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Wednesday, September 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last night in Biloxi: Family heading to Olympia, but some can't bear to leave

Seattle Times staff reporter

Michelle and Zenas Richburg of Olympia, featured last week in The Seattle Times, will be hosting family members from Biloxi, Miss., who survived Hurricane Katrina. Tomorrow, we will chronicle their arrival.

BILOXI, Miss. — Demetrius Richburg could have photographed so much in that back yard in Biloxi. The nightstand that had been carried for blocks on the back of the storm. Or the picnic table wedged between a chain-link fence and a van.

Instead he chose his grandfather, Frank Richburg. It might be months before he saw the man again.

"Man," laughed Frank Richburg, 62, as his 11-year-old grandson snapped photo after photo. "You're going to have too many of them."

"No, I won't," Demetrius replied. "I'm going to need all the pictures I can get."

Today Demetrius and 15 relatives, plus a family friend, will leave their hurricane-stricken hometown and board a commercial jet for Seattle with Zenas Richburg, a brother of some of them, an uncle to others.

For most, it will be their first time outside the South. Their first time on an airplane. Their first time settling in some other town.

This family goes back generations on the Gulf Coast, right back to the days of slavery. It took Hurricane Katrina to move them out.

Earlier this week, Zenas Richburg and a family friend flew from Olympia to round up the family. Two furnished houses and bags of donated clothes are waiting for them in Washington. Limousines are scheduled to pick them up at the airport.

But leaving has been hard for some — and just plain tough all around. Originally, 25 members of the family planned to go. Then some decided to stay, to focus on fixing their homes. Or because they are afraid of flying.

But Zenas' sisters Angie and Sadie and his brother Franco have decided to go. They want to give their children something better than Biloxi right now.

For the past two weeks, the family has lived together, 13 people packed into a 400-square-foot apartment. They have drawn water from a nearby graveyard to bathe. They have dried clothes on a twisted-down tree trunk and the muddy hoods of cars. They have slept three to a rug, one to a chair. A child slept one night in the tub.

"We've gotten a Ph.D in survival skills," said Angie Richburg, 27, who has three children.

Driving into a tantrum

Sunday, Zenas Richburg and friend Gail Brown — who paid for everyone's plane tickets — flew from Seattle to Jackson, Miss., then rented a 12-passenger van the next morning for the three-hour drive to Biloxi. Richburg put 15 gallons of extra gas in the back, along with jugs of water and enough food for two days.

In Jackson, the hurricane had splintered tree trunks. In Hattiesburg, it had ripped the roots from the earth.

By the time they reached Biloxi, he saw the storm had thrown a tantrum, throwing trucks, boats and houses around, then burying the town in trash.

"Look!" Richburg said as he passed the city's West End, where he was raised. "That house is cracked in half."

Around the corner, he reached a housing complex where his mother, Bertha, lives — and, since Katrina, with 12 of Richburg's siblings and their kids all crowded together. The mustard-colored apartments were spared. Even with piles of other people's trash all around, "It was like Beverly Hills, compared to everywhere else," said Angie Richburg.

Two weeks since Katrina, they still couldn't go to their own homes, which are still wet with mold, with blown-out windows, roofs ripped apart and furniture tossed about. Rescue workers left neon markers on the ruins to signal that no bodies were inside.

A hurricane and an attic

Several hours before the storm hit Aug. 29, Bertha Richburg had gone to her oldest daughter Angie's home, ready for a feast. She brought the pig's tails. Her youngest daughter, Sadie, made the cornbread.

The television news said evacuation was voluntary. But they had seen so many of those warnings before. Occasionally they had left their homes, only to come home to find them looted.

That night they went to Angie's house because they figured it was most likely to survive. It was hot and dry, so they sat down to eat. There were Angie and her two sons, Demetrius and Jeroid, and daughter Ryanna; Sadie and her boyfriend and her five children; a niece, Caroline; and the matriarch, Bertha.

"It was like a Thanksgiving meal," said Angie.

The floodwater didn't surge until early the next morning. It hit the house across the street first, then it spread to Angie's house.

They pushed furniture against the windows as the glass blew out. The water rose from their ankles to their knees, from their thighs to their waists. Then they pushed the children into the tiny attic.

To Bertha, it looked filthy and infected. She refused to go. "I was scared," said Demetrius. "I thought my grandma was going to die."

But the three adults pushed Bertha up into that attic. They waited four hours for the storm to pass, 13 of them lying on the attic floor with the rat feces.

"It felt like a down-feather comforter to me," said Angie.

They prayed. Through a vent, they watched water batter the other houses. They could feel the swell of the water against their house.

"You got a home?"

Monday afternoon, Zenas drove his van through two-hour traffic jams in Biloxi, collecting family members who were headed to Olympia.

Riding in a car behind him, his nephew Jeroid, 10, and Jeroid's cousin Amber, 12, ticked off the names of people they saw walking on the road. They wondered aloud where they were living now. And who in their family had died.

One boy was walking by slowly, hanging his head, a fishing pole in hand. His white shirt was streaked with dirt. He was one of Jeroid's friends from school.

"Hey, Xavier," Jeroid called out from the car. "You got a home?"

The boy shook his head. No.

There has been looting, and some rumors of rapes. But Amber focused on nice things, like the owner of the local Dollar Store giving his goods to anyone who needed them. Or the churches making hot meals.

Jeroid snapped at his cousin, who had sat out the storm in a house that was untouched.

"You have a home," Jeroid said. "I don't."

"But you'll get one," his cousin said quietly. "Pretty soon."

Amber had her own aches. Jeroid was headed to Washington state without her. Headed into a new life, a new house, maybe a new set of friends.

When Amber was dropped off at her mother's, she skipped the goodbyes, ran inside and slammed the door.

A few minutes later, she tilted her head out the door. She smiled at Jeroid, in the car.

"Hey, Amber!" he called back to her. "Don't cry!"

Last night in Biloxi

For the Richburg family, the last night in Biloxi looked like so many nights since the hurricane: the family talking in a cluster, sitting on plastic chairs and Styrofoam coolers, on the steps of the staircase and the hoods of cars.

The city's 8 p.m. curfew passed hours ago, and the rest of the apartments had gone dark.

Zenas pored over a family album and the people smiling out from the pages.

Yes, his mother, Bertha, told him: Uncle John made it out OK. Lost everything. But he's fine.

Bertha Richburg sat in a billowing white nightgown, a beer in one hand, a fly swatter in the other. The family sucked on muscadines, Southern-grown grapes that Zenas had brought from Jackson, then tossed the pits into a torn-down tree. Angie scolded Zenas for not bringing more.

"I'm gonna start growing some in Washington, so don't worry about it," he said, smiling.

"I'll be up there"

Frank Richburg considered going to Olympia. But he'd rather stay where he was born and raised. Where he built a career driving a big rig.

Besides, his house needed tending. Katrina ripped doors from hinges, pulled up floorboards and spread mud like butter all over everywhere.

Frank Richburg has seen worse things in the world, like Vietnam. But that flood had him swimming out his front door and standing on the roof of his van while the water rose.

A few of his friends drowned in their wheelchairs. So it turns out Frank Richburg was lucky. As long as he can put one foot in front of the other, Richburg will be just fine. All he wants is for his son Zenas to take care of these kids.

His grandson Demetrius had a plan all ready for leaving: Call as soon as he gets to Seattle, write his grandfather three times a day.

But when it came time to load up the van and leave for the airplane ride to Washington, Demetrius buried his head in his grandfather's belly.

Frank Richburg smiled, and looked down at his grandson's head.

"I'll be up there," he promised. "You be looking in my face again."

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2109 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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