Left to right, grandma Kathy Lohrman with Kate, and Kristin Eastburn holding Claire. Photo: Rodika Tollefson, KP News

For Kristin Eastburn, the worst part about making it through Hurricane Katrina is perhaps the separation from her husband for the first time while she cares for their two young daughters. Or perhaps the fact she will have to undergo surgery for a hernia she got while in a temporary shelter, while her husband, a registered nurse, cannot be by her side. Or it may be  the fact she does not know when she will be able to return to their home, which they bought just a year and a half ago.

But Eastburn is trying to keep in good spirits. “We were so lucky, and so many families weren’t lucky,” she said.

Lucky, in their case, means their house remained standing, albeit with a damaged roof, a busted window and sandblasted front door — along with their family van and another car flooded. Lucky also because they found a safe place during the hurricane, and a temporary home in Longbranch, where Eastburn’s parents have lived for about 10 years.

Eastburn’s husband, Chris, is in the Air Force. The couple and their two daughters, Kate, who will turn 5 in October, and Claire, 11 months, had barely unpacked  and started enjoying their new home in Biloxi, Miss., where Chris had been stationed. They had moved there from his previous assignment in Arizona. Kristin  was aware of the possibility of hurricanes, which she had never experienced before.

A warning comes as early as a week before. The military ordered all dependent families to the base. Bring food and supplies for three days, they said. On the second day at the makeshift shelter, which was the base hospital, the hurricane hit. Eastburn says they didn’t feel it inside, but she could see the water seeping through the window. The hospital soon flooded, including the second floor where her family was staying. They were moved to a second building, and eventually a third.

There was no electricity. “It was very dark and very hot — that was the hardest part,” she said. Eastburn’s husband would visit  when he could in between his work. Kate, the 4-year-old, made new friends and was doing well except for coping with food allergies and limited food choices. Because the floors were wet and dirty, her mom  toted her little sister around, and later would learn she got a hernia.

Without communication or television, most families had no idea of the magnitude of the calamity. Some had working cell phones, and gossip was flying about things happening outside. Some “rumors” were too unbelievable — like people shooting at rescue helicopters. In the meantime, Eastburn’s parents were watching the news reports, worried sick. On the third day, she was finally able to send them an email, then call the next day.

Kathy and Rich Lohrman decided they would fly to Mississippi to bring their daughter and grandchildren back to Longbranch. They met in a parking lot at a Wal-Mart five days after the hurricane, and the drive there was the first chance for Eastburn to see the devastation. Furniture, overturned cars and debris littered the streets and parking lots. By then, she knew her house was mostly OK, as her husband left the base with a friend to check on it on the third day.

“The first thing she (Kate) said to grandma was, ‘Nana, is your house still standing?’” Eastburn recalled. It was a difficult thing to hear, since she’s been trying to shelter her daughter from the bad news as much as she could.

On the Key Peninsula since Sept. 3, the stay-at-home mom still doesn’t watch television news until the kids go to bed. As she understood the immensity of Katrina’s wrath, she feels lucky, even as she left home with only a scrapbook, a small wedding album and the girls.

The military ordered all the dependent families to leave Biloxi, as it became clear due to damaged facilities they could not care for them there. The families were asked to register with other bases, but even bases like McChord are overburdened due to Reservists being put on call.

Eastburn does not know when they will be allowed to go back home. She talks to her husband every day, and has tried to create a routine for the girls. Kate is enrolled in pre-school at Evergreen Elementary. While the first few weeks felt like being on vacation, the uncertainty is becoming more difficult to cope with now. And they all really miss Dad.

With Eastburn’s surgery scheduled for the end of September, followed by at least a two-week recovery, the trip home would be postponed for now anyway. In the meantime, Chris tells her stories about Biloxi’s fate. The neighborhood appears to have fared generally well. A road that led to Kate’s pre-school is gone, so a seven-minute commute would become an hour long. Many roads and parts of the main highway were washed away.

“While he wants me to come home, he’s trying to prepare me that things are not as they used to be,” she said.

It will be a while before the Eastburns’ life and the lives of her neighbors — and millions of others affected by the country’s worst national disaster — would return to normal, if at all. She’s been told that Biloxi had been hit by a hurricane in the recent decade or two. “They say people down there are resilient, and they will rebuild,” she said.

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