Center, located just behind the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce building on South James Street.
The five-household family moved into the center on Monday after spending a week at the Jacksonville Inn and plan on being in the area for the foreseeable future.
“They’re saying that it could be like six weeks to get everything in order down there,” Chess said. “We could be here that long.”
Or maybe longer.
According to Bonita Rownd, executive director of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the people staying at the day care are the largest group from one extended family known to be staying in Jacksonville. Another large extended family is staying at First Freewill Baptist Church, Rownd said.
“We’ve still got 81 adults and 31 children staying in area motels,” Rownd said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re trying to place them in area homes and other places where people are volunteering space.”
While many New Orleans-area residents decided to ignore evacuation orders and stay behind during the storm, Tigler said she and 19 family members left the New Orleans area as soon as the early warnings of the potential of Hurricane Katrina were made.
“We left the Saturday before the storm because we knew it could be a direct hit,” Tigler said. “Where we live is already below sea level and we get standing water with a hard rain. With a Category 5 storm, we knew what would happen. There was no second-guessing.”
Tigler said her family drove from New Orleans to Memphis, but once weather reporters indicated stormy weather in western Tennessee, the group made the drive to Jack-sonville, where a friend of Chess lives and recommended they go to.
After a week at the Jacksonville Inn, someone from an area church who was helping hurricane evacuees suggested the group move into the room at the daycare. Eight double beads, a single bed, a couch, a handful of chairs and plenty of toys meets the needs of the 20 adults and nine children staying there.
The group has also had an offer to stay with a family in Searcy, if needed.
“They said we could stay here as long as needed,” Tigler said. “There’s plenty of room, showers, whatever we need.”
The need to watch coverage of the events in the New Orleans area has declined, however.
“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing early on,” Tigler said. “Seeing all those people and to think we got out and they didn’t. It hurt seeing that.
“We watched all that at first because we wanted to know what was going on, but we stopped watching because it got so depressing.”
The response from members of the community in the central Arkansas area has helped lift those spirits, though, Tigler and Chess said. From the donation of meals to friendly conversations, the two said they’re grateful — and a bit surprised — at the response of complete strangers.
“We didn’t even know there was a Jacksonville, Arkansas, before this,” Tigler said.
“This has just been amazing. Every meal has been donated, people have brought stuff to us, and a guy even came from Searcy and brought his grill and barbecued for us,” she said.
“It just feels so good that people you don’t even know, people you don’t know if you’ll ever see again, are being so nice to us, regardless of their background.”
“To me, this is a city full of color-blind people,” Chess said. “With us being black, automatically we were not sure what people around here were used to.
“In New Orleans, it’s a big party city, and as long as you’re partying it doesn’t matter what you are. But coming to a place like this, a place we could be staying so long, we didn’t know what to expect. But we’ve had a big sigh of relief that the people here haven’t cared what color we are.”
While flood water damage to the Tigler and Chess homes was minimal, no electricity, phones and food will keep their family from returning anytime soon. Seven of the nine children are starting school in the area today.
“If we went home all we’d have is running water,” Tigler said. “No power, no telephone and no stores are open.
“Why rush back?”