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Thursday, September 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Happy landings bring family to Olympia

Seattle Times staff reporter

This is the third chapter in the saga of the Richburg family, which survived Hurricane Katrina and traveled from Biloxi, Miss., to Olympia to live with their relatives, Zenas and Michelle Richburg.

From the oval of the airplane window, Denise Simmons looked down upon Seattle and saw something familiar: a green canopy of trees, as far as her eyes could see.

It was the kind of thing that reminded her of Mississippi.

"They're gone now," Simmons said of the trees in her hometown of Biloxi. "Katrina done blew them down."

Simmons, 24, was one of 14 hurricane survivors who are part of an extended Biloxi family who arrived in Seattle yesterday escorted by Zenas Richburg of Olympia, who flew to Mississippi earlier this week to collect as many of his siblings, their children and friends as he could.

The family arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to be greeted by the lights of TV cameras. Then they were whisked away to Olympia in two white stretch limousines courtesy of a local tavern owner.

Then they spent the afternoon picking through boxes of donations and moving into two furnished houses. And they talked about the future, from the work they might find to the schools they expect to start attending next week.

"We're going to make the best of this," said Angie Richburg, 27, one of three of Zenas Richburg's siblings to make the trip. "We're gonna have some fun."

The family left a Biloxi hit hard by Katrina, which left piles of wood where houses once stood. For the past two weeks, most of them lived with their mother and grandmother, Bertha Richburg. There were 13 people crammed together in a tiny apartment, sleeping on rugs and chairs and couches. Bertha stayed behind to start a new job. Her husband, Frank, stayed too, determined to rebuild his house. Another part of the family stayed for fear of flying.

Five adults and nine children made the journey yesterday. They spent Tuesday night in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Jackson, Miss., playing cards on overturned grocery carts and sleeping in rented vans. They came to the airport at dawn, unwashed, tired and fighting back their fear of flying.

As the engines of the commercial jet roared, they sat stiff in three rows of seats. Jeroid Richburg, 10, hid his face in a sweat shirt. His mother, Angie, closed her eyes. When she opened them, there were tears.

"I got a gutsy feeling in my stomach," said Angie's other son, 11-year-old Demetrius.

They could make it through hurricanes, the family members said. That was a threat they understood. But the shaking of the plane, that elevator feeling, the noisy ups and downs, none of it felt right.

Seeing what the birds see

Then several hours into the all-day trip, which went from Jackson to Houston, then Houston to Phoenix, then Phoenix to Seattle, it suddenly did.

"Finally get to see what the birds and the eagles see, flying up high," Angie said.

On the different flights, and in all the airports, word spread that the family had been left homeless by Katrina. Fellow passengers hugged them. Airport officials bought them food. One man stopped a family friend, Gail Brown of Olympia, who had organized the trip, and handed her $90 in small bills.

"I'm headed to Las Vegas," the man told her. "I've got it to give."

Brown has seen that kind of thing a lot lately, since she started organizing the trip. One woman offered 300,000 frequent-flier miles to any family who wanted to leave Biloxi. An employee at a Wal-Mart in Shelton, Mason County, delivered six free baby car seats to Brown's doorstep before she left on the trip.

Brown herself charged all the Richburg family's airfares on her credit card, figuring she could sell one of her cars if she didn't make the money back in donations.

But the money has come in. And job offers. And houses. It's the kind of thing that has the family grateful, after all they've been through.

"Oh, I'm happy to be alive and to be here," said Michael Robertson, 23, as he got off the plane.

Zenas Richburg's wife, Michelle, has been taking calls for two weeks as she prepared for the family's arrival. There are doctors standing by, school officials on alert, and local businesses offering work.

Taking it all in

Even so, she was speechless yesterday at the sight of the Richburg family settling into her home.

"I just don't have a word for it," Michelle said.

One child was chasing balloons while another pushed a stroller and talked to the Barbie doll sitting in it. Tents set up in the back yard were full of boxes of clothes. The parents scoured the donations for the right sizes of shoes, sweaters, nightgowns and gloves.

"These are small shirts!" yelled Angie, holding one up to her body. "They got to know Southern women is big women!"

Demetrius sat in a lawn chair, with his uncle's Doberman Pinscher spread out at his feet. At first, he declared the whole scene boring. The place was too quiet, he said. Where were the trampolines? He wanted to head back to Biloxi.

He would not hear a word about how his new life in Olympia might actually work.

"Maybe it will," he said, frowning. "Maybe it won't."

Minutes later, as he watched his family bustle around, he changed his mind.

He had things to do, he said. Like sit for a while. And eat. And maybe play with the dog.

And there was his new cousin, Kira, his uncle Zenas' 14-year-old daughter. Demetrius had never met her before. She stood shy and silent in a corner of the lawn, watching the big family rush past.

So Demetrius started to talk to her. About the free cinnamon buns he got at the airport. And how good they were.

She really should have been there, Demetrius said.

Kira stayed silent while her cousin talked.

Then she smiled.

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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