At eigth months old, Wesley Fruge is one of the smallest victims of Hurricane Katrina, torn from his parents in the aftermath of the storm.
As Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, little Wesley was in Tulane University Hospital. He’d had craniofacial surgery to correct a birth defect. He was with his dad Brandon before all hell broke loose. His head swollen from the operation and his skull held together with staples, the infant was in no condition to be moved.
“We started kind of getting stressed out, realizing we were stuck there with him,” says Brandon. “It wouldn’t have been so bad if it was justme and his mom, but, you know with an 8-month-old child there, you get scared.”
Monday, with the hurricane waters seeping in, Brandon and his wife Alicia huddled with other frantic parents and their critically sick children. “You see everyone around, babies crying; everyone just getting hot,” says Alicia.
Meanwhile, 100 miles away in Lafayette, Louisiana, Wesley’s grandparents Connie and Randy Dupree watched report after horrific report coming out of New Orleans. By Tuesday, they were beside themselves.
“We knew the looting had started and people were getting guns,” says grandfather Randy Dupree. “We knew the hospital was on lockdown and had security. Our biggest fear was that people broke in, and after that you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Tuesday night, an attempt to evacuate some patients was abruptly aborted when it appeared gun shots were being fired at the rescue choppers.
Wednesday, evacuation was tried again and tiny Wesley’s turn had come. The good news: he’d be flown to safety. The bad news: with so little room on the chopper, his mom and dad would have to stay behind— leaving them no choice but to hand over their infant son and watch him be whisked away.
“That was scary because it wasn’t us going with him. I’d rather be in there holding him, knowing he was safe,” says Brandon.
Connie and Randy had been staying in touch by cellphone and hoped to rendezvous with their grandson. Wesley was choppered to a landing strip in Houma, Louisiana, 57 miles away. A fixed wing plane, operating as a sort of ER-in-the-air, was waiting. But in all the chaos, the distraught grandparents didn’t have a clue at first where the infant would go from there.
“Originally we didn’t know where they were sending them. There were reports of Alexandria, Shreveport, and Arkansas. And then, they said they would send the Tulane kids to Houston. We got on the road and drove from Lafayette,” says Randy.
At Houston’s Hobby airport, Wesley was taken by ambulance to Texas Children’s Hospital. And by late Wednesday night, the little boy’s grandparents had him in their arms.
“You could see his eyes light up when he saw us,” says Randy.
“I’ve been holding him the whole time,” says grandmother Connie. "He wouldn’t let me put him down!"
Wesley was safe— but now the whereabouts of his mom and dad were unknown.
It turns out the boy’s parents had been through a frightening ordeal of their own. They were evacuated with other parents from Tulane University hospital by boat. Alicia was quite happy to be escaping— until she took a good hard look around her. “You see trash floating — no telling what’s in the water. And you just see people still trying to get out on their own, and you feel bad because you can’t help them. It’s unbelievable,” she says.
Then, the bus they were promised would be waiting on dry land wasn’t there. And all this time they had no idea about the fate of their son.
They couldn’t call anyone for hours. On Thursday, a good Samaritan gave Alicia and Brandon a lift to a bus bound for Lafayette — and once home, they were joyfully reunited with their infant son— just released from the hospital— and their parents.
The whole family is exhausted and their nerves fried. But they’re alive and safe, and little Wesley is doing fine. Already they’re looking to the time when Katrina is reduced to a story— to be told and retold to little Wesley— about the terrible hurricane that briefly blew them all apart.
“Wesley’s been through an awful lot: major surgery, and a catastrophic hurricane,” counts his grandfather. “But if he talks about dating anyone named Katrina— that’s not gonna be a good thing!” he says.
Now, the family can laugh.
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