Sept 16, 2005
Volume 33
Issue 37

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A report from the Gulf Coast: Fran Dunaway's heroic efforts to help her family recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
A report from the Gulf Coast: Fran Dunaway's heroic efforts to help her family recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
"The pain of the loss of this tragedy will haunt the Dunaway family for quite some time," said Seattle resident Fran Dunaway.

By Fran Dunaway - Special to the SGN

I took the red eye from Seattle, arriving in Pensacola Florida at 9 a.m. My cousin in Daphne, Alabama had already gone to Wal-Mart to fulfill a long list of anticipated needs that I had e-mailed him. My partner Cindi and I had power shopped in Seattle at the Army Surplus, Old Navy and Target the day before and had a 55 pound bag of clothing, cell phones and a first aid kit that would put most ambulances to shame.

I had rented a large SUV and followed my cousin and his wife into the devastation. Despite media warnings of closed highways and bandits on every corner, we drove 70 miles an hour all the way to Biloxi with virtually no impedance. As we got further into Mississippi, the impact of the destruction brought tears to all of our eyes.


Exiting on Bayview was the first real indication of things to come. The road was littered with debris and covered with a thick layer of dark, dank mud. This only worsened as we turned down Kensington Drive. The utter devastation is hard to comprehend, despite the non-stop news coverage I had been watching for several days. The roof of a house, several trees and a boat blocked our path five houses from 1264 Kensington. We climbed up and over the debris, weeping at every step.

The house is gutted, with only the roof remaining, chandeliers swinging eerily above. A thick layer of black mud covered everything in sight. Inside the once beautiful bay side home, we could hear people inside the wreckage, rummaging through the debris in hopes of finding a memento that would now become a cherished treasure.

My mom and brother were in what was once the dining room, voicing excitement at finding a box of intact crystal goblets. I said, "Hi Mom." We cried in each others' arms, thankful and relieved beyond anything that I had ever experienced. I found my dad, equally relieved to actually see him; touch him. I admonished them with: "Don't EVER do that to me again!"

We all walked out to the SUV's and excitedly reviewed the supplies. My brother made a new technological innovation and was most excited about his new cell phone. My father loved the authentic aviator glasses I brought him. I immediately made my mother change into more sensible shoes. I had flashlights, underwear, work gloves and, perhaps most importantly, fried chicken.

Unlike their surroundings, their sense of humor was still intact. With a new moniker, Caroline 'Katrina' Houston, adorned in Mardi Gras beads. The brilliance provided a sharp contrast to her muddied attire. They told me the harrowing tale of their survival. The video is forthcoming, but suffice it to say that they are miraculously alive due to several factors: heroic efforts; determination; and a whopping dose of pure damn luck.

That being said, the pain of the loss of this tragedy will haunt the Dunaway family for quite some time. At the same time, their survival instincts have kicked into high gear as they make plans to rebuild and talk about visiting all of their dear friends all over the world during the next year.


I worried that despite my insistence, they would put up a fight about leaving their dig. Instead, everyone was happy to leave the mess, the heat, and the mud. With my mom, my brother and his friend Rik in my SUV and my dad, Paul Swalina, in the other SUV with my cousin and his wife, we left in search of hot water, air conditioning and a steak dinner.

My cousin took the lead and things went, pardon the pun, swimmingly for some time. However, just prior to entering the highway, the SUV I was driving started sputtering and lost power. We pulled over and, while we watched a police officer with his shotgun cocked search for a looter, tried to start the car. It took several attempts but we finally got it going, but with a top speed of 30 m.p.h.

Due to the unfriendliness of the neighborhood and the lack of cellphone coverage, we opted to forge ahead with our flashers warning other drivers to beware. Driving on the shoulder was often hindered by debris, but there were times that dodging speeding semis in the right lane required quick maneuvering. My cousin failed to notice our absence for quite some time and made a decision not to turn around, as that would logically have created more confusion.

Tooling along at 30 m.p.h. we ignored the first horns honking, chalking it up to impatient drivers. The car full of pointing people provided a convincing compulsion to pull over. Of course I unwittingly stopped above a small pile of debris. Hunter hopped out and looked under the car. "Get OUT!" he commanded.

Rik and my mother, obviously more used to taking orders by now, leapt out of the car. I think my response was, "Huh?" With a bit more vehemence, Hunter said, "The car is on fire, get out!" Not willing to lose cell phones, cameras and computer, I quickly grabbed what I could. My cheering section egged me on and I leapt from the car, cords dangling and followed the speedy retreat up the shoulder. "It's gonna blow!" was the common refrain.

After watching several police cars speed by, ignoring our frantic waves of distress, we realized our chances for rescue were dwindling. And then, a banged up pick up truck, with a battered Mississippi license plate dangling, pulled over. A man and woman got out, ran to our sleek new SUV and quickly assessed the problem: the car was on fire and had now caught the debris under the car on fire as well. The man and woman ran back to their truck, we assumed in fear of it blowing up.

Instead, the man opens a compartment in the back of his truck and dons his volunteer fireman's uniform. He races back to the truck, waving to us to keep back, and somehow manages to extinguish the blaze. His diagnosis of the problem had to do with a clogged catalytic converter. My diagnosis was that we were up a (well known) creek without a much needed paddle.

