Sept. 16, 2005
Big Game For The Big Easy: Special Coverage|
By Jessica Garrison
RUSTON, La. - They call him the "Mayor of Caruthers". She is the survivor who almost didn't make it. Their son is the port for his entire family, in a storm that tore so many families apart.
They are the Franklins, formerly of New Orleans, and for now, "home" at Louisiana Tech. They say their faith is the reason they are safe, together.
The Call Before The Storm
Before Hurricane Katrina hit, 19 year-old Freddie Franklin IV was like any other member of the Louisiana Tech football team. The sophomore running back was working through camp, looking to become an even bigger part of the Bulldogs' offense after playing in nine of Tech's 12 games, rushing 45 times for 204 yards last year as one of the backups to the since-departed 2004 WAC Offensive Player of the Year Ryan Moats. Northern Louisiana summers are brutal, humid and this one hotter even than most, Franklin and his team still had to strap on their helmets and take the practice field in August, searching for a successful season.
His father, The Reverend Freddie Franklin III and his mother, Joanette Franklin, were proud of their oldest son. They were proud that he turned Carver High School's state championship in basketball and a district championship in football into a football scholarship at Louisiana Tech. And they were proud that when the evacuation for Hurricane Katrina was announced, Franklin told his parents to come stay with him in Ruston.
Joa nette, who worked as a guard at a women's prison in New Orleans, packed a few things for her family, including her teenaged daughters Misha and Janee. She had the weekend off work, but as the warnings about Katrina worsened, she began to dread the phone's ring.
It rang...and the message was exactly what she feared. In an emergency, essential personnel such as prison wardens are required to be on duty under penalty of law. Joanette was being called in. She reported to work, and when the mandatory evacuation of the city was passed down, she called the Reverend and told him to head for Ruston. Without her. Freddie would book them hotel rooms and she would join them as soon as possible.
The Reverend drove his family to Ruston, only to find hotels filled and Freddie's campus apartment too small to hold them. They were stranded, until a complete stranger approached the group, asked if they were fleeing the hurricane and offered shelter in his unfurnished rental properties until they could find something else.
"He was our family's guardian angel," the Reverend said with a twinkling smile. Despite his situation, the Reverend smiles a lot, as if he knows a wonderful secret that everyone else is about to find out. It's the kind of look that draws people to him - he is always upbeat, calm everywhere but behind a pulpit, and full of the energy helps him inspire others.
When Louisiana Tech opened Caruthers dorm as a long-term shelter for evacuees, the Franklins moved in immediately. Nearly 30 members of their extended family joined the Reverend, and as the disastrous effects of Katrina became clear, they began to make a home out of the little space and few things they had.
For the time being, however, it was a home without Joanette.
The Painful Wait
Louisiana Tech coach Jack Bicknell was tapped in to the disaster in New Orleans. Knowing that so many of his student-athletes would have families and friends directly affected, he kept the team out of practice Monday and Tuesday, despite the team's impending opener against Florida. He asked for his players' help, moving mattresses between shelters for evacuees and visiting shelters to provide support. Bicknell found himself providing support as well - to his players uncertain about their families' fates.
Senior linebacker Byron Santiago called his coach and said he had close to 60 family members fleeing New Orleans, with no place to turn but to himself and Ruston. Quarterback Donald Allen had his mother, aunt and her family in town with no home to return to. And Franklin, with his father, sister and other family safely moved into Caruthers, struggled every day without any knowledge of whether his mother was safe...or even alive.
Joanette was alive, though trapped in a hurricane-induced hell. The wardens faced two feet of water in the first floor of the prison after the hurricane hit Sunday, and moved the prisoners up a floor. Then the New Orleans levees broke, and a tidal wave "like something you see out of the movies," she remembers, flooded the prison through the first and second floors. The two-dozen or so wardens moved the 400 prisoners into cramped quarters on the third floor and secured them as best they could to await evacuation.
Within a matter of hours, it was obvious that there was no help. As hours turned into days, their situation became desperate. Not long after the levees broke, the warden's colonel ventured outside in the water with Joanette and other wardens to save a family that had floated up. The last of the available food and clean water was divided among the prisoners, and wardens slept in 15-minute shifts so that they could keep order among the inmates. Power was out, and when inmates started a fire in one of the cells, Joanette and other wardens had to fight their way into the cell to put out the blaze.
"I got so nervous, I had to put my weapon on," Joanette said. "I have never had to do that before. I didn't think I was going to make it out of there."
