Like anyone else who was in South Louisiana in 2005, the looming 10-year Katrina anniversary has had me remembering details from that nightmarish time. Even so, I was surprised when a message popped up on my computer screen Wednesday night.
“Hi My name is Qiana Ruffin on Sept. 3, 2005 u wrote a story about my losing my son through Katrina I been try to reunite with u.”
My heart skipped a beat.
After all this time, I couldn’t believe this woman had found me.
In the message, she went on to give me a phone number and asked me to call. Then she added, “He is big now and he truly wanna to meet u.”
She was referring to Keldon, her then-infant son — who will turn 10 on the Katrina anniversary. I assured her that I truly wanted to meet him too.
He was born prematurely the day Katrina hit. On the day after Katrina, the hospital sent her and her husband home. The baby stayed because of his under-developed lungs and possible heart issues.
The next day, the levees broke.
The hospital did an emergency evacuation. The parents went back to the hospital to get their son and found it empty. Someone there gave them the names of hospitals around the state where they might find their son. Qiana and her husband called every hospital repeatedly. Every hospital told her that they didn’t have her son.
By Friday, she and her husband were at the Cajundome in Lafayette still looking for their son. I was a reporter at the time and was walking in to cover First Lady Laura Bush serving lunch to evacuees.
As I walked by, Qiana grabbed my arm.
Last week, I asked her a question I had always wondered about: Why did she approach me?
She said, “Maybe it was God who told me to. I don’t know why.”
When she grabbed my arm, she said, “I can’t find my baby.”
I eventually learned the whole story. I went to the same people she had asked for help. Within an hour, we found her baby. He was in Baton Rouge. According to her, “Some volunteers took money out of their own pockets and gave it to us to catch a bus to Baton Rouge.”
But just as they were getting on the bus at the Lafayette bus station, another volunteer pulled up in her car and offered to take them directly to the hospital. There, they were reunited with their son.
I remember her husband so well. From the Cajundome, he had walked to all the hospitals in Lafayette, asking if any of them had his newborn son.
When Qiana and I spoke Thursday, I asked about her husband.
“We separated after 17 years,” she said. “The pressures of Katrina turned out bad for him.”
I asked what had happened after she got her baby back and we parted ways. She told me that they lived with her husband’s family for a little while. Then they moved to Atlanta for 18 months before she finally returned to New Orleans as a single mom.
“My house was totally destroyed,” she said. “I had to start all over.”
She told me, that in the years since, she had been working at Arby’s on Canal Street.
“But they closed. They say they’re renovating. They’re trying to get a liquor license. Have you ever heard of such?” she asked. “Only in New Orleans.”
In the meantime, she’s doing hair and says she’s occasionally the candy lady.
I asked exactly what she meant by that.
“I sell zuzus, candy, cold drinks, chips in my neighborhood,” she said. “All the kids love the candy lady.”
At 36, she’s just become a grandmother. She says her new little grandson looks exactly like Keldon did when he was a baby.
“We never found out from the hospital what happened,” she said. “All his records were washed away. Took me about two years to get him a social security number and birth certificate.”
When I first called the phone number she had given me, another lady answered the phone. I asked to speak to Qiana and the lady who answered said. “She’s not here, but I know who you are.”
I could hear a young child in the background talking to her.
“Yes, this is her,” the lady on the phone told the child. “I know you want to talk to her.”
And so she gave him the phone.
“This is Keldon. I want to meet you,” the little voice said.
“And I want to meet you, too,” I assured him.