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A New Orleans Thanksgiving in Minnesota

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The Francis family from New Orleans are spending Thanksgilving in Woodbury, Minnesota. Left to right: Don Francis Jr., Ciara Francis, Don Francis, Sr. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Thousands of Gulf Coast hurricane survivors are spending Thanksgiving in Minnesota, separated from friends and family back home. For many, the past three months have been a disorienting search for resources including food, clothes and housing. For families lucky enough to have relatives in Minnesota, the holiday is taking on a tone of true thankfulness even though their lives are filled with uncertainty.

St. Paul, Minn. — As the water level started to rise in New Orleans three months ago, 55-year-old resident Don Francis stayed for as long as he could in the hospital at the bedside of his ailing mother. When she was finally airlifted out of town, Francis made his way to the now infamous convention center in New Orleans.

"It's awful. It's awful," Francis says. "It's hard to think about, talk about. You don't want to wish that on anybody. And you don't ever want to go through it again. It's unbelievable. It's like a nightmare. Like a real nightmare."

Francis's home was destroyed. He lost everything. He made his way to Woodbury, where his son, Don Jr. has lived for the past seven years. Francis's 25-year-old daughter Ciara was evacuated earlier and also made it to the Twin Cities safely. Francis says he likes Minnesota and plans to stay.

"I'm just trying to make it here," he says. "Because it has been real comfortable with some of the nice people I've met, that's what made it better."

One day recently, the Francis family was at a Brooklyn Center warehouse picking up a dining room set and a mattress and box spring for Don and Ciara's new townhouse in Minneapolis.

The furniture was donated through an organization called Minnesota Helpers. Mary Gray and her son run the small nonprofit. It's essentially a Web site fueled by Mary Gray's high-octane passion to provide survivors with clothes, housing and furniture.

I'm just trying to make it has been real comfortable with some of the nice people I've met, that's what made it better.
- Hurricane Katrina survivor Don Francis

"I don't think anybody realizes that these people, if nothing else, until the government decides they're going to find them or help them or whatever they're going to do, these people need some emergency cash for groceries, I mean for everything," she says. "A lot of these people showed up with the clothes on their back. They don't have a car, they don't have a job, they don't have furniture, they showed up here literally with the clothes on their back."

The state estimates that Minnesota is now home to about 1,700 evacuee families from the Katrina and Rita hurricanes. The majority of them are staying in the Twin Cities metro area.

Don and Ciara Francis are among the lucky ones. Family in Minnesota and the nonprofit Minnesota Helpers gave them the foundation to find and rent a new home and get back on their feet.

And they're actually looking forward to spending Thanksgiving together. Don will cook the turkey, Ciara's making crawfish etoufee, and son Don Jr. is cooking up some gumbo. It's going to be a very New Orleans-flavored dinner.

"Definitely. We going to do that like that," says Don.

"It wouldn't be the same, we have to try to make it as close to home as possible," adds Ciara.

There are dozens of families who have made their way to Minnesota with much less than Don and Ciara Francis. Many are without family ties, and since arriving in Minnesota, they've been living in hotels paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And now, those some 50 families face a December 15th deadline to move out because FEMA announced it will not pay for hotel rooms after that date.

The ongoing needs of the evacuees are prompting non-profits like Mary Gray's Minnesota Helpers and the United Way to urge Minnesotans to step up and make sure the evacuees aren't forgotten.