By Jeff Mullin Senior Writer
They survived the howling winds and savage waves of Hurricane Katrina with little more than the clothes on their backs, but a family of transplanted Mississippians is now putting their lives back together in northwest Oklahoma.
Robert and Rosalie Bennett were at his sister's house, in the hills 20 miles north of the coastal city of Ocean Springs, Aug. 29 when Katrina hit their hometown of Bay St. Louis, Miss., with its full force and fury.
"The only thing I saved, I took all my pictures off the walls, and my three puppies," said Rosalie Bennett.
Their home, and virtually everything they own, was destroyed. So they headed for Houston and a shelter for evacuees, but their truck broke down on the way. Their son, Air Force 2nd Lt. Scott Reinecke, took them to San Antonio where he was taking part in Pilot Instructor Training at Randolph Air Force Base. There they stayed in senior enlisted quarters, while their three dogs, Cleo, Sadie and Gizmo, were cared for first by Air Force personnel, then by the local humane society.
When Reinecke moved to Enid to become a T-1 instructor with the 32nd Flying Training Squadron at Vance AFB, he brought his mother and stepfather with him.
Since their arrival they have fought a mountain of paperwork as they try to collect money from their insurance company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They also, however, have experienced the big hearts of the people of northwest Oklahoma.
The Enid Salvation Army gave them a houseful of furniture and vouchers for gasoline. Pam Green, at the Tag Agency of Enid, has allowed them to fax documents to FEMA for free, plus gave them notary service at no cost.
"They're just great people," said Rosalie Bennett.
Best of all, someone has given them a house. Charles Lee Knight Sr. made his offer through the American Red Cross, which compiled a list of people with houses to donate to Katrina survivors.
"He was on the very bottom of the page," said Robert Bennett. "He told me nobody had even called him."
The home, near Longdale, had been trashed by a previous resident and fell further into disrepair after Knight suffered a stroke and was unable to take care of it.
"He said if we wanted the challenge, we could have the house," said Rosalie.
And it will be a challenge. The floors in one bathroom and a walk-in closet have caved in. Broken windows have had to be replaced. The roof leaks into the kitchen. There is trash to be removed and grass to be cut.
"But, other than that it's looking pretty good," said Robert.
Reinecke has helped all he can, both physically and financially, but funds are short. Plenty of his fellow Air Force officers are willing to help with repairing the house, but building materials cost money.
Money from the insurance company, and FEMA, has not been forthcoming. The insurance company is balking at paying, claiming the damage to the Bennetts' house was caused by floodwaters, rather than high winds. And FEMA won't send any money until the insurance claim is settled.
The bills are piling up, but the family doesn't want to ask for help.
"I'm not really one to ask for anybody's handout in anything," said Reinecke.
"Until this storm happened, my wife and I never asked anybody for anything," said Robert Bennett. "It's a humbling experience when you go back and there's nothing left.
"I came to Randolph Air Force Base with the pair of pants that I had on, flip-flops and a dirty shirt. He (Reinecke) bought me clothes. That's when I lost some of my pride."
"If all of these people would stop putting us off, the insurance company and FEMA, we'd be OK by now. But it's been over a month and nothing's coming in," said Rosalie Bennett. "At first, FEMA gave us $2,000 over a month ago, but it doesn't take long for that to go."
The short-term goal, Reinecke said, is to make the house livable. The Bennetts are living with him for the time being. His sister and her husband, who rode out the storm in the St. Bernard Parish area of New Orleans, lived with him for a time as well. The next step is to get the finances in order, then for Rosalie to find work. Back in Mississippi, she was a shift supervisor for KFC, while Robert is disabled.
"Then, over the course of the next year or two, continue to improve," Reinecke said. "But right now the main focus is a livable place."
Robert said they have lived through three major storms -- Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Camille in 1969, and Katrina this year.
"Three's the charm, that's enough," said Robert.
The Bennetts have no plans to return to Mississippi.
"I moved to Oklahoma in 1998 to go to college in Tulsa, and I've been begging them to come up here ever since," said Reinecke. "When I moved up to Okla-homa, I just fell in love with the country, the people, the way of life. It's a very positive, enriching atmosphere."
"They're great around here," said Rosalie. "I've never seen people help me as much as these people have around here. They really, really care."
By Jeff Mullin Senior Writer
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