08/30/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT
Most people remember the destruction: the homes leveled and the families split apart when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. Five years later, James McCray of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward recalls seeing people trapped on the railroad tracks, water on both sides of them, and thinking, "Where are they going to go?" Indeed, where would his own large family go? But amid the chaos there were glimmers of hope. Connections were made. Volunteers stepped up. A single mom, Sue Sandford, opened her Dallas home to 20 strangers: McCray and all his relatives. "You don't meet many people like her," says McCray, now back in New Orleans but still in close touch with Sandford. "She made me believe there must be more out there who are good, good people." On the anniversary of the storm, here are four stories of lives brought together just as everything around them was falling apart.
THEY WERE THE LAST TWO NEIGHBORS ON THEIR BLOCK
Though they lived opposite one another on Deslonde Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, Diedra Taylor-Ordogne and Velma Collins had never met. "I used my back door," explains Collins, 68, a casino worker. "I didn't know her name," adds Taylor-Ordogne, 43, a married nurse with three kids. Then Katrina wiped out every house on their street. Two years later the Taylor-Ordognes moved into a new home at their old address, built by the Brad Pitt
-backed Make It Right Foundation. Their house was one of just two on the street; the other was Collins' new modular home on the lot where she had lived. Taylor-Ordogne was the first to cross the street and say hello. At last the women became friends-and much more. "We call each other every day," says Taylor-Ordogne. "I bring her to her doctor's appointments, and she is here for me." Collins, who has lived in the Lower Ninth Ward area since age 7, recalls it as "a community who looked out for each other. If you didn't have electricity, you go and get it by your neighbors." That fell away as crime rates rose. Now it is more like old times again. Her friend agrees: "It's like living in the country, peaceful and serene. We are not just neighbors. We are family. I love her very much."
THEY FELL IN LOVE WITH A CITY-AND EACH OTHER
In August 2005 Josie Beets was at Brooklyn Law School, planning to be a corporate attorney. "I wanted to make money," she says. Sean Zehtab, an Iraq War veteran, was at University of Nebraska College of Law. Both viewed the catastrophe in New Orleans with dismay. "I thought, 'This is not my country,'" says Beets, 32. "I was heartbroken." In response, both volunteered at the Student Hurricane Network to give legal aid to victims. "It was humbling," she says. "Being a corporate lawyer wasn't an option anymore." Until late 2006 Beets and Zehtab knew each other only as voices on SHN conference calls. When they met at a volunteers gathering, "I thought she was beautiful," says Zehtab, 30, adding that "the common cause definitely helped spark the flames." On Sept. 27, 2008, the couple wed in New Orleans and lived there until Zehtab, a JAG officer, was transferred to Fort Polk, La. But they visit often. "So many young, idealistic people are creating a better city than there was before," says Beets, a children's legal advocate. And they want 5-month-old Sonia to know the town that brought her folks together. Says Zehtab: "Out of this disaster came new life."
SHE TOOK IN 20 STRANGERS
As flood water lapped at their roof and they prepared to flee, James and Linda McCray made a vow: "Our family would not be split up," says James, 60, a newspaper distributor. So all 20 members-three generations of relatives from five different households, ranging in age from 55 years to 4 weeks old-left for Dallas. They were crammed into two hotel rooms when they met Sue Sandford, 41, a local volunteer who insisted she had a better solution: They should all come stay in her five-bedroom home in one of Dallas' affluent neighborhoods. "I thought she must be crazy," says James, laughing. But the divorced stay-at-home mom of four was serious. "We felt the need to help after Katrina," says Sandford. "I wanted my kids to understand what was happening." Her kids, ages 9 to 15, were all happy to pitch in, dragging their mattresses into Sue's room and turning their rooms over to the guests. Linda, 56, helped return the hospitality by cooking barbecue ribs, peach cobbler and potato salad for 15-year-old McKenna Sandford's soccer party. Though the McCrays stayed only two weeks, the families bonded and now visit several times a year. "He's my brother," Josh Sandford, 11, says of Shawn McCray, also 11. "You have to love your family," Sue says. "Loving strangers is using a different part of your heart." Adds James: "Sue changed me. "
SHE FOUND A BEST FRIEND
Among Katrina's victims were thousands of animals abandoned as their owners fled. When Lise McComiskey, 43, came home to New Orleans after a month-long evacuation to Texas, she saw hungry strays roaming the city. "It was heartbreaking," says McComiskey, who rounded up hundreds and took them to shelters. Eventually she quit her job as a paralegal and began working for Animal Rescue New Orleans. One of her toughest challenges came in February 2006, when she found a large mutt in an industrial area who wouldn't allow her to approach. Even at a safe distance, she says, "you could count every rib. I don't know how he was surviving." It took two years of trying-and a few prime steaks-to get close enough to slip a leash around the dog she named Boy. "He finally trusted me," she says. Today Boy is the beloved pet of McComiskey and husband Jim, 48. "He sleeps in bed with us," she says. "I have to push him off my feet."