Hospital staff finds new home for hurricane victim

A temporary island of security, but also an unfamiliar world for lifelong New Orleans resident

By: David Campbell
   Paulette Junius is a lifetime resident of New Orleans. She never had traveled far from the city before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast region, leaving her and her family homeless.
   Employees at Princeton HealthCare System wanted to help. And in late December, just days before the Christmas holiday, they, along with members of the PHCS senior management, officially welcomed Ms. Junius, her daughter, Patrice, and four grandchildren to her new home on Harris Road.
   Ms. Junius said the hurricane left her home in New Orleans submerged in water. She said she doesn’t know where she will live if she decides to return to the city. She may eventually move to Texas or, if she likes it, remain here in Central Jersey.
   "In the beginning, it was difficult," Ms. Junius said of her recent travels, forced upon her and her family by the hurricane and its devastating aftermath.
   "This is my first time leaving New Orleans, and it was somewhat unimaginable," she said. "But I’m adapting well."
   The idea for opening up one of the PHCS-owned houses on Harris Road to the family originated with a group of concerned employees. One of them contacted HomeFront, the Lawrence-based outreach organization to the homeless, and the two organizations began to work together.
   "HomeFront has been very helpful in guiding us through the process of identifying a family in need of temporary housing," PHCS President and CEO Barry Rabner said.
   The health-care system has donated the Harris Road residence as transitional housing for an eight-month period, free of charge. Employees donated items to furnish the home, including bedding, dishes, cutlery, gift cards, games, holiday gift items and food, PHCS said.
   HomeFront Executive Director Connie Mercer said the organization did for Ms. Junius’ family what it does for all the people it aids: "We help them survive the initial horror of homelessness and then move on to self-sufficiency," she said.
   Ms. Mercer said Ms. Junius and her family were put up in a motel for about a week in the aftermath of Katrina. Then they moved into a temporary apartment until the house in Princeton became available.
   "We helped them get the pieces of their lives back together, got their kids enrolled in school," the executive director continued. "The hospital reached out to us through employees who wanted very much to make a difference through Katrina."
   Ms. Mercer said HomeFront has helped relocate about 58 individuals left homeless by the hurricane and said the organization is thrilled to have been able to lend support. But she also noted that on any given night, HomeFront is providing shelter to about 350 local people in need — most of them children.
   Ms. Junius, 57, said her journey began on the day of the hurricane, when she and her sister debated whether to join the exodus from the city and travel to Texas or Baton Rouge, La., or to stay and weather the storm.
   The family decided to stay. They had remained through past hurricanes, she said, and the mayor of the city had advised the public that though the storm would be bad, people could remain provided they sought high ground.
   "This wasn’t the first hurricane we had," she said. "In the past, we stayed and waited it out."
   Ms. Junius’ family — 14 people in total, including a couple of friends — took a room on the fifth floor of a local hotel. It was the last room available due to the storm. When it passed, the hotel’s first floor was under water, as was her home in the city. "We lost everything," she said.
   After the hurricane passed, the family traveled across town to the hospital where her sister works — children and the elderly were transported by boat, while she and others waded through water that was chest-high for some of the evacuees.
   They spent two days at the hospital, then were airlifted by helicopter to a nearby airport. There, they began the process of decontamination — because the waters of New Orleans were said to contain hazardous levels of pollution — then boarded a bus that took them to Lafayette, La., where they underwent complete decontamination and spent two more nights.
   Ms. Junius said a cousin who lives in Lawrence contacted her sister, and arrangements were made for the family to relocate temporarily to New Jersey.
   She came here with her daughter, who now travels back and forth to New Orleans getting re-established there, and four grandchildren ranging in age from 3 to 16.
   Three of the grandchildren live with her in Princeton, while the fourth lives in Lawrence but visits regularly, she said.