By Chris Levister
Eighty-eight year-old Ella Ray has done some serious thinking about life since Hurricane Katrina nearly robbed her of life on the morning of August 29, 2005, but don't ask her to talk about it. Ella Ray suffers from Alzheimer's disease. She is blind in one eye, can't walk and is only able to speak a few words. Hers is a story steeped in loss, courage, hope, earth angels and prayers answered.
Ella Ray was all smiles seated in a black overstuffed chair next to a blazing fireplace, and a brightly lit Christmas tree. She isn't sure how she ended up in the Beaumont home of Jim and Sally Abrahms nearly 2,000 miles from her home in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, but she couldn't be happier.
Her prayers to be reunited with her beloved ‘Sil' and Lil' Bit were answered.
On December 23 just in time for Christmas, Ella Ray was reunited with her sister Evelyn (Lil' Bit) and brother Sylvester (Sil) 16 months after Katrina blew in and separated them.
Ella Ray was in a nursing home that was crippled by the storm. The facility wasn't flooded, but there was no power and a skeleton crew was struggling to survive with dwindling food and supplies.
Sylvester, a retired New Orleans police officer, visited the nursing home several times after the storm and finally persuaded medical authorities to bring ambulances and move the frail patients to the New Orleans airport. Ella Ray was one of a dozen elderly people evacuated to San Antonio. If any identification or records came with her, they were misplaced by the time she reached San Antonio.
"We were distraught," said Evelyn. "No one knew who took Ella Ray or where she was. Just like that she disappeared into the masses." But Evelyn and Sylvester never gave up hope. "We prayed that God would take her quickly or put her in good hands," said Sylvester who spent 21 days in a Houston shelter before moving to an assisted living facility in Baton Rouge.
"We found Ella Ray wondering around a San Antonio shelter wearing a yellowing wristband with no medical records or history," said Sally an elementary school teacher and Red Cross volunteer who lived in San Antonio. She was badly dehydrated and suffering from bladder and eye infections. That ID bracelet, it turns out misspelled her last name Reyes.
"It was so heartbreaking to see so many people in dire straits," said Jim "I looked at Ella Ray and I thought what if that was my mother? She desperately needed a safe haven. That evening we went home and talked it over with our family." The next day Ella Ray became the Abrahms' unofficial adoptee. "She looked so pretty. We couldn't resist."
"Is that you Sil? Is that you Lil'Bit'? Ella Ray whispered in a halting voice, a chorus she repeats over and over.
The Abrahms' are genealogy buffs who "just had to do something to help" used their computer to track down the family of Ray.
"We did it as good Samaritans with hopes that God will bless us," said Sally, who has been researching family trees for 35 years. The Abrahams moved to Beaumont in June to be near their aging parents.
"It was natural - to bring Ella with us. It didn't matter that she is Black and we are white. She is a beautiful human who deserves to be safe and happy," said Sally.
"Ella couldn't speak of the deep hurt," said Jim "but we could see it in her eyes."
For months the Abrahms did their online detective work. We were hampered by mounds of the red tape and unreliable data on person's missing or displaced by the hurricane. Many hours of searching led to Ray's maiden name Corey. That led them to Ray's nephew, David E. Suggs in St. Rose, La., about 20 miles west of New Orleans. It took the Abrahms another seven months to find a phone number for Suggs.
Evelyn said when Suggs called with the news Ella Ray had seen located ironically she was doing a crossword puzzle Ella Ray's favorite pastime. Forgive me, I almost wet my pants," said Evelyn, who lives with a daughter in Hampton, Virginia. "It was a divine moment."
Ella's journey is about to take another turn. Thanks to a private donor, next month she will join Evelyn and Sylvester in a new assisted living facility near New Orleans. The facility was rebuilt after it was destroyed in the storm. Moving expenses, medical supplies and 24-hour home health care is also being donated.
Medical officials have cautioned Ella Ray's family that the elderly particularly Alzheimer's patients often have trouble adjusting when moved from familiar surroundings. Still Evelyn and Sylvester and Ella Ray are vowing to stick together.
"Hurricane Katrina stole our innocence and ruined our lives. All we have now is faith and the greatest holiday gift of all - each other.
As for the Abrahms, "We'll miss Ella. She'll always be a member of our family," said Sally. "Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it back."
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