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Friday, September 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Open hearts, hands greet family

Seattle Times staff reporter

Corey Trent doesn't know where to begin when describing the changes in his family's life since all nine packed into their Toyota 4Runner and fled New Orleans.

Since arriving in Seattle two weeks ago, it's been a surreal mix of worries big and small — about missing relatives and pencils for the kids. It's been rushing — to get children registered in new schools, to fill out paperwork for aid, to figure out where local groceries are; and then waiting — for the phones to be hooked up, for what happens next.

"We've been running around like chickens with our heads cut off," said Trent, 33, sitting on a sofa in the family's new home — a two-bedroom apartment in Rainier Valley.

At the same time, he says, they feel numb. Back in New Orleans, he was surrounded by family, friends and neighbors who'd known each other for decades. He had a job as a cook at several restaurants and his wife provided home-care for the elderly and disabled.

Trent shakes his head, his right hand coming up to worry his hair, eyes staring at nothing in particular. Here, "it feels a little like we're on the outside looking in."

Scenes such as this have begun playing out across the country, as evacuees settle into new homes, often in states far from home. Locally, about 250 families have fled Hurricane Katrina for King and Kitsap counties, according to the local American Red Cross.

Unlike the 14 members of the Richburg family of Biloxi, Miss., whose journey has been chronicled in The Seattle Times and who arrived in Olympia only two days ago, the Trents have had a couple of weeks to start the overwhelming task of building life anew, unexpectedly, in the Northwest.

The 27 members of Trent's family arrived here in different cars on different days, choosing Seattle because a sister, Patrice Trent, had lived here once and liked it.

Trent and his wife, Matreathia Spears, 29, decided a few days before Katrina made landfall that they needed to leave the city they'd lived in all their lives.

"If we don't get out of here now, we might never get out," Trent remembers thinking.

They squeezed themselves, their six children — ages 6 to 14 — and Trent's father into the SUV, tying food to the top of the car. There was no room for the family dogs. Halfway through the weeklong drive to Seattle, their $600 — about all they had in their savings — ran out.

They had no money for hotels, so all nine slept in the 4Runner, which broke down three times: In Texas, the fan belt had to be replaced. In California, when the car needed fixing again, a couple gave them $250 and let them sleep in their trailer. In Oregon, where they ran out of gas, a man helped them fill their tank and gave them enough food money to make it to Seattle.

When they finally arrived, all nine stayed with Trent's sister, Patrice, who had just gotten an apartment herself after fleeing from Katrina to Seattle with her husband and nine of their children. Another sister, Javonne Moran, arrived shortly thereafter, with her husband and five children. For about a week, the 27 relatives all crowded into Patrice's apartment.

Word soon spread about the family. Aid arrived from the Red Cross. Patrice's landlord found other apartments for Corey Trent's and Moran's families.

Corey and Matreathia enrolled their three sons in the African-American Academy, and their daughter at Rainier Beach High School. There, a school counselor noticed she wasn't writing things down. He asked why. She said she had no school supplies.

The school staff assembled and donated supplies and clothes. Renee Busch, a volunteer dance teacher at the school, involved her church, Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, whose members determined each family's needs and wants.

Into boxes and bags marked with the recipients' names went clothing and shoes in the proper sizes. For My'eisha Trent, age 1, shoe size 2 ½, there was a bag full of clothes and, on top, a teddy bear in a red snowflake sweater.

Busch's son, Nate Robinson of the New York Knicks (and formerly of the University of Washington), and Knicks teammate Jamal Crawford donated money.

The Rev. Patrinell Wright, founding director of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, got a hotel chain with local ties to donate sofas, beds, bedding, TVs and VCRs. Other community members donated money, goods and services.

The Trents are deeply thankful for all the help. Still, so major an adjustment is hard.

There are the big things: looking for work and not knowing the whereabouts — or conditions — of some relatives, friends and former neighbors. The Trent siblings worry about their mama, who is diabetic and, last they heard, was living in the Astrodome in Houston. A lifelong resident of New Orleans, she hadn't wanted to leave.

"My mama said the whole back of her house gone," Corey said. "That's her whole life working, saving up."

An aunt called yesterday, saying their mama was all right, being cared for by their stepdad and a sister in Houston. A brother was heading to Atlanta.

They don't know when they'll all connect again. Corey and Matreathia's younger children ask what happened to an uncle and cousin who didn't come with them, and about their three dogs. "I'm still watching TV. I want to see if I can catch a glimpse of the dogs," Corey said.

There are many reminders that they're in a new place. It takes much longer to get dark in the evenings. They miss their crawfish boil. Corey can't find some of the spices and food brands he's used to: Blue Plate mayonnaise or Bunny bread. The onions aren't as sweet here, though the fruits seem sweeter.

Corey's father couldn't bear to be away from his home and has since flown back to New Orleans. "He was grieving," Corey said. But Corey and Matreathia say they're planning to stay.

"We ain't never been through nothing of this magnitude," Corey said. "We're scared. We don't plan on going back. I look at the news. That could've been us."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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