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Published: Friday, 9/2/2005

Storm's emotional toll hits Toledo; families with area ties affected by loss

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It hit late Sunday night, outside London, Ky., while she bathed her two girls at a cousin's house. The exhaustion and confusion pounded her in waves.

So Stacey Stec - a 32-year-old mother who had left her Slidell, La., home 20 hours earlier - dried off her daughters. She slipped 9-year-old Courtney and 6-year-old Alyssa into night clothes and tucked them in. And then she returned to her cousin's living room and collapsed on a couch.

"I think I wanted to cry," she said. "I was too tired."

Three states away, Hurricane Katrina was bearing down toward the family's modest brick ranch in Slidell, a small town about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans on Interstate 10.

In Toledo, Todd Stec, Mrs. Stec's husband of 13 years, had been visiting his parents. As Katrina twisted northward in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, Mr. and Mrs. Stec had spent the day on the phone to each other, trying to determine what to do.

By 7 p.m., the decision was clear: Mrs. Stec and the girls had to evacuate.

Alyssa Stec, 6, tells her mom, Stacey, what she misses about Slidell, La., while staying at her grandparents  South Toledo home.
Alyssa Stec, 6, tells her mom, Stacey, what she misses about Slidell, La., while staying at her grandparents South Toledo home.
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Mrs. Stec rushed around the family's home Saturday, stripping pictures off the walls, collecting birth certificates and Social Security cards, and making a quick dinner of macaroni and cheese and fish sticks.

Together, they moved Joey, Courtney's hamster, to a high spot in the bathroom. They'd given him extra food. They said a prayer for his safety.

Courtney cried.

And at 3 a.m. Sunday - in the pre-Katrina stillness - Mrs. Stec and the two girls piled into the family's 2002 Ford Explorer with a suitcase and their two Australian shepherds.

They passed a deserted 24-hour Wal-Mart and got onto I-59 for the drive into Kentucky.

Yesterday, Hurricane Katrina's terrible fallout continued to touch the lives of current and former Toledoans and their loved ones.
Yesterday, Hurricane Katrina's terrible fallout continued to touch the lives of current and former Toledoans and their loved ones.
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Twenty hours later on the couch, Mrs. Stec began giggling. On the other end of the phone, Mr. Stec was trying to give her directions so she could make the rest of the trip to join him at his parents' home in Toledo.

She couldn't focus; she couldn't stop laughing.

"It sounds awful. I just felt loopy, drunk," she said. "It just all came together at once."

Yesterday, Hurricane Katrina's terrible fallout continued to touch the lives of current and former Toledoans and their loved ones.

For the second time, Mother Nature has disrupted the lives of former residents Audrey and Fred Jeffries.

Hurricane Camille ripped up the Mississippi coast in 1969, destroying the young couple's home in coastal Pass Christian and forcing them and their children into a nearby school for safety.

Their 8-year-old daughter, now Toledo Police Sgt. Sharon Cook, remembers fighting stinging rain and whipping winds to get to the school building.

Her brother was on her father's back; she was in his arms.

She remembers being in the school for days, a gray metal tub for baths, and a body covered with a sheet nearby.

"They're just pieces [of memory]," she said, "I remember sensing a lot of fear. It's one thing as a child to be scared. It's another when your parents are fearful, too."

Soon after Camille, the Jeffries moved to Toledo and Mr. and Mrs. Jeffries retired from their jobs with the Toledo Public School system. Several years ago, they returned to Pass Christian to live.

"We figured it's been over 30-some years [since Hurricane Camille]. We won't live to see another one of those," Mrs. Jeffries said yesterday in a phone interview from her daughter's home in Atlanta.

It might have been worse.

The Jeffries, who rebuilt just a few streets in from the Gulf of Mexico, know their home is still standing, but it likely is uninhabitable.

Relatives and friends, Mrs. Jeffries said, have lost everything.

A niece, Terrie Landry Cook, a 40-year-old mother of two, last night packed fuel, clean clothes, and basic supplies for her father, Earl Landry, a former Toledo fire battalion chief.

He also returned to Pass Christian, Miss., about 10 years ago.

Ms. Cook said she had one phone call earlier this week from her father and mother.

They'd made it out of their house in time and headed toward Texas in their RV. Driving wind and rain stopped them in Louisiana. They waited out Katrina and returned to find their home was gone.

Ms. Cook planned to leave about midnight and drive all day today with siblings to deliver necessary goods to her parents.

"I'm going to try to take a cat nap first," she said yesterday as she packed. "I'm running on adrenaline."

In South Toledo, Mrs. Stec's adrenaline had faded by yesterday.

She had reached London, Ky., by Sunday afternoon, and arrived at her in-laws' South Avenue home Monday.

Yesterday, the Stecs tried to grapple with what to do next.

"We've told the girls: Whatever you know has changed,'‚óŹ" Mrs. Stec said yesterday.

"They're excited to be up here again and visit their cousins. It's like a very strange vacation for them."

While waiting for news from Mrs. Stec's family - they still haven't heard from one of her two sisters - they signed Alyssa and Courtney up for classes at Crossgates Elementary School in South Toledo.

Mr. and Mrs. Stec plan to leave Sunday to assess the damage to their Louisiana home.

Mr. Stec is a registered nurse. He also may lend a hand to rescuers. "I'm torn," he said. "It's what I do. I want to help all I can. But I also can't leave my family. This is difficult."

In the meantime, they've been buoyed by the generosity of others. Twice, they've gone out to eat. Twice, the restaurants have picked up the tab. And when the girls had their haircuts earlier this week, the stylist did it for free.

"I have moments when I want to cry, but anxiety sets in instead. I don't want the kids to see it either. They're already stressed out. But I teared up the other day when I saw the gentleman on TV who had lost his wife, and I cried over the woman who can't find her husband," Mrs. Stec said.

"Those are the people with real trauma. We're the lucky ones."

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133



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