For the past week, Andre Gautreau has been living in a Stockton area motel with his brother, wife and their five children. The rooms include a DVD player that serves as the main entertainment for the kids who range in age from four to 12. "We’re no different from other people who come to this country. It’s kind of strange being a refugee in your own country," he says.
Like thousands of other survivors, Andre Gautreau has a harrowing story. He and his brother’s family had to get out of New Orleans after Katrina ripped the roof from the house they shared. "We had all of our valuables upstairs because we though there might be some flooding." Gautreau recalls. "We moved the refrigerator, the stove, the washer and all that, put it upstairs. And when the roof ripped off and rain started pouring in we rushed upstairs to bring everything back down. And we forgot about the ceilings. The ceilings just collapsed and all you had were four bare walls. You looked straight up and you could see the sky and all."
Three days after Katrina struck land, the family abandoned their roofless home and caught a bus to the evacuation center at the Houston Astrodome. "It was tolerable but it wasn’t ideal thousands of strangers coming together sleeping on cots, you had no privacy or anything," Gautreau says. "You had communal showers. Most of the food was cold and that’s when the children started getting sick.
At the Astrodome, evacuees were being relocated to cities all around the country. The Gautreaus decided to come to California on one of three buses provided by Stockton businessman Ralph Lee White. Gautreau says other cities weren’t taking entire families. "They were only accepting women and children, they weren’t accepting men. We told them ‘no we’re not going to break up the family’ and the next thing you know we’re on the buses to here. Two nights and a day and we’re here. We were happy. Clean room and a hot shower, hot food. So we’re looking forward to a new life here."
Gautreau is wearing a blue and white checkered sports shirt and jeans. And for a man whose life has been turned upside down he looks remarkably relaxed. He's a retired corrections officer. His ancestors arrived in Louisiana about two hundred years ago, and except for a stint in the military, he’s lived there all his life. Gautreau thought Katrina would be just another in a long list of storms he’s survived. "It was forty years ago when we had Hurricane Betsy and we went through that in our home. We rode it out and survived and with very minimum damage. So I saw no reason to think otherwise."
With his past life literally wiped out, Gautreau plans to make California a permanent home for his family. Hisjob prospects are uncertain, butHe likes the weather and there are no hurricanes. "I know there’s earthquakes, but I’d rather deal with an earthquake than a hurricane.
Gautreau says a number of social service agencies are helping him look for a home for his family. He’s hoping that can be accomplished within a couple of weeks. .