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Woman opens home to 50 relatives fleeing hurricane damage

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PHILADELPHIA - It has been five weeks since Patricia Edwards answered her doorbell and six carloads of storm-battered Louisiana relatives, carrying the scraps of their lives in small plastic bags, spilled into her four-bedroom home in Lancaster, Pa.

"I thought five people were coming," she said, settling in an enclosed porch amid mountains of toys, toilet paper and garbage bags filled with warehouse-sized packages of snack foods.

Thirty-nine people moved in, bunking on mattresses spread across the floor, storing their meager belongings in plastic bins. The living room, family room, basement and garage became sleeping areas.

"My doors were open," said Edwards, who had problems of her own, with a husband recovering from heart surgery and receiving dialysis three times a week.

A few weeks later, she opened those doors a bit wider when 10 more relatives called, looking for a place to stay. After fleeing Hurricane Katrina, they were being chased out of Texas by Hurricane Rita.

With the second contingent, the grand total came to 49, they said, or maybe 46. It's hard to keep track. They include Edwards' mother, aunt and many, many cousins and their families, ages 8 months to 72 years. Most lived in Violet, La., about 15 miles south of New Orleans.

"We're like sardines in a can," said Edwards, who moved to Lancaster in 1987 because of her husband's construction job. With their eight children out on their own, the couple had the spacious home, with a fountain in front and kidney-shaped pool in back, to themselves.

It seems a lot less spacious today, with people hanging out in every room, watching one of the five televisions, instant-messaging on the computer, sitting in a swing by the pool, stirring a pot of string beans, potatoes and ham.

For so many people, the house is amazingly neat. Mattresses and storage bins are pushed into corners. Piles of donated food are stored in the garage and pantry. The floral sofa and glass-top coffee table are free of the usual clutter found in a house with two children. This one has more than 20.

Dinner gets made every night in institutional-sized portions - 25 or 30 pounds of chicken, four pounds of rice, and five heads of lettuce with seven cucumbers and 10 tomatoes, a typical meal. Two large grills out back serve as an extra kitchen.

There are no schedules for cooking, but somehow it gets done. "Somebody's always ready to cook," said Debra Major, 49, whose son, Kenneth, 10, lists gumbo as one of the things he misses most about home.

Children eat first, then adults grab a plate and sit wherever they can, usually by the pool.

They sleep six to 10 in a room, except for the lucky four who get to bunk in a pop-up camper in the driveway.

And anyone who has rented a Shore house can almost appreciate what it is like sharing 21/2 bathrooms with 40 people.

"It's an adjustment. You got to wait in line," said Major, who came north with her son, daughter and two grandchildren.

With the washer and dryer running around the clock and dozens of people using the bathrooms - there has already been a leak in the family-room ceiling - "my house is going to need an "Extreme Makeover," joked Edwards, who has taken a leave from her job at Y&S Candies to get her family settled.

Actually, she is hoping for a shot at "Oprah to get help paying electric and water bills. "I don't need no more clothes and food," she said. "I need cash."

Beyond the wear and tear on her house, having so many of her relatives together has also been, well, fun. Last week they gathered for a big backyard cookout for her husband Tim's 64th birthday, and they can't wait to celebrate Christmas en masse.

Retired due to his health, Tim Edwards takes the chaos in stride. "It's kind of rough in a way. But it's family. They have no place to go," he said sitting outside in the sun.

"Sometimes we stay up till 3 in the morning, talking," said his wife. "It's like a reunion."

For hurricane victims, relief has been as random as the storm that upended their lives, but, in many ways, things have fallen into place for the Edwards clan. They have been inundated with donations of every kind, from free dental care and freezers to the camper and three vehicles. They have been treated to dinners at restaurants, a ball game, a trip to Gettysburg.

"At home I didn't even have a car. Now I have a van," said Kathy Major, 45, who arrived with her three sons and is the recipient of a seven-passenger Plymouth Voyager, donated by a local church.

With so much donated food, they rarely go to the grocery. They have so much clothing, they plan to give some away to other hurricane victims.

"The people of Lancaster have opened up their hearts to us," Major said.

Several families also received $2,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $300 to $900 from the Red Cross and have signed up for food stamps and other assistance in Pennsylvania, according to members of the family.

Eight of them drove to Louisiana a week ago to check on everyone's houses and could not believe the destruction. "It was so pitiful; it was a shame," said Bryant Major, 33, who returned with the one thing he could salvage: a baseball hat.

With nothing to return to, everyone plans to stay for good. Yet, the bigger problems of finding houses and jobs remains unsettled. Only three have begun moving out. One has a job.

"They're happy to get away from New Orleans," said Beatrice Duplessise, 72, Patricia Edwards' mother. "Jobs don't pay nothing."

Doug Hopwood, of the Lancaster County Council of Churches, which is helping about 80 evacuees in the area, said the family's plight has resonated with the community. "Everybody is calling, wanting to do something - yesterday."

So many offers have come in that it has been hard to figure out which are legitimate. Not all are what they are "cracked up to be," he said.

A house that someone offered was in deplorable condition, and two apartments were "in the ghetto," said Edwards, while noting that the three moving out are going to be in townhouses for six months rent-free.

Jobs have been even scarcer. Matthew Washington, 47, Debra Major's fiance, said he was offered work as an electrician, but the pay was less than he made working on oil rigs in the Gulf Coast, so he plans to spend some time in Louisiana and some in Lancaster.

"We do like the place," Washington said of Lancaster. "It's a beautiful place to live, and the people are very kind here."

Each day brings new leads to chase, new problems to solve. Edwards just heard about a FEMA housing program that provides rent for as long as 18 months for hurricane victims.

"That will give them a chance to get settled. They won't have to pick up and move again after six months," she said.

But it is going to be a long haul until she and her husband have their house to themselves. And though the walls will need painting and the hardwood floors buffing, that may not be such a bad thing.

"Patricia," Debra Major said with a laugh, "seems like she don't want us to go."


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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