Goodwill overflows for 13 families displaced by floods

When you’ve lost almost everything, some thanks are in order for what’s left.

On a chilled October afternoon, Nikisha Miller leaned over the stove in her new, cramped kitchen. The scent of Swedish meatballs filled the air. Chicken salad, spinach dip, chips: The food filled a table just big enough for four. A week earlier, it had been at a bargain-basement store.

As newfound friends and neighbors watched, Miller smiled and presented the bounty to her guests, a reminder that bad times come, but they go, too.

Miller and the others are survivors, left homeless by the floods of 2009. They’re also friends, their relationships forged by adversity and shared sorrows. Forced last month to flee rental homes as creeks and rivers across the metro area overflowed, they met as strangers at the Cobb Civic Center, where each sought emergency shelter.

In the weeks since the floods washed them from their old communities, they’ve established a new one. They’ve relocated to a Mableton apartment complex to begin the process of rebuilding their lives — of buying replacement couches, of trimming windows with curtains that were on the shelf last month. Of believing that life will be joyous again. Sometimes, belief is all you have. That, and friends.

So they gathered around the small table and smiled, nibbled, reminisced. They stood in the golden glow of overhead lights, the autumn sky gray. None had lived in his or her new home even three weeks.

“Things,” said Miller, “are a lot better than they were.”

Katrina to Austell

Thirteen families who met at the Cobb shelter have moved to Mableton Reserve, a collection of two-story brick buildings off Mableton Parkway in south Cobb. Among the new residents are a grandmother forced to flee Stone Mountain; a painter who got out of Austell with nothing more than what he could carry; a family man who loaded kids and a kitten in his Camaro; and a disabled caterer and her sister.

They live just doors apart in these townhouse apartments, built in 1974 on a hilly tract where pines and hardwoods murmur in the fall wind.

Mableton Reserve set up a table at the Cobb Civic Center in the waning days it served as a shelter. It accepted applications from people who had nowhere else to go, and offered them reduced rents. Most of the new residents had to take cash from various nonprofits, such as Hosea Feed the Hungry & Homeless, to scrape up enough for the deposit and first month’s rent.

One of them was Miller, 34, who knows the caprices of nature. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed her three-bedroom home in her native Louisville, Miss. After rebuilding, Miller sold the house in 2006 and moved to metro Atlanta, settling in south Cobb and working as a caterer. She brought two daughters and a belief that life would be better.

“It was time to get away,” she said. “Make a new start.”

The next year, her younger sister, Vrittany Savior, joined her. Vrittany, 19, got a job at an Austell grocery store, and the sisters found a roomy duplex in Austell. It had a nice back yard for the kids. An added bonus: A pleasant little creek flowed by, just down the street. It had a nice name, too — Sweetwater.

Then August and September arrived, bringing with them the stuff of stories, passed from one generation to the next. Relentless rains saturated North Georgia, quenching a drought that had plagued the region for more than three years. Chattahoochee, Yellow, Chattooga: Rivers roiled and rose. Sweetwater, Sope, Nancy: Creeks left their banks and scuttled homes, cars and businesses.

Government officials declared 23 counties disaster areas. Georgia’s insurance commissioner conservatively estimated there was at least a half-billion dollars in damages. Ten lives were lost.

For many, the floods were a major inconvenience, forcing them to relocate while craftsmen repaired their homes. For others, the deluges changed their lives. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency estimates that the floods destroyed 122 homes, and more than 1,100 are still unsafe for habitation.

At Mableton Reserve, that’s hardly news.

Durable bonds

Theirs is a community built on memory and emotion, materials that rival mortar and stone in durability. Since relocating to the complex, the evacuees have made trips together to check on shopping deals. Together they’ve negotiated the bewildering paperwork that accompanies government loan programs. RESTORE One mom left her daughters with another to keep an appointment. Another evacuee knocked on a door and asked to borrow a frying pan — his, he said, was likely at the bottom of a creek somewhere.

They have found a place to catch their breath, collect their thoughts, ponder their next steps.

Calby Hought is a member of this new community. Earlier this week, he borrowed a cellphone and dialed Robert Ray, one of those he’d met at the civic center. Could he possibly get a ride?

