I Didn’t Know I Was This Nice

My friend Farrell’s mom, Ruth, has been interviewed again about her escape from New Orleans.

Every time she tells the story, I become a bigger hero. It’s now the “Legend of Geoff Fox.”

Seriously, this was a call anyone with info would make to the parent of a close friend. I am glad Ruth escaped New Orleans unscathed. I’m glad she listened to her family and friends, because I know in her heart she very much wanted to stay.

The story from the Valley Gazette continues at the jump.

DERBY – Cheri Meisel’s quiet duplex apartment on Derby Avenue seems worlds apart from New Orleans, with its exuberant Mardi Gras, wrought iron fences and jazz quartets.

But for Cheri’s mother, Ruth Meisel, 86, who escaped the floodwaters in her native city, the Derby neighborhood is where she now calls home

On a recent afternoon, the mother and daughter pair tried to make sense of the recent events that have dramatically transformed their lives. They sat amid household possessions and furniture recently rearranged to make a bedroom for an unexpected but welcome guest.

“The worst is over – the shock,” Cheri Meisel said. “The strangest thing was to say to my friends that my mother came to us with just the clothes on her back. I never thought I was ever going to say those words.”

Ruth’s Meisel’s saga began late in August when she heard the news about the looming Hurricane Katrina on television.

She lived in the flood area in the Lake Carmel subdivision in New Orleans East and had weathered four previous floods over the years.

But this storm would prove to be far different. Ruth Meisel said she received a telephone call Aug. 27 from Geoff Fox, a television meteorologist from Connecticut’s News Channel 8, who is a friend of her son, Farrell.

She got the first inkling of danger when she realized Fox was not making a routine call.

“I could tell by his voice,” she said. “‘Mrs. Meisel,’ he said, ‘I’m talking to you as a meteorologist. The hurricane is going to hit. This is the hurricane you’ve always dreaded. I want you to get out immediately.’

“I told him I didn’t know where to go,” she said. His reply was direct and insistent.

“‘Get in your car and drive north,'” he said. “I hard boiled four eggs, and made a few sandwiches,” Meisel said. “I decided to go.”

She awoke Aug. 28 at 4:30 a.m., took a shower, got dressed and packed two suitcases and a week’s worth of medicine.

As a precaution, she wrote down her children’s cell phone numbers on a rolodex card and kept it with her along with a credit card, medical information and her driver’s license.

Meanwhile, she learned from television reports that the city’s Superdome had been opened as a shelter. She left her house at 6 a.m.

“It didn’t take me long to get there,” she said, and the 20-minute drive was traffic-free. “I went straight to the dome.”

She was told to park her car on the second level in Garage 5. “I walked on into the dome,” she recalled, and found lines and lines of people waiting to be screened.

There were handicapped people in wheelchairs, some on oxygen, a man without legs and a diabetic, she said.

“They sat us down and gave us identification tags that read ‘bus,'” she said. “It was very orderly. The attendants were professional.”

Social service volunteers, specifically those from the American Red Cross “were wonderful,” she said.

Meisel boarded one of three Regional Transportation (RTA) buses and spent the next 12 hours traveling to Baton Rouge, a trip that usually takes an hour and a half. All lanes of the highway had been designated as northbound thoroughfares.

The experience was “almost enjoyable,” she said, and the buses eventually arrived at a school where the evacuees stayed for the next two days and nights.

They had to move again when the school had to open for classes and were relocated on Tuesday morning to River Center in Baton Rouge.

By that time news of the hurricane’s destruction reached her. “People said ‘It’s hit New Orleans,'” she said. When she asked how much of the city was under water, the reply was chilling. “‘All of it,'” she said.

The shelter lost electricity but went on generator power, and those housed there were well fed and had ample water to drink.

Meisel said she remembered the kindness of the Red Cross workers, including a woman named Stacy, who kept Meisel near her side and said, “You belong to me!”

And Meisel also lent a hand.

“I helped people who were worse off,” she said. “One woman began crying. She was petrified. She had lost everything. I told her ‘You better stop crying now. You’re better off than a lot of people.'”

Later, the woman told Meisel she thought she was a social worker.

