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Island gets its first ‘refugee’ from Katrina

Santa Griswold - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Santa Griswold
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

Santa Griswold fled with floodwaters literally at her heels.

Eighty-year-old Santa Griswold was packing to go to a hotel, as she had done for three previous hurricanes, to avoid the worst of the coming Katrina.

She saw her next-door neighbors’ son, Darryl Eckert, whom she had seen grow up to a man now in his mid-40s. He stood on the street corner talking on a cell phone to his mother, who with his father had evacuated earlier; he asked Griswold, who is widowed and lived by herself, “Where are you going?”

Griswold had called 12 hotels, but they were all booked. “I’m not sure,” she said.

“Well, you’re not staying in the house, you’re coming with me,” Eckert told her.

Thus started Griswold’s escape from Hurricane Katrina, which took her house, car and all her possessions. Her journey ended when she arrived at the home of her daughter Patricia Martin on Bainbridge Island on last Thursday. She still hasn’t heard from her relatives in Louisiana, and her friends are scattered.

Speaking in the soft, care-worn accent of the South, Griswold recounted her escape from the flooding.

She had lived for 45 years in her brick house, its walls lined with paintings by herself and her artist friends. The house was just south of Lake Pontchartrain near the 17th St. Canal, where the levee broke and flooded the area on Aug. 29.

Eckert picked her up at 3 p.m. that day, Sunday, Aug. 28, but instead of going to Mississisipi as originally planned, he suggested staying at his two-story house in Lakeview as the weather worsened. Griswold stayed in a lower apartment, but by Monday morning, the water was halfway to the window sills.

Griswold had to climb up an iron staircase outside the house on bad legs to reach the second floor.

“(Eckert) had two yellow rain jackets with hoods, and with my weak legs – I have arthritis and no strength in my legs – we climbed. Darryl was standing in the back of me, I was holding the rail and one step at a time, we were being pushed back by the wind.”

They made it up, and by that time, the water covered the kitchen counter downstairs. Then Eckert went out to help rescue people with his boat.

“I was sitting alone with a flashlight and TV wondering who knew where I was, watching the water rise on a nearby house,” she said. “I felt like Anne Frank must have felt like.”

An expensive-looking coffin floated by, perhaps from the nearby cemetery.

Eckert returned that night with a couple and their blind, 17-year-old dog from the neighborhood. The woman told her: “Santa, everything’s gone.”

“What do you mean?’ Griswold asked. “‘The houses, the cars...’ The water in the 17th Street Canal came up so fast, they had to cut a hole in their roof (to escape).”

Eckert rescued about 35 people in all, she said, taking them to a bridge from which rescue workers took them to a shelter.

“He was tying people who were dead to things so they wouldn’t float away.”

The next morning, Eckert told the group that they had to leave the apartment because the water was still rising.

Griswold was pulled through a second-story window and reached Eckert’s truck on higher ground.

The group were cut off from the highway, until friends of Eckert’s happened by and cut through a fence to let them through, allowing them to leave the city.

They stayed one night in Alexandria, La., and then were reunited with Eckert’s parents in Nachitoches in that state.

“When we got to Darryl’s mother, they hugged for 10 minutes and cried,” Griswold said, “but I haven’t yet.

“We followed Darryl like he was the sergeant of the troop. By the time we got to his parents, he was mentally and physically exhausted. We felt like we were being guided the whole way by God.”

Seven days after arriving on Bainbridge Island, Griswold says her displacement still has not totally sunk in yet. Since her husband died in August 1976, she has lived alone. But with friends and neighbors around, she always had meals out with friends. When she couldn’t drive anymore because of glaucoma, friends would come by to take her out.

“I told Patricia coming here before on a vacation, I know I’m going home,” Griswold said. “But now home and house and friends that I had are never going to be.

“Darryl and his mother and stepfather said they’re never going back,” she said, and neither would she. “And Darryl said ‘If I ever have another place I’m just going to have the essentials.”

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