It seemed so hopeless four days ago. Half a family of seven floated through New Orleans, balancing on a stainless steel freezer door. Three of the children were missing. Two dogs were left behind with food and water and prayers.
Eleven-year-old Chad Davis feverishly waved an American flag almost 10 hours as helicopters passed overhead. His mother, Deborah Davis, 48, broke down in tears — afraid rescuers would never spot her family in its perilous place.
At times she wished her misery would just end in death. She watched as bodies floated by.
Using a cracked mop stick, dad Clifton Drummer, 50, pushed the family on through the filthy water.
"When you’re at a point you know you can die any time, it’s a fighting thing," Drummer said Tuesday as he recalled the hellish ordeal his family underwent before finding refuge in Arizona. "I’m the protector of my family."
Protector, that is, against men he saw carrying hammers in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. Protector against the garbage that washed up in water he was sure carried disease — the same water he reached in to fish out water bottles and military rations for survival.
Then Saturday, they finally felt the rush of wind from a hovering Navy helicopter. One by one, the couple and two of their sons were plucked from the freezer door and lifted 200 feet in a terrifying trip to safety. Their belongings scattered underneath the helicopter blades.
They had no idea, though, how much their lives would change.
On Tuesday night — a week after the house Deborah Davis grew up and lived in for 38 years filled with water — the family slept in an east Phoenix home.
Most important: They finally located the other half of their family in a Houston
shelter. Two other sons, a grandmother and a 2-year-old daughter are expected to arrive in Arizona today.
Finding a new, and possibly, permanent home happened so fast — faster than it’s going for most of the thousands of evacuees who fled New Orleans for safety in other states.
But the couple hope their family can be a ray of hope for those who think all is lost.
On Monday, Deborah Davis made a phone call to Rep. Leah Landrum, D-Phoenix, asking for help. In two hours, she got it. Landrum goes to the University Presbyterian Church in Tempe with Vivian Teye, a Tempe woman who was searching for a family to house in a townhouse she bought and renovated a month ago. Teye spent hundreds of dollars buying the family supplies, furniture and a TV set.
By Tuesday evening, Drummer had a prepared a shrimp stew — just one of the Cajun recipes he plans to share with a neighborhood welcoming him with open arms. Dread was replaced with a smile. It felt like home.
Drummer, who said he is a retired law enforcement officer and former Coast Guard officer, had been counseling troubled boys in New Orleans. He had been running a catering business.
Drummer hopes to find work here in the hospitality industry and possibly stay in Arizona. He has a college degree in criminal justice, but was among thousands who could not afford to leave New Orleans on their own accord, and found no arms reaching out to help in the days before the hurricane arrived.
On Tuesday, Gov. Janet Napolitano promised a thorough review of Arizona’s emergency plans to ensure a similar situation — especially with elderly and poor people being left behind — could not happen here.
With 576 evacuees now living at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, state officials and humanitarian workers began the process of finding employment and permanent housing for them.
Now that her family has found a home, Deborah Davis will enroll four sons in Tempe Elementary and Tempe Union High school districts. Rebuilding has begun. Her smile, too, has returned. "I cried every day," she said. "I just wanted to find my mom and my other kids. There are 2,000 people who are dead out there — and counting . . ."