Sure, Ray said, he’d be right there; he was only a few buildings away. Moments later, Ray’s silver Camaro pulled up to Hought’s new home, a one-bedroom walk-up. Hought, his knee injured, hobbled into the sunlight.

The car headed out — first to Hosea Feed the Hungry & Homeless, where Hought picked up a Wal-Mart gift card, and then to the mega-retailer’s closest 24-hour grocery store. Hought bought stuff a man on his own is likely to put in the fridge — frozen pizzas, a case of bottled water, some snacks.

An unemployed painter, Hought moved into the complex on Oct. 8, his 48th birthday, with cash from the Hosea foundation. It is bare, but for a bucket that serves as a chair. He sleeps on a bundle of blankets. He plans to stay at the apartment for now, but needs a place closer to public transportation.

But that’s a worry for another time. On Tuesday, he sat on the floor of his living room, and thanked providence for new friends.

“Robbie did all that for me, and didn’t ask for a dime,” said Hought, who cannot work until his knee heals. “People like that are few and far between.”

Songs and survivors

Marla Jackson heard the singing — hymns and contemporary songs with a spiritual feel. She made her way to a corner at the Cobb Civic Center, where a knot of mamas, dads and children sang. She joined in.

And so her journey from Stone Mountain, where the Yellow River washed her out, took a new turn. She met the two sisters who survived Katrina, and others. When they announced plans to move to the Mableton complex, Jackson decided to follow.

Now she sat in a kitchen chair in Miller’s kitchen and smiled at people she didn’t know a month earlier: her hostess; Ray; a couple from Austell; a guy formerly from Kennesaw, all displaced by the floods.

A former bartender and onetime machine operator, she reached for an ashtray, new and sitting atop Miller’s refrigerator. Her friend bought it a few days earlier, just for her. “Oh, thank you!” she said.

Miller smiled and pushed a plate of meatballs toward her.

A grandmother with a son in metro Atlanta, Jackson lives a few buildings down the street from Miller and Ray. One day last week, she readily agreed to keep Miller’s daughters while her friend kept an appointment. The next evening, she fried the chicken; Miller cooked the beans. They gave thanks.

Like others, Jackson is there with the help of a charity. She has no plans of moving, and is using her new home as a base to look for a job. Jackson likes her apartment, a one-bedroom unit, but likes her friends more.

“It was the Lord,” Jackson said, “who brought us together.”

Here ‘for a reason’

The Almighty is busy these days, Ray thinks. On a recent afternoon he sat on the concrete steps outside his two-bedroom apartment, lit a cigarette and watched the swirl of life. Two guys arrived in a pickup containing a worn sofa, while another man drove out, his van jostling with furniture.

“You know, God puts you some place for a reason,” he said.

A landscape laborer, Ray, 35, was living with his three teens, cousin, two puppies and a kitten in a cramped Austell apartment. When Sweetwater Creek started moving up the street, Ray told the kids to hurry, grab the animals, get some clothes.

They all piled into his ’96 Camaro. Water sloshed against the car’s floorboards as it headed to Haralson County, where the group spent the night with a relative. The next day, they returned to Cobb, where Ray left the puppies with friends, then pointed the Chevy toward the civic center shelter.

Ray and his family staked out a place on the center’s floor, near some bleachers. For more than two weeks, they slept on cots, reluctant members of a new community. They ate cold chicken and beans, learned to look the other way in communal showers.

They realized, in time, that their old place was gone. And, perhaps, their old lives, too. Ray huddled with others displaced by the floods and discussed their futures.Ray, his kids and cousin moved to Mableton Reserve in mid-October. Now, two of the kids are back in school, and he’s looking for work.

The apartment will do nicely for the next year or so.

He’s in regular touch with the folks whom misfortune brought together. He tipped off Miller about a Christmas program for deserving families, and told Hought to call him anytime the painter needs a ride.

Not long after moving in, he strolled down the street, knocked on a door. Miller, her smile as wide as the October sky, answered. Kid sister Savior looked up from a pink laptop and waved.

Ray grinned back. “Wanted to make sure y’all were doing OK,” he said.

For a second, neither one said anything more. Then Miller pushed her door open as wide as its hinges would allow.

“This,” she said, “is a friend of mine.”