They survived the great New Orleans flood of 2005 wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed their homes and stole their possessions. They should have been happy, or at least relieved. But they weren't. Their hearts remained heavy and joyless, as if they were dead all along.
Ramona Brown, the 55-year-old matriarch of the Brown-Gettridge families, last saw her grandson, Ronnie Brown, her niece, Shanika Gettridge, and Shanika's three young children Aug. 30 on the I-610 bridge after rising water from a levee breach chased them from their apartments at the St. Bernard Housing Project.
Ronnie, Ms. Gettridge, and her children floated to safety on a refrigerator. Ms. Brown was right behind, perched with several other grandchildren on a floating door.
At the bridge, several helicopters were waiting to fly them and other evacuees to safety.
Ronnie, 14, a good swimmer who had been helping women and children up from the water and onto the bridge, told his grandmother he wanted to make sure Ms. Gettridge and her children were safe.
Ms. Brown boarded the helicopter, thinking Ronnie and the others were right behind.
Ms. Brown and about nine other family members ended up at a relief shelter in Houma, La., about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. As the days went by and there was no word of her relatives, she assumed the worst.
On Sept. 11 - Ms. Gettridge's 28th birthday - her aunt sat with her family in front of the Houma shelter and lamented about losing Ronnie and Shanika, whom she helped raise. Although several of her grandchildren played nearby, Ms. Brown could not share their joy.
Yesterday, she recalled the moment and her mood.
"I was scared. I did not know what happened," she said.
To ease her heartache, Ms. Brown awoke every day at 3 a.m. to pray for her lost family members. A higher being, she believes, finally listened.
On Friday, John Nail, a volunteer with the Salvation Army Atlanta Temple, searched the Internet looking for relatives of the 70 to 80 Katrina evacuees the organization had helped.
One of the names he punched in was Ronnie Brown.
Ronnie, it turned out, along with Ms. Gettridge, her children, and Ronnie's mother and stepfather, were evacuated by boat shortly after Ms. Brown left the bridge. They spent a week in a shelter at Mamou, La., before moving to Atlanta, where they were housed by Mr. Nail's group.
Mr. Nail found an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the sister paper of The Blade, published Sept. 12 that chronicled Ms. Brown's search for her family.
He contacted the Houma shelter and, to his amazement, discovered that the grandmother and her family were sent to Atlanta - also on Sept 12 - and were staying at the Wieuca Baptist Church, only a half mile from his home.
"They were this close for a week and no one knew," Mr. Nail said.
Meanwhile, the Salvation Army arranged for 13 evacuee families to move into rental homes and apartments. Ms. Gettridge and her children, Joseph, 4, and 2-year-old twins, Chrishelle and Christopher, where given a home in Decatur.
On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Nail brought Ms. Brown to Decatur to surprise Ms. Gettridge and her children.
"I walked out the door and saw my aunt - we just held each other for 20 minutes straight. It was a miracle. It was a blessing," Ms. Gettridge said yesterday by phone.
She said she was as worried about Ms. Brown and the rest of her family as she was about her.
"I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I lost 25 pounds," she said. "But ever since I saw [my family] I've been eating, sleeping, smiling, and talking. There's nothing else to worry myself about."
Ms. Brown has a similar view.
"I'm overwhelmed right now because my family is back together," she said.
Well, not completely.
Ronnie went to Houston, where his mother Wanda Ann Brown - Ms. Brown's daughter - is staying with Ronnie's stepfather.
Ms. Brown said she wants to talk her daughter into coming to Atlanta, where Ronnie's three siblings, Luwanda, Robin, and Robert, are living with her.
Ms. Gettridge's eldest daughter, Shena, 8, is living with Ms. Gettridge's ex-husband in Shreveport, where they evacuated. Eventually, she hopes Shena will join her in Atlanta.
Still missing is Ms. Brown's brother, Ernest Gettridge.
Mr. Nail, a 52-year-old sales and marketing executive, said housing soon will be found for Ms. Brown and the rest of her family. The Salvation Army will continue working with the evacuees to find them jobs, enroll them in college, and help them with any other assistance required.
Area residents already have contributed $75,000 to the effort, he said.
"We're not just dropping them into a house and saying, 'See you.'●" he said in a telephone interview.
He said he has witnessed several evacuee reunions, but the Gettridge-Brown tale is special.
"It's coincidence, a miracle - whatever you want to call it. Too many pieces have to come together to [make it happen]. It's nice to see them all sitting on the porch together," he said.
Said Ms. Brown: "I tell you, it's amazing what these people have done."
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