Hurricane Katrina: Who Is This Child?
09/26/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
Since Kalite came into their lives after Hurricane Katrina, Estella Gordon and her fiancé, Calvin Horton, have learned a few things about the little girl they barely knew before the storm. She loves bananas, she doesn't like having her hair combed, she cares little for television. But since the baby is only about 20 months old and not yet able to speak, there is so much more they don't know. The child cannot tell them her last name, nor can she guess where her parents might be. "Maybe they are trying to find us," says Horton, hopefully. "We just don't know."
Katrina survivors of all ages face many uncertainties, and for an unknown number of the youngest, the scariest is this: Where is my mom? Scattered by the storm and the chaos of its aftermath, displaced children have ended up in the care of other relatives or foster families, as agencies like the American Red Cross and state child-protective services scramble to reunite families with help ranging from computer search know-how to airline tickets and temporary shelter. The vast majority will, with luck and in time, find their way home, and already more than 500 have been reunited with their families, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. But in Oxford, Miss., a little girl waits, unable even to say whether she is scared or not. This is her story—so far.
First came the wind, then the water. As the flood began to engulf the New Orleans apartment building of Estella Gordon, 51, and Calvin Horton, 43, the longtime companions urged 12 of their neighbors and relatives up to their home on the second floor. Among them was Gordon's friend Audrey Jones, who brought her baby goddaughter Kalite. It was common for the girl to spend several days at a time with Jones, and Gordon and Horton had looked forward to seeing her beaming face. "She would just smile and wave," Horton says. In the apartment, though, everyone huddled together as the terrible storm blew out the windows one by one. For three days they stayed put, eating what food happened to be in the cupboards.
On the third day, Horton found an air mattress to use as a raft to take two teenage nieces to safety. Several men gave them a boat, and Horton ferried everyone from the second floor to a nearby bridge. A day or so later, the group was helicoptered to the New Orleans airport. Gordon was able to reach her brother-in-law, who agreed to come from Kenner, La., and pick them up. Everyone finally began to relax and get some sleep, except, Horton says, for Audrey Jones. "She was folding and unfolding clothes, the same clothes, over and over again. I thought she was doing it just to stay busy," he says. Gordon says Jones, whose mother had recently died, began hallucinating, once imagining a little boy nearby had beaten someone to death. But neither she nor Horton gave much thought to her erratic behavior until they awoke early the next morning. Kalite was crying and Jones was gone.
They searched the airport for several hours, but by then Gordon's brother-in-law had arrived. "I knew I wasn't going to leave without that baby," Gordon says. "I put Kalite on my hip and rode out." Gordon didn't know much about the girl suddenly in her charge, except her first name and that her grandmother had thrown a first-birthday party for her the day after Christmas last year. Gordon says she saw the baby's mother at the apartment and at the Little St. John Missionary Baptist Church in New Orleans and recalls that her name was something like Keychelle.
The group of evacuees stayed briefly in Kenner before driving to Oxford, where Gordon's mother lives in a public housing apartment—their home for now. There, Kalite sleeps through the night, giggles frequently and babbles like a typical toddler. She shows no signs of being traumatized, except that she won't let Gordon out of her sight for long without kicking up a fuss. "She's afraid I'll leave and not come back," Gordon says. Terry Prestage, the chief deputy sheriff of Lafayette County, Miss., says Kalite's photo has been sent to law enforcement agencies around the country and posted on hurricane and missing-children Web sites. Her case has been reported to the state's Department of Human Services. But "there's been nothing so far" in the way of a response, says Prestage.
What does her future hold? If nobody comes forward, authorities must determine what can be done to locate her parents, says Eddie McClain, a social work supervisor for the department. For the foreseeable future, however, he says, there is no reason why she can't stay with Gordon and Horton, the couple who brought her to safety.
The thought thrills both of them. Gordon, who has two grown children, says she and Horton have bonded with the little girl. "If I don't find her mother or grandmother, I want her to be with me," she says. "I don't want her to go with someone I don't know." It's been a while since she had a toddler of her own, she notes. "But I haven't lost my touch," she says. "I've still got it."
LOOKING FOR CHARLES
A FAMILY WON'T REST UNTIL A SON COMES HOME
Life has been a little better this past week for La Toya Adamore, a mother of six, and her family. After evacuating their now destroyed New Orleans home and spending five hellish days in the city's infamous Superdome, they're now living in relative comfort in a Dallas hotel room provided by a local church. All but one, that is—Adamore's 8-year-old son Charles, whom she has not seen since the day before the storm. "He has a little dent in his chin," she says, fighting back tears. Adds her longtime boyfriend, Lionel Jefferson: "He's 3 feet, brown skin, got a little round-shaped head."
On Aug. 28, in a panic as the storm approached, Adamore, 27, handed her daughter, Latiayanel, 3, to Jefferson's sister for safekeeping; Charles was sent off with his father, Charles Bickham, who was planning to drive out of town. "You want the best for your child," says Adamore, who believed the separation would last a night or two at most, "and we had a lot of kids to evacuate."
On Sept. 12 she finally reunited with Latiayanel, who rode out the storm in a Galveston shelter. But so far, despite putting his name on a Red Cross missing kids list, there's no sign of Charles. "We've been online since we got here, and they don't have any information about him or his daddy," she says.
As much as she yearns for him, Adamore is grateful her son didn't have to endure the Superdome. "We were sleeping on cardboard," she says, recalling the days of no food, deplorable sanitary conditions and gunfire. "One night they killed a man on the field. We were all enclosed, and wherever a stray bullet goes..."
For now, Adamore, who is seven months pregnant, clings to her children, and the only material object she took from her house—an urn containing the ashes of her brother Douglas Hawthorne, who was killed two years ago in a random shooting on a New Orleans street. As for her missing son, she says, "They tell me they're going to keep looking." In the meantime, "I think about him all the time," she says. "Always."