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Finding Minnesota

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George Cunnikin, left, daughter Aveda, and wife Cassandra, right. The Cunnikins are among about 120 families that the Red Cross in Minneapolis has helped in the last week. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
Minnesota had been bracing for perhaps thousands of evacuees from the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast to begin arriving this week through a federal relocation program. But now that number has been downgraded to maybe a few hundred of Katrina survivors, and they won't get here until next Tuesday. Still, some of the people who made it through the deadly storm have already arrived here. They've come to Minnesota on their own, rather than through the official relocation effort, drawn in many cases by family connections.

St. Paul, Minn. — Precise numbers are hard to come by. But it's clear that at least dozens of people who survived Hurricane Katrina's deadly wake have settled -- at least temporarily -- in Minnesota. They include Cassandra Cunnikin, who lived in New Orleans with her husband and daughter until September 2. That's the day they left the city and began the long road trip to Minneapolis to stay with her son.

"We talked to my son on the telephone; he was finally able to get in touch with us. And he was in Memphis because he was coming down for our 25th-year anniversary, which was supposed to be Sept. 2," she says.

Cunnikin gets choked up when she tells the story. Her husband, George picks it up.

"And he told us if we could meet him in Memphis, we could just follow him back here to Minnesota. We could stay with him," he says.

So they packed a few clothes and the family dog and hit the road. They're thankful they have a place to stay, but they don't have everything and they don't want to be a burden on their son, so they went to the Red Cross. They received vouchers to buy clothes for the coming winter and got information that can help with insurance claims and other concerns.

The Cunnikins are among about 120 families that the Red Cross in Minneapolis has helped in the last week. Soren Jensen, spokesman for the Red Cross says the agency was ready.

"It started with a trickle on Tuesday and then Wednesday all of a sudden our doors were swinging back and forth with hurricane survivors coming in. They were coming in through taxis, on buses, friends were bringing them in. And we've been just packed," according to Jensen.

Jensen says most of the people coming through the Red Cross so far have a place to stay with family or friends. Among them is Latasha Montgomery. She and her family left New Orleans for Dallas before Hurricane Katrina hit.

"And I stayed in a hotel out there for five days and after running out of money, I had no where else to go. So my aunt offered to fly us up here," she says.

So now she's staying in Spring Lake Park and Montgomery has a new outlook on life. "When I was down there I though to myself 'I had nothing.' I had a car and somewhere to stay.. And I had saved stuff for my children for when they get older. And now all that's gone and it took for me to lose everything to realize I had everything," she says.

Montgomery had never been to Minnesota before last week, but now the 20-year-old wife and mother of two is ready to start a new life here. She's gotten some help from the Red Cross and now she's trying to find a job and continue her education. She was studying to become a medical assistant in New Orleans. Her husband worked for a uniform company, which has an office in the Twin Cities where they're hoping he can now find work.

The Red Cross is expecting to see dozens more families like the Montgomerys and the Cunnikins. They already have appointments going into Monday.