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USKatrina anniversary prompts annual cross-continental reunion

08:55  01 september  2019
08:55  01 september  2019 Source:   msn.com

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The Houston reunion with Jose Luis and Nancy was joyous. Over dinner, Garcia finally heard the details of their harrowing ordeal. The experience was so profound that they resolved to return every year for Katrina ’s anniversary . One year, they made an exception so their kids could experience

For Hector Garcia and his family, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is not a reminder of what was lost. It is a commemoration of what was found: a friendship that spans continents . It's a friendship that was forged during Katrina but, like much of New Orleans, has largely moved beyond it.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For Hector Garcia and his family, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is not a reminder of what was lost. It is a commemoration of what was found: a friendship that spans continents.

Katrina anniversary prompts annual cross-continental reunion© ASSOCIATED PRESS The Hurricane Katrina Memorial in Shell is seen in a morning fog in Shell Beach, La., Monday, March 11, 2019. Every year, the 163 names of St. Bernard Parish residents who died or went missing in the storm, are read out in a ceremony marking the hurricane's passing. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It's a friendship that was forged during Katrina but, like much of New Orleans, has largely moved beyond it.

Every year since the storm, the Garcias have reunited with Jose Luis Sanmartin Lopez and his wife Nancy Lorenzi, a couple from a small town in Argentina. When Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, Jose Luis and Nancy were guests at the Astor Crowne Plaza, the hotel where Garcia worked.

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#tbt Thanks to The Advocate for Sharing our story to the world. Katrina anniversary prompts annual cross - continental reunion of friendship forged during storm https

Katrina anniversary prompts annual cross - continental reunion .

Lopez is a medical doctor. During those desperate days after the storm, he and Garcia became a team, a doctor and a translator caring for guests, employees and their families as conditions deteriorated.

Eventually the two families embarked on separate, harrowing odysseys out of New Orleans. Nancy and Jose Luis eventually made their way back to Argentina.

But the bond formed during Katrina's chaotic aftermath has not only endured, but strengthened.

"The first couple of years, we talked about Katrina a lot," Hector Garcia said prior to Nancy and Jose Luis' scheduled arrival for Thursday's anniversary. "After a while, we stopped talking about it. We try not to remind ourselves of what we went through. We avoid it."

Instead, "we see the anniversary as a celebration of our friendship."

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In August 2005, Garcia was the network manager for the Astor Crowne Plaza at Canal and Bourbon streets, overseeing the hotel's IT operations.

As the Katrina forecast grew more dire, he decided to hunker down at the hotel with his wife, Ana, and their young children, Cristina and Francisco.

Jose Luis Sanmartin Lopez and Nancy Lorenzi had planned to be on vacation in Miami that weekend. But as Katrina threatened south Florida, they fled Miami and flew somewhere they thought they'd be safe: New Orleans.

"It was surreal for them," Garcia said. "They leave Miami to escape the storm, and it still hits them here."

Like most everyone else, Garcia and his coworkers believed the storm would knock out electricity and maybe cause some wind damage.

Like most everyone else, he emerged into the sunshine on the Monday after the storm passed and thought the city had dodged a bullet.

And like most everyone else, he woke up Tuesday surprised to see water lapping at the hotel.

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Holiday High School Reunion . Katrina anniversary prompts annual cross - continental reunion .

Katrina anniversary prompts annual cross - continental reunion . American Press 01 Sep 2019. Every year since the storm, the Garcias have reunited with Jose Luis Sanmartin Lopez and his wife Nancy Lorenzi, a couple from a small town in Argentina

In the days after the ruptured federal levees flooded the city, the situation at the hotel grew increasingly grim. Supplies ran low. The rooms were sweltering, as the windows couldn't be opened. Some guests needed medical attention.

Lopez agreed to serve as the hotel's de facto in-house doctor. Garcia, who was born and raised in New Orleans but speaks fluent Spanish, would serve as his translator.

