MASON TOWNSHIP – They are part of the Katrina diaspora, leaving behind a submerged city for unknown futures in the homes of charitable strangers.

Robert D’Aquin, 35; his wife, Geralyn Sammartino, 40; and their 13-year-old daughter Lindsay, all New Orleans natives, drove 1,400 miles in three days to arrive in Maine last Saturday. They came at the invitation of Bill Ullman.

Ullman, 70, is a retiree with a guest home on his Mason Township property in Oxford County south of West Bethel. Rather than writing a check to the American Red Cross to help hurricane victims, Ullman decided to offer shelter to a homeless family willing to travel north.

As he watched the media coverage of people suffering in the wake of Katrina, Ullman wondered, “How do you find a place, how do you find a job, and how do you get your kid in school?” He said he realized he could provide a family with some answers. He posted a message on the Web site of The Times-Picayune, a daily newspaper that has been published in New Orleans. Only three people responded. After speaking with Sammartino by phone, Ullman asked the family to his home, which sits on a rural road that turns into dirt before leading into the White Mountain National Forest.

Thousands rendered homeless and destitute by the Aug. 29 hurricane are fanning out across the country. At least eight Louisiana families have settled in Maine, according to Tonya Gleason of the United Valley chapter of the American Red Cross, which offers clothing, medicine, food and counseling. All the families Gleason has contacted – with the exception of Ullman’s guests – are staying with relatives.

D’Aquin said he was not seeking a refuge when he searched the Internet. Instead he was hunting for information about his uncle, who is still missing. But Ullman’s post, advertising free housing in a small town with good schools, appealed to the parents.

Sammartino said, “Our main objective is to get Lindsay back in school so she can meet friends her age, tell her story and start the healing.” Lindsay will begin seventh grade at Telstar Middle School in Bethel on Thursday.

“We put our lives in [Ullman’s] hands,” Sammartino added. “But we didn’t have anything more to lose.”

The family lived two blocks from one of the levees that broke under the strain of the storm. For the past four years, they had shared a rented home in an area of New Orleans called Lake View. Following the official order to evacuate prior to the storm, their mood was light.

“We packed for a three- or four-day trip,” D’Aquin said. “We thought we’d go to Memphis, visit Graceland. It would be a vacation.”

They loaded their car with a few T-shirts and shorts, plus their little dog, Rambo. They said they were used to vacating the city two to three times a year when hurricanes blew through, and believed the city officials who promised the levees would hold. They did not have flood insurance.

But a day later, a friend told them that their home had disappeared under water. Everything they owned was lost, including two other cars, good furniture and a collection of valuable watches. For a few terrifying days, they even had no contact with Lindsay, who’d been staying with relatives in Mississippi. After finally reaching her, they set out on their cross-country trek.

“It seems like a nice place to raise a family,” D’Aquin said of western Maine. “We’ll probably stay a long time.”

Lindsay said she’s ready to start playing sports at her new school and is not inclined to look back. “There’s nothing to go back to,” she said. “You don’t know what’s in your house – snakes, bugs, bodies even. The walls are covered with mildew.”

The home they now inhabit – a light, spacious cabin adjacent to a stream – is a near-perfect idyll for the family to recuperate.

“I like the seclusion of it,” D’Aquin said.

On Sunday, after Ullman told a few friends about his guests, word got out and local people began giving the family clothes and food.

Kelly Helms, 38, of Bryant Pond village, said she did not think twice about reaching out. “It could be any one of us in a situation like that,” she said.

The displaced family said they’re grateful to these generous people. But they admitted they are uncomfortable accepting charity. D’Aquin was making $24 per hour as a network administrator for Procter and Gamble in New Orleans.

“I’ll get used to it,” he said. “But I have never had to rely on someone else for where my next meal is coming from.”

Sammartino said, “Pride doesn’t help in any way right now.”

One family has offered D’Aquin a painting job, but he is looking for higher-paying computer work. They said when it is safe they will return to Louisiana to revisit their home and recover anything that remains. Sammartino, who is a poet, said she will look through her waterlogged notebooks to see if any of her writing has survived.

“With just two or three words, I can piece it back together,” she said.

To contact the family, people can call 836-2140.

Staff writer Kelly Morgan contributed to this article.



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