Lost-and-found families

Relatives parted by Katrina endure long waits - despite heroic efforts to reunite them.

Fran Krantz was up every morning at 4 a.m., tiptoeing past sleeping evacuees at the River Center Red Cross Shelter. She'd pack up her masking tape and photocopies of her adult son, Fred - and begin to walk the streets of Baton Rouge.

For 14 days she searched, handing out fliers and stopping into shelters, before returning to her own shelter by curfew at 10 p.m. She finally found him.

"I would have walked from here to Canada," she says, still clutching a flier.

What made Ms. Krantz's search so vexing was the fact that her son had been sent to a private shelter after being trapped in the New Orleans Superdome - and his name was not in any database.

In the 17 days since hurricane Katrina hit, tens of thousands of families have been reconnecting by cellphone, over the Internet, and in person. But many are still desperately searching for their loved ones.

Now that evacuees are on the move again - leaving shelters for transitional housing - the task of family reunification is becoming even more difficult.

"The best and the worst thing is now happening," says John Rabun of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the aid organization in charge of facilitating the reconnection of all those displaced by Katrina. "People are finally being moved out of these shelters and churches and into temporary homes and apartments. While that is good news for them, it is a giant pain for us because it makes them even harder to find."

Terrance Meilleur, for instance, has just found an apartment in Baton Rouge after spending two weeks at the River Center shelter. He still makes a daily trip to the shelter, though, to scan the bulletin board filled with messages to and from evacuees.

Most of Mr. Meilleur's family has been found, scattered in shelters and living with relatives across the South - except for his cousin, Corey Roberts. He scans the notes, some that read:

"Shawana and Ronnie Stevenson. Call me! This is your sister."

"La Quinta Marcelin. Sister in Astrodome with uncle and cousins. All OK."

"Lina Burke. Age 40, Black female from Chalmette. Please call Bridget."

Nothing today, says Meilleur. He will try again tomorrow.

While the number of adults reported missing surpasses children 3 to 1, the priority has been reuniting kids with their parents, says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Adults have at least some idea of how to take care of themselves," says Mr. Rabun. "But children don't have the life experience and are feeling totally abandoned. They have to be plucked out of this as quickly as possible."

Of 2,430 children reported missing to his organization, 552 are known to have been reunited with parents. Many of the others have probably found their families too, Rabun says, but the center has not been notified and so keeps all those names on the list, just in case.

Many of the parent-child separations, he says, came during the frantic rush to get people out of New Orleans after the hurricane. Evacuees were loaded onto buses, thinking all were headed to the same place, only to find they were being scattered across the country.

In all, at least 50 websites are involved with helping people find loved ones - the biggest being the American Red Cross Family LInks registry, with 188,000 names. About 60,000 of those are people who want others to know they're OK, and about 120,000 are people looking for someone.

"Typically in a disaster, the phone lines go back up after a few days, and people call their loved ones," says Amanda Mark, a Red Cross spokeswoman, noting that the damage inflicted by Katrina has extended that time frame to weeks. The Family Links registry, she says, is "a solution for a problem we typically don't deal with."

Lee Boswell found his wife the hard way. She left New Orleans for Baton Rouge before the hurricane, and he was going to stay behind and ride it out. At the last minute, he and his son fled north to Amite, La.

Without a cellphone, and with phone lines down, he was unable to call anyone for almost two weeks. Finally, on Tuesday, he simply drove to Baton Rouge, found a pay phone, and called his stepdaughter in Lake Charles, La. She told him that his wife, Sharlene, was at the River Center shelter. But she's been out today looking for work, he's been told, so he has to continue waiting.

"I'm just trying to put our family back together," he says, anxiously sitting on a cot near the entrance so he can keep an eye out for her. "I miss the way she looks and the way she talks. I even miss the arguments."

She finally arrives and Mr. Boswell rushes to the door, throwing his arms around her. "You don't know what I've been through," says Ms. Boswell, wiping away tears.

Trying to hide his emotions, their teenage son, Robert, begins to tell his mother how they had to survive on meals-ready-to-eat for almost two weeks. "It's not that bad," he says.

On the cot next to theirs is Michael Braud. He has located everyone in his family, except his adult son, Michael Jr. He wasn't able to talk to him before the hurricane hit, so he has no idea if he evacuated from New Orleans. Now all their homes are under water.

"I think he's OK," says Mr. Braud, who passed the days reading from his Bible and praying. He gathered many of his family photos before evacuating, and sometimes he takes them out and spreads them across his cot. The only one he has of Michael Jr. is a high-school football photo from 10 years ago.

"I have faith he did the right thing. But sometimes I look at these pictures and I get to wondering."

Amanda Paulson contributed to this report.

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