The quick, experienced, survivalist minds devised a plan for me to ride with Thomas and Karen up the highway until we had reached at least 1 bar of cell phone coverage and put out a cry for help. My mom asked me if I had any money and, not realizing that our saviors were nearby, I assured her that I had plenty of cash in my pocket.


I slid in next to Karen on the front seat of the littered pick-up and was surprised to see that she held an actual baby squirrel in her hands. "Isn't he cute?" she asked. I grinned sheepishly, wondering, "Did he have a rabies shot?"

Up the road a few miles a police officer was providing roadside assistance to another unlucky soul in search of salvation in Pensacola. After a brief interlude, we walked away with the unlucky soul (now a passenger in the bed of the pick-up) and three pieces of fried catfish. It salivated me for only a moment, hoping the third piece was mine and not for the rodent named Squeaky. It was the best piece of fried catfish I've ever eaten.

The new plan was for us to stop at a police sub station and see if they had a phone. They could only make local calls, so we forged ahead. I pondered, only briefly, who locally had phone service. It was some 30 miles until I got cell reception, in the middle of the detour going toward Pascagoula. "Pull over!" I exclaimed.

First, I called my cousin and, then, I called my parents' dear friends, The Riley's of Elkhart, Kansas. Earlier in the day we had tasked them with securing us a rental car, since our 'war zone' cell coverage was sporadic at best. They had willingly agreed to help and informed me that a sedan awaited me in Mobile.

Next I called Alamo, the company we rented the car from. Sheila from Alamo Road Side Assistance answered the call and when I told her that the SUV I had rented was on the side of the road in Biloxi she said, "Biloxi? Why'd you go there? I hear the weather is terrible."

It took a bit of explaining, but I finally convinced her that I had not driven through any water and besides, even if I had, water is not usually known to cause fire. Despite my telling her that I was sure there were no Alamo offices open in either Biloxi or Gulfport, she tried to call them anyway, reporting back that their phones weren't working. Oh, really?

It was time for extremes. I offered the fireman and his girlfriend $200 to drive me the 30 miles to Mobile so I could pick up the awaiting sedan. (Remember, gas was not only very hard to come by, but very expensive.) They agreed and off we went.

At this time I have been gone for an hour and a half. I knew that the folks in the car would be worrying, but with no cell phone coverage and a pressing desire to get them out of Biloxi, I pushed onward to the National car rental desk in Mobile, Alabama - the place of my birth. Thomas and Karen, earning every penny of their pay, came inside to make sure I got a car.


The car was waiting but there were a few issues. Basically, it boiled down to a Sophie's choice of sorts. They had several mid size cars, all with 1/8th a tank of gas. They had one four door sedan with 1/2 a tank of gas and one 2 door sedan with 3/4 tank of gas. Which did I prefer?

Some of the stuff in the fully loaded SUV would have to be sacrificed, but I knew there was not a drop of gas to be had from Mobile to Biloxi and back to Pensacola. Did I mention the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. curfews in effect in all of the gulf towns and cities of AL and MS? (We saw a bumper sticker, freshly printed, that said, "Hitler had curfews." The ensuing philosophical discussion proved to be almost as full of profundity as the statement itself.)

But I digress.

The little red car had some real get up and go. I hesitated once at a burger joint, knowing my long awaiting comrades would be starving. But two cars pulled in front of me and I opted to save on time. I knew they would be worrying back in the SUV. In hopes of conserving fuel I left the AC off and drove 90 m.p.h.

About 40 minutes later, I pulled up behind the SUV. My mother and brother got out of the rig with worried looks on their faces. "WE thought you'd been abducted!" Mom said. Her fear was evident in the fact that she had chewed off most of her fingernails - the long ones that had just survived Hurricane Katrina. They were now nubbins.

Hunter reported, "Rik went for the police!"

"Stories later." I said. "First, we have to decide what goes and what doesn't go - take a look at that little red car."

We stuffed if full - leaving behind only an ice cooler, a large bag of toilet paper and a few toiletry items. Not bad, we thought. Besides, we were headed toward civilization.


A half an hour later my passengers began staring out the windows, exclaiming about the brilliance of street lights and neon. Hunger was high on the list of needs. At the Waffle House, mom had the best burger she's ever tasted. My experience: one of the worst. It's all relative.

We arrived at our swank quarters on the white sandy beaches of Pensacola at 2:30 a.m. Tired, bedraggled and reeking of mud, we each bathed, became consumed by the news coverage of The Aftermath of Katrina, and finally went to bed around 4 a.m. As I was nodding off I anticipated this bunch sleeping until 10 or so.

Hunter provided coffee in bed at 7:30 a.m. and we were off for another big day. The day included long waits on hold with FEMA; convincing a pharmacist to give my parent's their medication without a prescription; an hour long Wal-Mart shopping spree; and, finally, the long awaited steak dinner grilled and prepared by the dashing combo of Paul and Caroline on the balcony of our new-found home.

With new clothes, sunglasses, clean shaven faces and curling ironed hair, this bunch is heading back to Biloxi tomorrow for a full day of wading through the muck, because we know that among all the disaster are some rare and precious treasures indeed.

Our love and thanks to you all for your support, your friendship and your kindness. It means more to my parent's than anything.

Fran Dunaway is the executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a statewide LGBT-rights organization. A Seattle resident, she traveled to the Gulf Coast to assist her parents who's home had been ruined by Hurricane Katrina.

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