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Friday, September 09, 2005 | Another 55 evacuees touched down in San Diego from Baton Rouge on Thursday courtesy of David Perez, a local businessman who has been funding his own personal rescue mission since last Friday.

Looking well-rested and elated to be at the end of their flight, the evacuees emerged from their chartered jet to thunderous applause from onlookers and waiting relatives and friends.

Gayle Falkenthal, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said the evacuees would move immediately from San Diego to Burbank, where they will be housed in hotels paid for by Perez.

What happens after that depends on each individual.

Twenty-two-year-old Ricky Valentine from New Orleans said he plans to start a new life in California.

“We’re going to start all over,” said Valentine, “We can’t go home, our house is all flooded.”

“It’s sad. I have people who are still down there, who we don’t know if they’re dead or not,” he added.

The Red Cross met the evacuees as they came off the plane at Lindbergh Field airport, where the passengers were checked for signs of dehydration and were offered water, snacks and any medical supplies they might need.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency put off any plans to bring up to 600 people to San Diego, according to Terri Stratton, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

That decision was based on interviews with evacuees from the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, Stratton said.

“They did query the evacuees,” Stratton said, “and many of them did decide, at least for right now, that they want to stay closer to their homes.”

Stratton said that this does not necessarily mean that FEMA’s plans to bring people to San Diego have been abandoned. “They could change their mind,” she said.

The Red Cross, therefore, is not letting down its guard. Falkenthal said that they remain on full standby and have communicated with San Diego State University, which would be the first port of call for any large influx of evacuees.

“It’s a wise thing for us at this point, with so much fluctuating, for us to remain prepared,” said Falkenthal. “After all, we are in the business of preparedness, so it’s wise for us to keep our plans in place until we absolutely know.”

The Red Cross met and temporarily housed 82 people flown to San Diego by Perez last Sunday. After a one-night stay at Kearny High School, those evacuees moved into rooms at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in downtown San Diego. Their stay in one of the city’s most prestigious hotels comes to a close tomorrow, when they will move again, this time into more modest hotels paid for by Red Cross donors.

Falkenthal said that the Red Cross has received applications for aid from 188 other families in San Diego in addition to the 20 families that arrived last weekend courtesy of Perez. Those evacuees, she said, had arrived in the city of their own volition. Many had made the long drive all the way from New Orleans and other cities in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Most of those evacuees are staying with friends and family, Falkenthal said.

For the 55 evacuees on their way to Burbank, there has been almost a week to reflect on their situation and the catastrophe that has brought them halfway across the country.

Looking back at the events of the last few days, New Orleans resident Jarmar Johnson described the plight of his nine family members, all of whom were on board Thursday.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Johnson. “I wasn’t even going to evacuate because I didn’t believe it was going to happen. I’ve never seen something like this happen. They always say it might happen, but you never would believe it’s going to happen to you.”

The 23-year-old clutched his youngest daughter, Dariel, and said what he must do now is look to the future.

“I’m the oldest out of all my family that I have here, so I’ve got to stay strong for them and make sure that we all are straight,” he said. “We’ve got to stick together. We are all we have out here right now.”

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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