Family reunites after Katrina’s devastation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Vann Miller
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
From one tragedy comes a story of encouragement, a story of reunion and renewal, which inspires many of us to hold fast to ideas of hope in even the most desperate of times. This story comes from a young girl who, with the help of her parents, dreams to share her story with others.

Gabrielle Moore, a bright, cheery 9-year-old with a talent for drawing, which she'll admit comes from her father, is like most children her age: she likes to play games; is respectful; good in school; and knows all the names of her favorite movie characters -- just try and stump her, she's pretty good.

What sets Gabrielle apart from most girls her age is she's a survivor of one of the greatest tragedies to ever hit the southern U.S., Hurricane Katrina.

Even a year after the storm and some professional counseling, Gabrielle still has problems talking about her ordeal and is affected by images of the storm, but said that the interview for this story was a big event for her.

"I was scared," Gabrielle managed to say about her experience of being separated by thousands of miles from her parents when the storm hit.

After what she described, she had good reason to be afraid. Although it is well-known how prone the Gulf Coast is to severe storms, nothing from the past could prepare the area for what Hurricane Katrina brought.

Experts may argue over exactly how damaging Katrina was as a Category 5 storm, but the devastation along the coastline, the billions of dollars in costs and hundreds of thousands of lives affected is undisputed.

One year ago, Gabrielle was enrolled in a gifted students program at West Elementary School in Moss Point, Miss., where she lived with an aunt. Her mother, Sylvia Moore, originally traveled to Mississippi with the children to handle family affairs after the passing of Gabrielle's grandmother.

"Once our daughter was enrolled into the school program for gifted children, we didn't want to pull her out since it was a good opportunity for her," said Mrs. Moore.

"So we left her with my sister and returned to Travis (Air Force Base, Calif.)," said Mrs. Moore.

Stationed at Travis, Gabrielle's father, Tech. Sgt. Rodney Moore said that he felt proud and assured of the care his daughter would receive from family members. "The program for gifted students would enrich her life," he said.

But those feelings turned to concern when he heard that Katrina was making landfall in the Gulf Coast.

Gabrielle described the day of the storm, vividly recalling the winds and the rain.

Playing in her aunt Violet's home where the family had gone to wait out the storm, Gabrielle and her cousin noticed water on the floor, which had come in from the flooding.

After fighting a losing a battle with towels, water continued to seep into the house, so Gabrielle's aunt made the call to retreat. The girls packed up all they could carry and prepared for what normally would have been an easy walk to another family member's house on top of a hill a few blocks away.

The raging water swelled.

Pointing to her thigh, the 9-year-old described how high the water got as she, her cousin and aunt made the long walk through a river that once was a familiar neighborhood.

Her aunt's decision to seek higher ground may have been the life-saving choice that made all the difference that day.

"The house they went to was one of the highest points in the area," said Sergeant Moore. "The house was Violet's mother's house and gave them less exposure to the floodwater, even though the waters managed to come up into the front yard."

Once the storm had passed, the family had to make their way out of the area. The entire township was damaged by flood waters.

"There were clothes everywhere," Gabrielle said. In the aftermath of Katrina, the hometown the Moore family had known for a lifetime was literally taken by storm.

With power out and communication lost, Gabrielle, her aunts, uncle and cousin began to make their way through the broken neighborhood. But to where, she said she had no idea.

Back at Travis, Mrs. Moore franticly called house-to-house trying to figure out where her daughter could have been.

"There is no worse feeling," said Sergeant Moore. "Not knowing where your child is."

Phone call after phone call led to dead ends, the sergeant said. "We called as far as Texas looking for any relatives who may have known where they (Gabrielle and the rest of the family) could have gone."

Finally the pressure was too great, said Mrs. Moore. While thousands of people were trying to find a route out of the affected area, Sergeant and Mrs. Moore were mapping a route into their childhood hometown.

"Family and friends donated money to help us with the trip," Mrs. Moore said. And family in that area managed to call and tell me which roads were out, and we drove straight from Travis."

Sergeant Moore adjusted his schedule to attend some training and then joined his wife on the trip to the Gulf Coast.

"We drove as fast as we could, without breaking too many speeding laws," Sergeant Moore said jokingly.

During the trip, they made calls to family and friends as best they could, all in an attempt to find their baby girl. There was no news. In fact, the only information they received were the warnings of how dangerous it was to travel into the area.

"There was talk of crime and looting. I was told to keep my doors locked," Mrs. Moore said. "We were driving into an area where people had nothing, but nothing was going to stand between me and my daughter.

Driving virtually nonstop around detours and using a few back roads, they made it into the ravaged area in about 33 hours.

But when they got there, the images of destruction were shocking, they said.

"The expressions people had on their faces were like a glazed-over look," said Sergeant Moore. "The looks on the people were of broken spirits. All that they had was gone, destroyed or blown away by Katrina."

Not knowing where to go or what to do, many of the people tried to stay in their homes that were falling down around them while some tried to stay with other family members, Sergeant Moore said.

"Most just sat and stared into space," the sergeant said. "(They were) waiting for some kind of relief from the nightmare they had experienced. Upon our arrival, the look of surprise came on their faces. It seemed as though even a simple smile or hug made things somewhat better."

The parents searched the area and followed every lead they uncovered in hopes they would find young Gabrielle.

Amazingly, it was through a network of friends triangulated in Texas, Colorado and Alabama that helped narrow the search.

Tech. Sgt. Ingrid Williams, another childhood friend, stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, confirmed Gabrielle's aunt had been seen by a family friend. Upon hearing that news, the Moores drove to the ruined home of their sister Marilynn Cayson.

"When we got to the street, our hearts starting beating really fast," said Mrs. Moore.

As their van pulled up to the powerless house, Gabrielle ran toward it as soon as she saw it.

"I jumped out the car before Rodney could even turn the engine off, and I hugged her so tight and just cried," Mrs. Moore said.

The reunion was an emotional one with the rest of the family too, as they charged out of the house, she said. "My sister came right behind Gabby, and I hugged her, and we all were crying. My sister kept trying to reassure me that they were all OK because I just could not stop crying."

It had been nearly a week of looking, calling around and hoping. They could now put aside their fears of the worst. Father, mother and daughter were finally reunited.

"We kept hugging her and saying how much we love and missed her," Mrs. Moore said.

And now, a year later, the memories of the storm are on the forefront of Gabrielle's mind. Only this time she uses the images to heal.

Gabrielle has started working on a book. She hopes by sharing her experience, it will help others get through the trauma of what she has seen. She also wants to start a fund to help families who have been impacted by the storm