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New start for family that survived 3 days in attic

Debbie Este moves family to S.C., finds brother who rescued them

By Jennifer Pangyanszki

Debbie Este in an ambulance on her way to South Carolina Saturday.


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Hurricane Katrina
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(CNN) -- In one weekend, Debbie Este, the New Orleans mother rescued with her two teenage daughters from the attic of their flooded home, left a Baton Rouge shelter for temporary housing in South Carolina, and was reunited with her brother, Aldo, by phone.

On Monday afternoon, Debbie rested in a private motel room, in a bed instead of a cot, while her daughters shopped for magazines and books with the little money she gave them.

"I'm feeling optimistic," she said by phone from Columbia, South Carolina. "I'm not feeling like I did a week ago, because I was feeling like there was nothing there. I'm taking each day as it comes. It took me a long time to accumulate what I had, and I've got to start over again. But I'm sure I'll make it. And I'm patient."

Debbie and Tiffany, 16, and Amanda, 13, left the shelter Saturday morning by ambulance for the Baton Rouge airport, where an Angel Flight plane, flown by volunteer pilot Bill Ellis, waited to take them to South Carolina. The family's relocation was coordinated with help from American Red Cross volunteers, their insurance company representatives, and a Christian service ministry based in South Carolina that brought a busload of evacuees out of Baton Rouge last week.

"You can put people in shelters, but lives need to be put back together," said Bishop James Rice, general overseer of the Greater Harvest Christian Center and The Empowerment Center in Columbia, South Carolina. "If there's someone who's going to love you and support you and walk you through the system, then there's hope that's rekindled for people who don't have hope."

Upon meeting Rice, Debbie agreed to go with his ministry to South Carolina. She and her daughters packed their donated belongings, but her health condition prohibited the 14-hour bus ride. Several days later, volunteers secured the Angel Flight.

The Estes were trapped in the attic of their New Orleans home after flood waters filled the house where they lived as Hurricane Katrina swept through the region. Melissa Harold, Debbie's 68-year-old mother, died during the ordeal.

After Saturday's flight, Debbie, 47, was admitted to a hospital and treated for dehydration for the second time since being rescued by her brother. She was released about six hours later.

Now, the family is exhausted and sleeping a lot. Fighting a cold, Debbie said her health feels "so-so."

A family reunion

On Sunday, for the first time since he broke through the roof of their house with an ax and pulled them out of the attic to safety, Debbie talked to her 50-year old brother, Aldo Harold.

He is staying in a shelter at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

"We were both crying," Debbie said. "I knew he was alright, that's all I wanted to know. And that made a big difference to me."

She said a San Antonio couple who had visited him several times found the first story about the Estes online (Full story) and brought it to him this weekend. "And that's how he knew we were OK," she said.

The siblings connected with the help of Jonathan Marks, a fire team manager from State Farm Fire & Casualty Claims. Marks first met Debbie and her daughters on September 3. He had traveled to the devastated Gulf region with other members of the insurance company's catastrophe team and visited shelters to distribute claim forms to policyholders and answer questions.

"I sat there and talked to her for about 30 minutes, and she was overcome with emotion," Marks said. "At that point, it became more personal than about what the company was going to do for her."

Marks' wife did an online search and found that Aldo Harold was in San Antonio. With that information, Marks was able to get word to the brother, who in turn contacted his younger sister.

Debbie learned that her brother stayed behind in New Orleans for two days after she left, rescuing more people, she said.

Although he plans to remain at the shelter for now, he may return to his Westwego, Louisiana, job if his employer reopens his business, a seafood place. "He wants to stay there and try to get himself together," Debbie said.

Starting over

Rice said his goal is to move beyond the first stage of assistance, providing food, shelter and clothes, to the second stage of finding evacuees jobs, transportation and permanent housing.

So far, 49 people have relocated with their support, but the ministry still is receiving calls for help and resources are stretched.

"Over the long term, 90 percent of the people who came back with us plan to settle here," Rice said. "We're trying to keep their minds off 'I left everything and I lost everything' and all the horrible things they've been through, trying to give them some normalcy in their lives."

Next week, the girls will start attending the 6th and 8th grades at the local middle school. "You got to start over somewhere," Debbie said. "I think they're scared of going to a new place. But I said they'll make plenty of friends, and they'll forget about that part after a few weeks."

Tearfully thankful about her new start on life, Debbie still feels numb about the difficult transition ahead.

"It's been over two weeks. It seems like I'm here, but I don't really feel like I'm here. I'm going through the motions," she said. "I feel like I'm halfway in a place of where I've been and where I'm going."

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