OXFORD — The waiting, they say, is the worst part.
Slumped on a bench outside the Oxford Civic Center, having lost nearly everything to Hurricane Katrina, the refugees from New Orleans wondered where their loved ones were.
Nearly everyone had left family behind who thought they could "ride it out." Many among the 36 sleeping on Red Cross cots in Oxford said they themselves almost stayed behind, skeptical that the storm would amount to much.
Nine members of the Cordier family arrived in Alabama drenched from 14 hours crowded in a single pickup. They took turns huddling in the unsheltered cab. "We had blankets," said Leslie Cordier, 35. "But they were soaking wet and heavy."
In the unending gridlock, headed who knew where, a woman in a passing car lent them an umbrella.
Still, said Dwayne Cordier, 29, "I’d rather get wet like that than have to swim in New Orleans."
Five brothers and sisters out of seven Cordier siblings made it out, plus four kids. They have no idea where their sister Lynette is.
Their homes by Lake Pontchartrain, near where a levee broke, are almost certainly gone.
"It’s like a nightmare," said Leonard Cordier, 31. "Our city’s gone forever."
Good news has come sparingly, in the form of text messages and cell phone calls.
Yolanda Arceneaux wept with joy when a page torn from a notebook and copied from a cell phone screen told her that her son was safe in Dallas. A local volunteer had gotten through where Arceneaux’s phone had not.
"I’ve been worrying about my baby. He’s all I have," she said, wiping away tears. Arceneaux, who lived with her son in New Orleans, said he had been required to stay behind because he was a security guard at the Marriott Hotel, but urged his mother to go.
On the phone, Donald confirmed his mother’s second-worst fears. "He said, ‘We lost everything,’" she recalled dazedly. "It ain’t really sunk in yet, I don’t think."
Her grandson, Jahime — "3, going on 99," Arceneaux said — told her he wanted to go home. "We don’t have no more home," she told him.
Arceneaux might have stayed too, had not her widowed daughter-in-law, Sheila Johnson, showed up at church on Sunday and demanded she get in the car. Arceneaux was still in her Sunday best when she got behind the wheel, Sheila at her side and the six young children strapped in the back.
Johnson said her cousin had called from Baton Rouge to say Johnson’s brother was safe in Houston, but that the cousin was still searching for her own 17-year-old brother. News of Johnson’s mother, with whom Johnson and her children lived, or her four other brothers, has yet to come.
Tanyanique Burton, 30, is also waiting. Her mother and husband refused to evacuate.
"I was one of those that didn’t want to go," she said. "But my cousin was persistent."
Burton’s matching dangly earrings and necklace are made of twin hearts bearing her husband’s and her names. She’d had a matching bracelet, she said, but it was stolen at the motel in Lincoln.
Nearby, just outside the civic center, the nine children in Burton’s custody entertained themselves with Transformer keychains and mini footballs that had been dropped off. Who brought them? There had been too many would-be Santa Clauses to keep them straight.
Concerned citizens were showing up in the dozens, taking the refugees on Wal-Mart field trips and bringing boxfuls of toys.
Fiercely proud, Dwayne Cordier said he found it hard at first to accept things from people. But as the days have dragged on, he’s gotten used to it.
"Growing up, we didn’t have much," he said. "But now we have nothing." He has lost much of his anger, he said, and woke up today feeling a little better.
Walking around Oxford Lake, the Cordiers reminisced about the beloved waters upon which they were raised — the same ones that had turned on their city this week. They stared at the fish tails bobbing on the lake and wished for fishing rods. They spoke longingly about crabs, shrimp on a French roll, catfish po’boy, and talked idly of opening up a Cajun food restaurant in the area.
Their initial safety assured, the refugees were restless. Most had stopped watching television news: too heartbreaking. Some began thinking about jobs.
"It’s hard. You don’t know nobody here," said Leonard Cordier, 31, who worked as a truck driver for a plumbing supply company. "I have cell phone bills, child support. What’s going to happen now that we have no jobs?" He said he’s grown bored and lonely at the civic center. "I joke a lot so I don’t get depressed," he said.
Toys continued to pour in, and the sidewalk outside the civic center was littered with plastic and cardboard wrappers.
Bill Beck, a tennis instructor with the Oxford Civic Center, came to volunteer lessons. The swimming pool will be open on the weekends, said program director Pam Harris, but remained closed Thursday for lack of certified life guards. Harris said the refugees could fish in the lake if they had access to fishing rods.
Seven or eight refugees left Wednesday, said shelter manager Yolanda Weber, who wasn’t sure where they had gone. Eight more arrived Thursday, and Weber has been told to expect many more as area motels empty of refugees who can no longer afford them. Weber, who like the dispossessed Louisianans has been sleeping on a cot in the civic center and showering there, said the shelter has a capacity of 100.