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Wednesday, September 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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25 relatives are coming

Seattle Times reporter

Any day now, they could arrive in Olympia. Twenty-five sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, all of their apartments destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. All of them looking for a home.

So Michelle Richburg has set up three tents in the back yard. She has piled dozens of blankets in the study. She has picked through garbage bags bulging with donated clothes from neighbors, folding each piece and placing it in a pile.

With any luck, in a matter of days, her husband's family from Biloxi, Miss., will have food, clothing and a place to sleep in this 900-square-foot home. Richburg's only concern now is clearing the clutter.

"I don't want it to be crowded when they're here," she said.

In the past week, word has gotten around town that the Richburg family needs help. Donations have come in by the carload, from toothbrushes to tents, cans of soup to cable-knit sweaters. Mostly it's the work of neighbors and friends, people without much money giving what they can.

"They're the ones who can't write the check to the Red Cross," Richburg said. "They're bringing cans of food to us."

Richburg spoke from the floor of her living room, surrounded by bags of clothes. Her 14-year-old daughter, Kira Richburg, was talking on the phone in the kitchen, taking calls from donors, a day before her first day of high school. Her husband, Zenas Richburg, has been at his wife's disposal, helping as much as he can.

"I know it's going to be a burden, as far as just providing for them," he said. "I feel confident that we can get them the basics."

When they first got word from Biloxi, the Richburgs were ready to drive there in a rented truck. One look at the map, and that idea lost its luster: 2,800 miles to Mississippi and some of the highest gas prices in history.

So the Biloxi relatives are coming to them, for as little as a week or as long as a couple of months. The goal is to move them into temporary housing, care of the Red Cross. The children are expected to attend local schools.

For Kira Richburg, who has met few of her father's family, the whole thing is a wonder. More than a dozen kids will arrive within days. There will be teenagers and babies, and all ages in between.

"I think I'm going to like it for a couple of weeks," the teenager said, then looked over at her best friend. "After that, I may be staying at your house a lot."

It was unclear yesterday exactly when the family would arrive. In Biloxi, there was mostly confusion. There were rumors about where to catch a flight out of town. Some family members were wandering around looking for the best option.

As the hurricane hit his family last week, Zenas Richburg stayed quiet and calm. Then he put himself to work outside, scraping leaves from the gutters, cleaning out the garage, anything to distract him.

"It's hard," he said of living so far from his family. "I'm not able to help anybody."

His wife and daughter sat in front of the TV, waiting for some word of what happened. At one point, Kira saw a boy who looked like her half-brother who lives in Mississippi. The boy was standing on a rooftop, his head tilted down, waiting to be rescued.

She was convinced it was him.

"Whenever he was sad or got in trouble, he would hold his head down," she said.

It was not her brother. But one by one, family started to call, with stories of swimming through flooded houses. One of Zenas' sisters was injured trying to pull their mother into an attic.

The way the family in Biloxi saw it, they could not have left if they tried. One relative had just spent all her money on school supplies for her children. She was waiting on another paycheck when word of the hurricane came.

"The money she did have, she spent on food and batteries," Michelle Richburg said.

One week later, some relatives still are in shock. One mother simply stopped speaking. Another fit her children into a stroller earlier today and started walking down a road. She had nowhere to go and just kept walking.

Family members told these things to Michelle, on borrowed cellphone minutes, relaying the basic facts of their lives. There were other things they kept silent, like the number of dead they knew.

"They're not really talking about that now," she said.

After years in the military, she said she had nothing but respect for the men and women serving the areas hit hardest by the hurricane. But the federal government was another story. She spent so much time trying to get information from officials.

She also was disappointed to hear Washington state would welcome no more than 2,000 evacuees.

"If I can take 25 people in my 900-square-foot house, then the state of Washington can take more than 2,000," she said.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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