Joanette remembers her worst moment, when she escaped to the roof to cry in private, to ask God why this was happening, to worry about her family, worrying about her. Where the strength to go back into the building came from, back to the job that had become a high-stakes game of survival, she can only point to heaven and point to her heart.
"It was do or die," she said. With family waiting somewhere safe, "I knew I couldn't die."
After four days trapped in the prison, rescue slowly arrived. By cutting through the metal bars on the third floor windows, the inmates could be transferred to rescue craft. They were transferred to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, closer to Baton Rouge, but many of the wardens, Joanette among them, were left behind. A guard from the men's prison in their compound finally heard their screams for help, and pulled them out of the prison that had become their prison, and they eventually made their way to dry safety at Hunt.
Meanwhile her son waited and worried. Freddie admits that he was going through the motions of his days, his mind totally preoccupied with questions about his mother. Was she safe? Was she healthy? Was she alive?
"I knew Coach was worried, too,'' Freddie said. But practice wore on, then-No. 10 Florida a distant concern.
It was at Hunts that Joanette was finally able to sleep, eat, and get power into her long-dead cell phone. As soon as she heard Freddie's panicked message, those from her family, she called her son right away.
"Mama?!" Joanette remembers Freddie saying, "I'm coming to get you. Coach is letting me come get you."
Franklin left practice with his coach's blessing, headed for Baton Rouge the fastest way he knew how.
Avoiding the congested highways, Franklin stuck to Louisiana's back roads, making the 250-mile trek, a dark, winding ride, but he was determined to get to Joanette and bring her back.
"It's supposed to be the mother taking care of the child," Joanette said with obvious emotion. "Not the son taking care of the mother. I am the proudest parent in the world."
Franklin brought his mother back to Ruston, to Caruthers where their family was waiting. Even with the knowledge that their material lives in New Orleans were all but wiped out, Joanette, the Reverend and the rest of the family talked about the joy and relief of her "homecoming." There would be many days to worry about what they had lost - for now, the Franklins focused on what they had.
Joanette's arrival in Ruston left her with so much to absorb. She was days behind on actual news accounts of the hurricane. She had to hear about the family's guardian angel, the work that went into the opening of Caruthers, her mother who had been hospitalized an hour away in Monroe. She soon found out she was famous by association - her long first rest was interrupted by other evacuee residents pounding on their door, looking for "The Mayor." "Who?!" she asked. "The Rev!" they said, and so she found out that her husband had already become a leader in the dorm community.
The Franklins as a family did not take long to establish themselves in the Caruthers community. Joanette's second day on the job she got an offer for temporary security work with the Lousiana Tech police department, and eagerly accepted once they offered to let her take a few days to recuperate. Now she works alongside other officers, taking her turn in the 12-hour shifts they work security at Caruthers.
The Reverend, meanwhile, has thrown himself into Caruthers, his new congregation. The children in the building were soon enrolled in local schools, bussed from the dorm building to their classrooms every day, but the parents they left behind were suddenly at loose ends - without jobs, without homes, and with very little to do other seek relief to piece together the pieces they had left of their life. Never one to sit idle, the Reverend has enlisted their help in further cleaning the building, cleaning the 40 years of tarnish and converting old study lounges into common areas for the 600-some evacuee residents. He proudly pointed out the bright paint colors in the hallways - donated paints and evacuee artists coming together to "bring a little bit of New Orleans to Ruston." Again, there is hope in his smile.
"This is the path God put me on," the Reverend said. "This is where He sent me, and I have to do it."
Freddie comes around the building most days after football practice. He plays with his cousins, his 2-year-old daughter and his sisters, or sits and visits with his parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother.
Because he does not have an official evacuee badge, he is not allowed to enter the building, so he sits on folding chairs out in front of the building on the beaten-down lawn.
On a muggy Tuesday night he sits beside his mother, who has just finished a late box dinner after her security shift ended. Rev is counseling a woman inside, but Joanette and Freddie sit quietly.
"I was so worried about her," Freddie says, and glances at his mother. "I just had to hope God would bring her through."
"Rev is always telling people here to keep their faith," Joanette says. She nods, "Just keep the faith."
That faith may be the very thing that brings the Franklins through.
(For more on this incredible story, tune into CSTV's broadcast of the Tulane-Miss St. Big Game for the Big Easy on Saturday night at 8:00pm ET for an exclusive feature on the Franklin family)
Jessica Garrison is an Assistant Editor for CSTV.com and is on assignment in Louisiana this week. She can be reached here with comments or questions.