By Dave Garey / staff writer
Dion Lightell had never even heard of Meridian a year ago.
But when the 37-year-old medical assistant from Port Sulphur, La., headed for higher ground to escape Hurricane Katrina, she ended up in Meridian.
“My mom left so fast she forgot to take her purse,” said Dion’s 12-year-old daughter, Tijahrae.
In low-lying Plaquemines Parish, about an hour south of New Orleans, many residents like Lightell heeded warnings to evacuate the day before Hurricane Katrina hit.
“I was taking a class in New Orleans when the evacuation order came on the news. I left class, drove an hour back home, and got my dad and my two children,” Lightell said. “Then we went back to New Orleans and got a hotel room for the night.”
Meanwhile, Lightell’s common-law husband, Kevin Wilson, a Plaquemines Parish sheriff’s deputy, had to stay behind to help other people evacuate. He took shelter for the night in a library.
Lightell’s quick actions were life-saving. Her home, the medical clinic where she worked and her children’s school were all destroyed by the mammoth winds and water of the hurricane.
Then there was the issue of where to make a temporary home.
Hooking up with the displaced family of a co-worker who heard there was shelter available in Meridian, the group headed up Interstate 59 and found refuge at Central United Methodist Church.
“It was a little uncomfortable. My dad is 77 years old and has stomach cancer,” Lightell said.
The children — Tijahrae and younger brother Keenan, 8 — were enrolled at local public schools.
One year later, as Tijahrae begins seventh grade at Magnolia Middle School, and Keenan tackles third grade at Parkview Elementary School, the children appear to be thriving.
“They’re adjusting to school. They’re making friends,” Lightell said.
Tijahrae may have been only 11 when she arrived as an evacuee in Meridian, but her recollections sound like a mixture of both child and adult.
“We had to re-start. We didn’t have toys. We didn’t have that much food and clothes,” Tijahrae said.
She says math is her favorite subject, and she likes the outside class activities at Magnolia Middle School, such as field trips and an occasional movie.
“She’s very strong. She just fit right in,” said Hayley Shirley, student counselor at Magnolia. Shirley said Tijahrae is one of only two Katrina evacuees still at Magnolia, down from 25 a year ago.
Dion Lightell says she’s especially grateful to Central United Methodist Church and the American Red Cross for providing the initial shelter, and helping arrange for her family to move into an apartment even before she found a job.
However, she still has her share of bumps in the road while adjusting to life in her newfound city.
One came a few weeks ago, she said, when her employer — Poplar Springs Pediatric Clinic — shut down: “They closed down on my birthday.”
After a brief bout with unemployment, Lightell was training this past week for a new job as a unit clerk and patient care technician in the intensive care unit at Riley Hospital.
“I’m so happy they gave me a job,” she said.
Lightell can’t be faulted for missing the unique Cajun cuisine of her former home. She said he particularly misses eating sausage and trawling for crabs. But it’s the strain of not having her significant other in Meridian that she finds most painful.
“He would lose his retirement,” Lightell said. “He’s been with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Department for twenty-something years.”
They do speak on the phone nightly, she said, allowing him to catch up on what the children are doing.
Elsewhere in the Queen City, the Marabe family — Filipino immigrants who landed in America in late 2004 — now find themselves in the second chapter of seeking the American dream.
Melchor and Avelina Marabe have five children. They chose Biloxi as their point of migration because relatives already lived on the Coast and because the casinos offered employment, even for those with limited English-speaking abilities.
Melchor Marabe was insistent about moving to the United States for the sake of his children.
“My father wanted to come to America for us, so we could finish school and get good jobs,” said Michelle, 18, the eldest of the Marabe children. “A lot of Filipinos think that. You come to America and have a good life.”
A year after evacuating the family’s rental home in Biloxi’s Vietnamese neighborhood just blocks from the gulf, Michelle says she’s adjusting pretty well to life in Meridian. She just began her freshman semester in Meridian Community College’s nursing program.
“I could see myself staying and having a family here,” she said.
Her father had his own electric, air-conditioning and heating repair business back in the Philippines. He is now a dishwasher at Northwood Country Club, she said, while her mother is a food service worker at East Mississippi State Hospital.
The other four Marabe children, ranging in age from 7 to 14, are starting their second year in the Meridian Public School District.
Several of the children reflected last week on the day Katrina made landfall and caused severe water damage to their home. After a mandatory evacuation, the family relocated to a shelter in Meridian.
“My mom started cooking. It was lunchtime,” said Ira, an outgoing 13-year-old girl now in eighth grade at Northwest Junior High School. “We stayed upstairs during the storm. My dad was bringing furniture up.”
Ira does her best to put on a brave face about the danger her family was in. She said her first reaction was to want to view the scene from the beach, and even try to swim before Katrina hit. Her father emphatically denied her requests.
“I’d never seen a hurricane. The water was so high,” added her brother, 14-year-old Mark, a ninth-grader at Northwest.
Both siblings agreed they miss certain things about the Coast, including their ethnic neighborhood and visits with their grandmother or aunt to the non-gambling portions of the casinos.
Ira, who is fluent in Spanish, says classmates often ask her for help in that subject — but she enjoys English class the most. Mark enjoys math the most, and says he may try out for Northwest’s basketball team.
The siblings comprise two of Northwest’s final three Katrina evacuees, down from 17 when school began last year, said counselor Deborah Parker.
Parker believes both Marabe students have adjusted well to their new environment, and referred to Ira as a “little social butterfly.”
From her perspective, Parker said, the addition of the Marabe children and others who spent time at Northwest in the wake of Katrina has been a win-win situation.
“I think they have a very supportive experience here,” she said. “And the diversity they’ve brought is always good.”