Former Kasilof resident Alayne Primo, her children, Ayden and Bridgett, and the family dog, Cassie, are ejoying some quiet time after losing all their belongings to Hurricane Katrina. Alayne's husband, Michael, a first sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, is currently being reassigned from Keesler Air Force Base, near Biloxi, Miss., to NAME Air Force Base in Colorado.
Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Hom
Having grown up commercial fishing on Cook Inlet, where warm Alaska days and things from the sea can create stomach-churning odors, Alayne Primo thought she knew all about unpleasant smells.
That was before Hurricane Katrina.
"It smelled like death," Primo said of her first impression when she and her husband, Michael, were finally able to return to their home in OceanSprings, Miss. almost a week after the storm. "Even with medical masks, the smell was horrendous. I kept expecting to find dead fish, dead snakes, something in my house, because it smelled so bad."
Recalling her days set netting on Cook Inlet, she said, "I've been on a boat and smelled it all and this smell far surpassed anything. I don't have words to describe it, but that's the part embedded in my memory."
For the past five years, the Primos and their children, Bridgett, 14, and Ayden, 10, have lived in Germany, where Michael was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. He recently was transferred to Keesler Air Force Base, near Biloxi, Miss.
"We had just found a house and had just received our household goods and were unpacking and trying to get settled in," Alayne said. "Then they came out with the hurricane warning."
Boarding up their home's windows, the Primos listened to the news, eager to hear updates of the storm's magnitude. Anticipating some flooding, they moved everything from the floor onto tables and dressers.
"My husband's a first sergeant with the Air Force and it was mandatory that he shelter on the base, so he had to go there, but the kids and I decided we'd be better off, rather than putting the kids in a shelter, to stay with a person I'd met in Germany that was in Florida," Alayne said.
Factoring into their decision was the family pet, a Shitzu named Cassie.
"We probably could have gone with my husband, but we couldn't with the dog," Alayne said. "It was a real issue because none of the shelters would take pets. With Hurricane Rita, they changed that because in Katrina a lot of people were stranded because they wouldn't leave their pets."
Normally it takes two hours to drive from Ocean Springs to Dustin, Fla., the town where Alayne's friend lives, but with the storm only 24 hours away and already making its presence known, the drive time doubled. Alayne also had made reservations for her and her children at a hotel in Dustin, but when she arrived in Dustin and called the hotel for directions, she was told the hotel was being evacuated.
"So there I was, pulled over in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I couldn't get hold of my friend and didn't know where she lived. There's my kids. There's the dog. There was no where to go and a hurricane coming," she said.
Eventually making contact, Alayne, Bridgett and Ayden stayed with Alayne's friend for a couple of days. But unable to contact her husband, Alayne's concern grew as she watched television coverage of the damage caused by Katrina. Even when the storm finally subsided, the family couldn't return to their home.
"Law enforcement was not allowing anyone in unless they were rescue people," she said.
When Elgin Air Force Base, in Florida, offered housing for military families impacted by the storm, Alayne, Bridgett, Ayden and Cassie moved there. The Red Cross helped provide a family support center and meals for the 500 families that were given shelter.
When Michael was finally able to contact Alayne, he told her the first floor of the shelter he was in had been severely destroyed by flooding. Housing on Keesler also was destroyed and the hospital evacuated. Four days later, Michael was allowed to visit their home. Afterward, he reported to Alayne that he had been relieved to discover the outside looked untouched, but then was shocked when he got inside and saw that surging water had reached five- and six-foot heights, ruining everything they owned.
Alayne finally got to see it for herself.
"His words didn't even come close to what I saw," she said. "I had a couple of days to prepare myself for it, but when I opened the door, I wasn't prepared for what I saw. The severe destruction."
Wearing boots, rubber gloves and medical masks to help make the smell bearable, and with the help of friends, Alayne and Michael pulled everything out of the house and stacked it in the front yard.
"You'd drive up and down the road and everybody's whole lives were piled up on their lawns," she said. "A lot had signs out that said, 'looters will be shot.' It was almost like watching a movie. It was unreal. I didn't even feel like I was going through it."
Alayne's family and friends in Alaska also were watching television for news reports on Katrina, their concern growing.
"Some of the first reports were pretty scary," said her father, Brock See, who lives in the Kasilof area. "We were worried about her."
Her mother, Donna Rea and stepfather, Jim, also of the Kasilof area, were eager to be assured of the family's well being.
"We didn't know exactly where she was until she called from Florida and then we let out a big sigh of relief," Jim Rea said. "It had been pretty tense."
Ryan Krapp of Soldotna, who has known Alayne since the seventh grade and is a one-time Federal Emergency Management Agency employee, donated Alaska Airline miles to get Alayne, Bridgett and Ayden to Alaska. He also helped the family connect with FEMA.
"That's a small price to pay for what she's gone through," Krapp said.
And on Sept. 17, more than two weeks after Katrina tore through the Southeast United States, Alayne and her children arrived in her home state.
"I think my mom was relieved to get us here," she said. "A lot of people were displaced without being near family, but we got here and Mom had brought in beds for my kids, had bought all new up-to-date bedding and set up a room for all of us. She just made it very homey."
With the help of Karen Ruebsamen, one of two Kenai Peninsula Borough School District liaisons for students in transition, Bridgett is enrolled in Soldotna Middle School and Ayden is at Tustumena Elementary School.
"I can't say enough good about Karen," Alayne said. "She's worked with us extensively and took care of everything. She's just wonderful. And the schools have been very welcoming to both of my kids, making them feel very much at home."
Ruebsamen said advance notice about the Primo family's situation helped the
school district ready for their arrival.
"That happened because Grandma (Donna Rea) notified me and I could get the schools prepared for their arrival so that their entrance was as smooth as possible," Ruebsamen said.
In Katrina's aftermath, Michael has been reassigned to Schriever Air force Base, near Colorado Springs, Colo., so the family will not be returning to Mississippi. In fact, Alayne and the children will remain on the Kenai Peninsula for a while longer.
"Because I have family here, was born and raised here, the kids and I are just going to hunker down until the end of the school year," she said. "They miss their dad very much, but we think it's easier to get him up here a couple of times ... It's been tough, but we've kind of grown used to this 'away' part. (Michael's) been deployed every year in the last three years."
With her parents providing housing, Alayne is looking for a vehicle she can use while in the area.
"I don't really want to buy a car, so I have friends and family looking for someone with a spare that I could use," she said "I don't mind paying a small price for putting mileage on it, but I don't want to buy anything because then I'd have to sell it."
And Cassie, the family dog?
"She doesn't like it when we're moving, but she's quite attached to me," Alayne said. "Whenever she's where I'm at, she's fine."
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