PAXTON - Three people now living in Paxton were among those who helped rescue residents out of a St. Bernard, La., nursing home, where 34 people died from the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina.
Shannon Sullivan and fiance Rusty Deroche tell a tale of rescue and survival - one of thousands coming from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Sullivan, who lived in Paxton until age 4, was separated from her son for nearly a month following the hurricane. She said she saw humankind at its best and its worst in the aftermath of the hurricane. Now back in Paxton, she's not sure she ever wants to live in a warm-weather state again.
Sullivan and Deroche now live at 800 S. High St., Paxton, with 3-year-old Hunter and Deroche's brother, Paul.
St. Bernard Parish was in the eye of the hurricane. Sullivan's son was at his nanny's house about eight miles away.
Sullivan and the Deroche brothers opted to ride the storm out in their trailer, but when winds reached 100 mph, they drove to the landlord's windproof shed. Rusty Deroche said he awoke about 11 p.m. and saw how bad the wind was blowing and moved his family to the shed, where they slept.
Rusty Deroche said they had opted not to evacuate the city because his car had a flat tire and the air conditioning had just gone out on it.
Sullivan remembers the storm seeming to stop.
"It turned out to be a pretty day for about five minutes," she said.
Then a levee broke and 20-foot-tall flood waters washed over the area.
"We saw our trailer park get bulldozed over one over top the other," Sullivan said. "Cars were bobbing like fishing lures."
Over in Chalmette Parish, Hunter and his nanny, Debbie Termini, also were struggling to survive. Termini realized her way of escape was blocked when the storm dropped a tree on her car. Realizing the water would soon engulf the house, she scooped up the diaper-clad Hunter and they found refuge in an oak tree.
There they stayed for three days.
The Internet led to Sullivan's reunion with her son. Fliers bearing Hunter's photo were posted around the area. About four days after they reached Shreveport, La., Sullivan's aunt, Wanda Taylor of Rankin, was notified by e-mail that Hunter and his nanny were in Big Springs, Texas. Sullivan still is not sure how they got there.
When Sullivan learned her son had been found, "I just broke down in tears. It was like giving birth to him all over again."
A better person
Hunter has a memento of those days in Big Springs. At the shelter where he stayed, a handyman made him a pair of Katrina shoes. He measured his feet, cut out pieces of plywood, taped around them with freezer tape and added zip ties to cover the top of his feet like flip-flops. Hunter likes to clomp in them on the kitchen floor of their new home.
The psychological healing has begun, and Sullivan said she doesn't know if they will leave Illinois. There isn't a whole lot of water here.
"Actually I think (the whole experience) made me a better person," Sullivan said. "Since we've been here, it's been great. I'm happy here, and Hunter seems to be fine."
Rusty and Paul Deroche have taken jobs at High Concrete of Paxton. It's a different life for Rusty Deroche, who said he was formerly employed dredging for oysters and trawling for shrimp.
He said he does not want to move back to New Orleans.
"It's something I don't want to go through again," he said. "And I don't want my kids to go through it."