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Parents' Planned College Stop Now a Long-term Stay in Area

[Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette by Larry Parnass, Staff Writer: Tuesday, September 06, 2005]

  Dennis and Joanne Hilton
Dennis and Joanne Hilton (photo by Donna Cote)

In New Orleans this year, Dennis and Joanne Hilton helped their local Baptist church celebrate its 100th anniversary. With that milestone fresh in mind, they were drawn to a sign posted outside the 200-year-old Holyoke Baptist Church.

The couple, who are among the many thousands displaced by Hurricane Katrina, stopped in as strangers to worship at the Holyoke church on Sunday.

They left with new friends - and later, an invitation to dinner. 'We went and met the nicest congregation,' Dennis Hilton said Monday. 'The pastor said a prayer for us and for those in New Orleans. This is a very warm community.'

With little to return to in New Orleans, the Hiltons will be going back to the Holyoke church for weeks to come - and perhaps months. The couple, now living in a West Springfield motel, hope to settle temporarily in the South Hadley area and to begin to rebuild their lives.

Their story is just one of many such efforts. In interviews Monday, it was apparent the Hiltons, who are in the early 60s, approach the challenge with humor and some financial resources. But the couple's savings are limited, they say, and they expect to be hard-pressed before their lives return to normal.

Dennis Hilton arrived in the Valley late last month to bring his daughter Layne, 21, to her final year at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. They drove up in the car that the couple had promised to buy for Layne only when she made it to her final year in college.

'We're a kid's worst nightmare,' Joanne Hilton said. 'Parents take you to college - and never leave.'

Now, they will have to take the long-promised gift of a car back, having lost their own vehicles to floodwaters in New Orleans. Joanne Hilton flew up to New England last week and expected to return to her native New Orleans by now.

Instead, the Hiltons continued to monitor TV news coverage Monday of Katrina, eager to catch a glimpse of anything in their own neighborhood near the French Quarter - an area on relatively higher ground that was spared the worst of the damage. The Hiltons run a guest house on Prytania Street.

They heard from friends Monday that the guest house is standing, but appears to have suffered structural damage. 'It's going to be quite a challenge to get anybody to repair that,' Dennis Hilton said. 'The whole structure of the city has been damaged.

A nephew drove past a property that the couple owns near the Superdome complex. The nephew reported seeing the front door open. The Hiltons suspect the building was looted.

A neighbor on Canal Street told them he caught a glimpse of his own car on a satellite image. It was under water. A cousin told them her house was inundated by 15 feet of water.

The guest house represents the Hiltons' sole source of income. 'I have some savings like anybody else,' Dennis Hilton said, mainly in the form of a retirement fund. He has been self-employed for 25 years. 'I'm going to be retired whether I like it or not.'

'It wasn't just poor people who lost everything,' Joanne Hilton said.

Of more pressing concern to the couple: the well-being of two children they help care for, who moved to Houston with their mother, an immigrant from Latin America, before the storm hit. The Hiltons are the children's godparents, but say they have acted more as parents; they have custody of them more than half the time.

The Hiltons are attempting to locate a home in this area that can accommodate the children. 'We'll be part of your community,' Dennis Hilton said. 'After all, we are all part of the same community.'

Eventually, the Hiltons hope to get back to New Orleans, the community that Joanne Hilton's great-great grandfather moved to in the late 18th century, as part of a migration from the Canary Islands.

Her forebears moved to St. Bernard Parish, an early settlement before the Louisiana Purchase opened new lands to the west to American growth. Joanne Hilton said there has been little coverage from St. Bernard Parish because news crews apparently cannot get in.

'There are thousands and thousands of people trapped down there. I'm sure there are going to be huge fatalities when they get the water pumped out,' she said.

She says she remains somewhat numbed by the experience, even though she well knew the risks her city faced. 'Forty years ago, I lived through a flood of epic proportions,' Joanne Hilton said, referring to Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

Dennis Hilton says he already misses his friends - and the easy camaraderie that laced through his days in New Orleans.

'We're just kind of on hold,' he said Monday, as the week-old tragedy continued to play out on his motel's TV screen. 'It's sort of surreal. It puts you in a state of limbo, a state of shock. Who am I now? ... It scares me because the city is a wonderful city.'

'It's our house, so I guess we'll be going back,' he said. 'We've got to do something with these levies. We've been trying to get the federal government for years to help us with our wetlands problem. ... It's going to take the nation to help us.'

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