In motels, hotels, victims ready to go home

Published 12:03 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2011

One-month-old Ja-Kayla Smith has spent half of her life in a Vicksburg motel room having been born just two weeks before the historic Mississippi River flood forced her family from their Cary homes.

Her family now is ready to go home.

“It doesn’t feel the same,” said Tichina Brown, Ja-Kayla’s mother. “I really can’t wait to go back home.”

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Brown and her daughter are among the more than 2,000 residents forced from their homes by the Mississippi River. Many found shelter with families and friends. About a dozen called the American Red Cross emergency shelter home while some checked into local hotels and motels.

Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, the agency that reports hotel occupancies, said an estimate of how many evacuees living in hotels is unknown.

Julie Ford, sales and marketing director for five local properties held by MY Hospitality Services, said the number of evacuees staying at her properties is less than 5 percent. The majority, Ford said, are from state and federal emergency management agencies and media.

Brown and her extended family of 14 have been sharing three rooms for two weeks at the Travel Inn on North Frontage Road.

Everyday tasks such as cooking and going to school were halted once they evacuated.

Brown’s aunt, Sadie Hall, who works at Ameristar Casino and regularly commutes 45 minutes each way, said she misses cooking in her three-bedroom trailer, which is underwater.

“You can’t cook like you normally could at home,” she said. “We’ll eat anything you can cook in the microwave.”

The eight children missed more than two weeks of school, but were able to make up exams, Hall said.

Brown’s mother, Tracy Brown, also works at Ameristar, which is paying for the families’ accommodations through its financial assistance fund called the Sunshine Fund, said George Stadler, Ameristar general manager and vice president.

“We are a family here at Ameristar,” Stadler said. “We care about each other and want to help each other during this time of need.”

Ameristar and Riverwalk casinos stayed open, while Vicksburg’s other three casinos are closed.

Including Brown and Hall, Ameristar has assisted 18 employees with shelter and gift cards, Stadler said.

“In addition to helping out team members, we have lent a helping hand to the community by providing food and water to the relief workers at Salvation Army Distribution Center,” he said. “We also filled a need by donating drinking water for the flood victims in nearby Claiborne County.”

Tracy Brown is grateful. “It’s like a lifesaver to get this assistance from Ameristar. I know they didn’t have to do that, but they did.”

The families plan to return to Cary as soon as the highways open, which is expected to be in mid-June.

Alma Taylor, 76, who found shelter at a local motel, said she is uncertain about her near future.

“I miss home,” said Taylor, who evacuated from her Kings Crossing Road home more than two weeks ago. “I’m thinking and I don’t have any plans. I’m just taking it one day at a time. I can’t plan it because there is so much missing and it’s so complicated to me. I’ve never been in a flood like this before. I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

Taylor, a retiree, has been staying at the Candlewood Suites on South Frontage Road and has been paying for the stay herself, but she said she is unable to continue to pay for the stay and has contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help, she said.

“I know my Visa has been maxed out,” she said.

She has not decided if she will return and rebuild her home or forget about it.

“I know I just want to stay in Vicksburg,” she said.