She also helped with paper work, alphabetizing names of those at the shelter.

A family’s concern grows

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Cheri and her brother Farrell were able to speak to their mother daily via cell phone.

“She called us every morning,” Cheri said, “to tell us she was safe.”

On Aug. 31, Meisel tried to call, but couldn’t get through. She had to hunt for a Red Cross worker to call her daughter on her cell phone.

When Cheri and Farrell didn’t hear from their mother as expected, their worry increased. They also realized by looking at an online flood map that their mother’s neighborhood was under water, and she couldn’t return home.

“We knew this was bad,” Cheri said. “We knew we had to get her out. Tuesday night and Wednesday were horrible days for me. I went into survival mode.”

With the help of the Internet and a travel agent, the siblings learned that the Baton Rouge airport was open, and they managed to book a 5:23 p.m. flight on Continental Airlines. “My brother called my mom and said, ‘You’re leaving,'” Cheri said.

“I don’t think she wanted to go,” she added, laughing.

Meisel found a Red Cross worker whose husband drove her to the airport. After a stop in Houston, Meisel arrived at Bradley Airport shortly after midnight.

Cheri had bought her mother’s favorite foods, along with new clothes. Her brother, who lives in Alexandria, Va., mailed several Macy’s gift cards.

“She’s an independent person,” Cheri said, and she and her brother want their mother to maintain her autonomy in her new surroundings.

“God blessed me with wonderful children,” said Meisel, who had worked part time for the New Orleans Convention Center and is hoping to find work in Derby and travel to her job via Valley Transit. She has already registered to vote at Derby City Hall.

Grief over a city

As their new life takes shape, Cheri and Ruth Meisel can’t help but reflect on the fate of the city that is close to their hearts.

Meisel’s parents moved to New Orleans a century ago from Europe, and the family struggled to make a home in Louisiana.

“We came up the hard way,” said Meisel, who married Leon Meisel in 1949. He died 12 years ago. Had he lived to see Katrina, “he would have been right there with me,” Meisel said.

The family endured Hurricane Betsy in 1965 when Cheri was nine years old, spending a few days in a shelter and then a hotel.

“The worst time was a flood in the late 1970s,” Meisel said, that occurred because of “incompetence in the pumping systems.”

Hurricane Georges also caused flooding eight years ago.

During Katrina’s onslaught, Cheri said she watched with horror as news reports showed people walking out of their houses chest deep in water. “I knew things were bad,” she said. “It was another stake in my heart.”

New Orleans “is home,” to Cheri, who grew up and lived there for short periods of time since then.

She recalls spending time in the French Quarter and realizing on a recent visit how unique the Mardi Gras festivities were. She also remembers driving countless times on a bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, whose waters submerged her mother’s neighborhood under nine feet of water.

The family assumes her mother’s car is “floating somewhere” since three lower levels of the Superdome flooded out during the storm.

Ryan Caster, a State Farm Insurance agent from Trumbull has already issued Meisel a check to cover part of the lost car.

“The city won’t ever be the same,” Cheri said, using imagery that refers to the flood and to indications of corruption. “It will be different. They will dig deep. Things are going to come to the surface. You’re going to see a new New Orleans and a new Louisiana.

“Everyone is responsible,” Cheri said, for the fact that the levee system failed, and evacuation efforts were late and in some cases non-existent.

“Twenty and 30 years ago, people were worried about the levees,” she said. But the funding never arrived to improve them and may have been diverted.

“We have to have good leadership locally, state and nationally,” she said.

Mother and daughter have only praise for the agencies, such as the Red Cross and FEMA that helped Ruth Meisel in Louisiana and in Connecticut.

She “is on the fence” about whether to return to New Orleans. “She could stay here forever if she wants to,” Cheri said “My mother’s got great spirit. She might move out to Jefferson Parish,” she said, or somewhere else in another state.

The Meisel family is already planning to clean up the family homestead when the floodwaters recede.

“We’re going to get tetanus shots, wear hazmat suits and bring down gear and bleach,” Cheri said.

Her mother’s survival story sparked the realization that what happened to her could happen to anyone. They both are grateful for the kindness so many people bestowed.

“It behooves everyone to help someone else,” she said.

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