Family : We’re ‘lucky to be alive’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 29, 2005

&uot;I’m lucky to be alive,&uot; Henry Banks said Thursday as he sat tearing a slice of pizza into small pieces and feeding it to his 3-year-old daughter, Hannah.

Banks is indeed lucky to be alive, and to have his small family safe with him.

They spent two hours on their apartment building rooftop three weeks ago, watching flood waters destroy their native New Orleans and wash away everything they owned.

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But they are alive and together, Banks said, and people have been kind to them. And that, he said, is all that matters.

Like many others, Banks said he thought he had done the right thing by keeping his family home and braving the hurricane, rather than go to a crowded shelter where people would be herded together under less than ideal circumstances.

And Banks had hoped the forecasters would be wrong about Katrina, anyway.

"I stayed, thinking the storm would turn away from us," Banks said. "To be honest, everyone did. It tricked everyone."

And for a while after Katrina swept through, the family - Henry, Hannah and his girlfriend, Natalia Tillman - survived in spite of having no electricity or running water. They ate crackers and canned foods and drank soft drinks, and waited for life to return to normal. But then, a bad situation became decidedly worse.

"If the levee hadn't broke we would have been alright," he said. "If the levees had held up, New Orleans would have been fine."

But the levees did break, and it sent New Orleans residents scrambling quickly. Banks recalled that they were in bed asleep when they were told the water was rising.

"We got our clothes on and got out the door and I put a ladder up to the side of the building and we climbed up there, there were about 20 of us up there, and I took some paint and I wrote 'help' so that the Coast Guard could see it, and we tied ourselves down on the roof," he remembered.

That time on the roof afforded Banks the chance to see sights he wished he had not - his city in ruins, bodies floating in the flood water around them and other helpless people waiting on rooftops for rescue helicopters to snatch them to safety.

In the space of a few short weeks, he found himself with no home, no car and nothing but the clothes they were wearing when they scrambled out of their beds.

"We lost everything," he said. "I can't believe I'm homeless."

For the 35-year-old Banks, who said he has worked since he was 16, suddenly being homeless and being forced to start his life over is a crushing one-two punch.

When the rescuers finally came, they eventually took the Banks family to a shelter, where they were eventually offered a chance to come north by bus to Ironton.

"I knew God would answer our prayers," he said.

"And I just knew there would be a place for us."

He did not know that place would be Ironton.

Like others who have come here, Banks said he had never heard of Ironton.

He and other new Ironton residents have a few questions. Does it snow here, they asked.

"I've seen snow one time in New Orleans," Tillman said.

Banks, who worked as a pastry chef and at a local hotel, said he will have to look for new work. They will also have to become accustomed to a change of surroundings.

"I'm a city person," he said. "The country is a change. I'm going to have to get used to the hills. But this looks like paradise."

During a visit Thursday to the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization one-stop set up for Katrina victims, American Red Cross volunteer Annabelle Jenkins pointed out to Banks and Tillman that they are now Lawrence Countians.

Banks said that's not a bad thought at all.

"I'd like to have a farm some day," he said. "A place to raise a family. I'm lucky to be here. We made it."