Give Thanks with a Cajun Heart

by | Nov 1, 2009 | Community, Features

Story by Jeannie Stone

RResidents in different climates assume unique risks. In Arkansas, those risks include the threat of tornadoes, but along the coastal areas hurricanes are the predominate fear. The Russellville community remembers when Hurricane Katrina– and three and a half weeks later Hurricane Rita– besieged our neighbors from the South sending thousands of Louisianans to Arkansas. Some of these folks remain with us today, totally incorporated into our community.
 This story is about two families who now call Russellville home and who approach the holiday season thankful for a patch of dry land to call their own. 
 For both the Mike Stoker family and the Phillipe Van Houtte family, the verdant hills and woodlands of the River Valley replenished their weariness. But it is our people who comforted, embraced and encouraged them, and for that they are also grateful.
Jennifer and Philippe Van Houtte, and their sons Maxim, 11, and Liam, 7, make their home in Russellville after Katrina forced them out of New Orleans. Philippe, native of Belgium, had already adapted to a new home when he settled in New Orleans. Jennifer, on the other hand, has deep roots in the Big Easy where her father owns his childhood home in the French Quarter.

Philippe, a participant in a teacher exchange program, met Jennifer at a wine-tasting party in New Orleans.
“When we started dating he knew very little English,” she said. “The program preferred that because they wanted him to teach his classes in French without offering translating.”
Philippe found New Orleans to his liking even though it was somewhat of a culture shock.
“The sheer size of everything – the roads, stores and neighborhoods – the huge spreading of things was a shock. In Belgium, everything is so close you shop and do everything in a smaller space, so it’s easy to walk.”

The center of town in Belgium would be similar to an open mall he said. “Even if you had a car, there would be no place to park it. You just go from store to store with your little bag.”
Jennifer laughed. “His eyes about popped out of his head when I took him to Sam’s,” she said.
“Every container, whether it was laundry detergent, toothpaste or cereal, was supersized here,” Philippe said. “In Europe, everything is packaged smaller to fit into our little apartments.”
Three years into his four year teaching assignment the couple wed, and in 1995 they moved to Belgium.
“The goal for the move was for Jennifer to see where I was coming from,” Philippe said.
Arriving with no jobs lined up Jennifer, an investment advisor, found work immediately with J.P. Morgan, an English-speaking business. The Van Houttes lived four years in Belgium where they celebrated the birth of their eldest son Maxim.
Adapting to Brussels proved challenging for Jennifer who wasn’t familiar with the languages of her new cosmopolitan home. After her initial year of learning the language, she developed friendships.
“Once I had my stuff, favorite restaurants and shops, I was all right,” she said.

The climate, too, gave her fits. “Belgium is not known for nice weather. It is located on the same latitude degree as Canada, so it gets very cold in the winter,” she said. “It rains about 355 days of the year; the other 10 days they call “summer.”
The sky is very low and heavy, a solid gray. In the winter, I would wake up to darkness, take the train to Brussels in the dark, and arrive at work in the dark. The sun would finally rise around 9:30 in the morning, and at lunch time everyone would go outside, because it was the only time to be in the daylight.
By 3:30 in the afternoon, the sun was setting, and it was dark again by 4:30. The summer was the exact opposite, which was nice because you felt energized when you got home at 6:30 p.m.”

There was a pulse to the little town they lived in Philippe said. “The population was only 10,000, but things were happening. It felt alive, and I missed that in New Orleans. “I felt that pulse in the French Quarter, though.”
The Van Houttes moved back to New Orleans in 1999 after carefully considering the environment better suited to raise a family.
“It’s just easier to integrate in multi- cultural Europe rather than integrating in the United States,” Jennifer said.
Philippe returned to teaching, Jennifer went to work for Merril Lynch, and Liam was born. Life was good.
“On Friday, Aug. 26th, I was at a PTA meeting at school, and we didn’t even talk about the hurricane coming,” she said. “Those who’d lived in New Orleans for any length of time were used to just riding the storm out.”
The Thursday and Friday evening news report announced the storm was expected to turn and miss the city, Philippe said. Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. the warnings went off. The hurricane had not changed direction. At noon, the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation.
“That got our attention because nobody remembered that every happening before,” Jennifer said.
Her brother found hotel rooms in Memphis. “We took some toys, the laptop and enough clothes for the weekend,” she said. “We only had the shoes on our feet.”

Initially, the gathering at the hotel was like a family reunion even after the exhausting 12-hour drive (normally, the drive takes only six hours.) Jennifer’s parents, three brothers and their families joined them. There was no news the rest of that day or Monday.
“It wasn’t until Monday night that they started showing clips,” Jennifer said. “It was horrendous.”
Most unhappy about the sudden exodus was Maxim — who’d missed his planned birthday party.
“His party was set for Sunday, the day we evacuated. We told him that we’d have the party next week, but that day never came,” Jennifer said.
“It was hard for the boys to understand why we couldn’t go home,” Jennifer said. “That first Christmas I spent so much on them because they didn’t deserve what happened to them.”
After living in a Memphis hotel limbo and catching all the sights of the city, one of Jennifer’s clients invited them to visit Russellville.
The Louisiana flood waters had washed away his teaching position.
“There was no water, electricity or garbage service. There was no police or schools. Grocery stores were empty. There was no safe place for children to play. Glass was everywhere. It was a no-brainer for me,” Philippe said.