Side by side, they trudged up and down the hotel's 14 floors, checking on everyone. They carried an elderly, diabetic man down the stairs to a second floor balcony so he could breathe fresh air.

Meanwhile, Ana Garcia looked after the couple's children as well as Nancy Lorenzi, who was growing increasingly upset by the situation.

As the days wore on, conditions deteriorated. Buses showed up outside the hotel one day, but were commandeered by soldiers. No one at the hotel was allowed to board.

Nancy couldn't take it anymore, Garcia recalled. She insisted on leaving with her husband.

Garcia begged them to stay. He believed they were safer at the hotel than they would be at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

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The Report of Annual Continental Activities (RACA) will be the opportunity and the medium to highlight activities that are carried out across the continent in support of education and training as well as the main institutions in charge of the sector at national, regional, continental or even international levels.

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But Nancy couldn't be persuaded. She and Lopez said goodbye, and set out for the convention center.

Garcia assumed he would never see his new friends again. "We were heartbroken. After all the days we were together, we didn't know what was going to happen to them."

As fate would have it, buses came to the Crowne Plaza the next day. Garcia, his family, fellow employees and hotel guests were driven to Houston and dropped off at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Garcia's brother lived in Houston and helped the family get settled. Weeks later, Garcia returned to New Orleans to help rehabilitate the Crowne Plaza and get it ready to reopen.

"We never stopped thinking about Jose Luis and Nancy," he said. "If only they could have stayed one more day."

One afternoon at the hotel, the front desk paged him. A caller on the line, speaking in broken English, was asking about luggage left behind during Katrina. He said he knew Garcia.

It was Lopez, calling from Argentina. He and Garcia were overjoyed to hear each other's voices.

The next year, Lopez said, he and Nancy would return for the anniversary of Katrina.

And they did. By then, Garcia, craving normalcy, had left the Astor Crowne Plaza to take a job with a bank in Houston.

The Houston reunion with Jose Luis and Nancy was joyous. Over dinner, Garcia finally heard the details of their harrowing ordeal.

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From the convention center, they were bused to Causeway Boulevard in Metairie, then the airport, then to a camp in Alexandria, where they were befriended by a nun. The nun helped them get to Houston, where they finally booked a flight home to Argentina.

The experience was so profound that they resolved to return every year for Katrina's anniversary. One year, they made an exception so their kids could experience Mardi Gras. Some years, Nancy has brought her mother and stepfather.

It is not an easy journey. They must drive to Buenos Aires, then fly to Brazil and then Miami. This week, they drove to New Orleans from Florida.

They save money all year to make the trip; the medical profession is not as lucrative in Argentina as it is in the United States.

In May 2014, Ana, Cristina and Francisco moved back to Metairie after Cristina finished high school. Hector continued to work in Houston before joining them in 2015.

For years, he dealt with pent-up anger and frustration from the storm. Visiting the Louisiana State Museum's "Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond" exhibit at the Presbytere finally helped him let go.

"I needed to get this over and done with," he said. At the exhibit, "you relive what happened. But you come out saying, 'It's over and done with. It's not our fault. We didn't do anything wrong.

"It worked for me. After that, I felt good."

Jose Luis and Nancy had for years dealt with their own post-traumatic stress. Garcia suggested they "go to the museum, and leave it there."

They did.

"And since then," Garcia said, "we never talk about it."

Between visits, they stay in touch via social media. They've watched each other's children grow up.

Their friendship defies certain South American prejudices. Garcia's mother is Colombian. Whenever he visited her family in Colombia as a boy, his aunts warned him, "You can't trust an Argentine. They're fakes."

"Now we're best friends with a couple from Argentina when we shouldn't be, based on our culture," he said. "We're all devout Catholics. I believe things happen for a reason."

And after years of celebrating their friendship in private, Garcia finally decided to share the story.

"For a long time, we kept it to ourselves," he said. "But this story is unique. How often do you make a bond with someone from another country because of Katrina? It had to happen naturally.

"Out of something horrific, I'm glad we made this connection."

___

Information from: The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.nola.com

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