“That’s why we weren’t going to kill ourselves to get back,” Jennifer said.
So, there was nothing to lose by paying Arkansas a visit.
The couple drove to Russellville for lunch and to look around. “We drove back to Memphis and checked out of the hotel,” Jennifer said.
“I fell in love that day,” Philippe said. They became guests of Cynthia and Charlie Blanchard. Jennifer’s parents followed them and stayed with Mildred Priddy for two months before returning to New Orleans.
“Those people – to open their homes to strangers – were just amazing,” Jennifer added.
The fear of the unknown was the scariest part Jennifer said. They only came with the clothes on their back and one change of clothes because they were just going away for the weekend.
“It was so stressful,” she said. “When we lost Philippe’s job we lost our health insurance, and we had to enroll the boys in ArKids First for awhile. And leaving my 7 year old at a school where I didn’t know anybody or what they did behind closed doors was so stressful.”

Fortunately for the Van Houttes, Jennifer had switched to self-employment, so she could work from home.
“All I needed to do business was a phone and my laptop,” she said. It was a little more difficult for Philippe.
After six months of unemployment, he was hired by Arkansas Tech University and is now the Systems Librarian at the Pendergraft Library.
Even after selling their house for land value and losing most of their possessions, they continue to be impressed by the hospitality of their new neighbors.
“Everybody has been so nice and helpful. There have been so many people we couldn’t ever thank enough including Danny Duvall over at River Valley Furniture. They even delivered beds even though we didn’t have money. They just knew we didn’t have anything to sleep on.”
“There is a joy of discovery in any new place,” Philippe said. “Because of Tech, culture is alive here. We are grateful the people in this community took our plight to heart, so although the place is beautiful here, discovering the warmth of the people has been the true revelation.”
“We are so very thankful to all who helped us get back on our feet,” Jennifer said.

Category 3 – rated Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005) sent many New Orleans residents to Lake Charles where families and friends lived. When Category 5 Rita hit a month later (Sept. 24, 2005) and Lake Charles was evacuated, there were double the number of people fleeing that area, Stoker said.

“It was a mass exodus. At 9 a.m. the sirens started going off, and no one was taking any chances because we had just seen what Katrina had done. There was no cash in the ATMs and no groceries at the grocery stores. Everybody had cleaned it out. Traffic was backed up, and a lot of people had to ditch their cars because there was no gas,” Stoker said.
The Stokers were fortunate to know the Russellville area. Mike’s brother-in-law Kirk Harmon had been on several biking trips in Arkansas, and he had grown to love the region. When Rita bore down on him, he fled to a cabin on Mt. Nebo.
Stoker travelled with an entourage – four complete households headed north with him – including his mother, his brother’s family, his sister’s family and his 6-month-old daughter Day.

“The community’s outreach was truly amazing. Relief centers were set up, and we were able to get basic necessities like baby formula and diapers. We were especially grateful for the members of Central Presbyterian Church because they provided several meals.”
“The destruction down there was massive. Whole neighborhoods were wrecked. Huge trees had fallen through, making them look like they were just unzipped,” he said. “Debris made streets impassable. There was no sewage, and the electricity was out for weeks. It was not a safe place to bring a baby back to.”

Stoker, who wasn’t receiving a paycheck during the evacuation, was hired by Arkansas Tech University to assist in a web development project. He now works full-time as the Director of Web Strategies and Operations.
“I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work at a great university like Arkansas Tech,” he said. “I just picked up and moved.”
So when the rest of his family returned to their homes, Stoker became absorbed in closing one chapter of his life and starting another. Involved as a board member of the community theater group, he had decisions to make regarding the
season’s performances. “We had to cancel everything,” he said. “Many people simply relocated to other communities like I did. It was a lot of work. I had to move debris, make repairs to my property and wrap up all my business.”

Stoker says he’s put over 100,000 miles on his car in the past three years making the eight-hour drive to and from Louisiana.
“I miss my family,” Stoker said, “but I love it here. He still feels a bit nostalgic when he thinks about his former home. “Oh, Mardi Gras! Man, I love all the music and culture. I get hungry for Cajun food, especially gumbo.”
Fortunately, his family has mercy. “I always get King cakes sent to me, and my family sends treats pretty regularly.”

The road to Russellville has been a whirlwind for Stoker, but blessings are abundant. The one thing he holds most dear is meeting is wife, Whitney Park Stoker. Both are outdoor enthusiasts and were introduced by a mutual friend.
“A lot of good has come out of it. If it weren’t for that storm, I would have never met Whitney and fallen in love. We married in May up on Mt. Nebo, so that place is doubly special,” he said. “The wedding was picture perfect. We even had a rainbow and mountain music courtesy of the Pope County Bootleggers.”
Michael and Whitney live in town with Day, now 4 1⁄2 and have purchased land in Booger Hollow.
“There’s a big difference coming from a spicy little Louisiana town, but I wouldn’t go back now. I’ll trade swamps and bayous for mountains and creeks any day. Plus, it’s nice to see the seasons change.”
Louisiana continues to be plagued with hurricanes, and Stoker’s family and friends know where to go in case of an emergency.
“Russellville is the safe haven,” he said. “What a blessing. A lot of people have no one.”

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