From New Orleans to Hoboken


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Using sign language, Hoboken couple Rogelio Sevilla and his wife Dolores Quintana shared the story Monday afternoon of their struggle to escape Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The deaf and mute Cuban couple began their journey in Jefferson Parish, La. - where there was confusion, frustration and destruction - and ended it in Hoboken.

More than a half dozen charities, churches and private companies, including the United Way of Hudson County, St. Francis Church, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, have given generously to help the pair settle into a Hoboken apartment.

Spanish sign language
Sevilla was born deaf, and Quintana lost her hearing when she was one after a bout of meningitis.

The two met at night school in Havana in the early 1980s and were married in February 1985. In Cuba, Sevilla was an air conditioner repairman and Quintana was a seamstress.

In 1995, the pair won a visa lottery and moved from Cuba to Miami, but their transition wasn't entirely easy. They also could only read Spanish. And they only knew Spanish sign language, not American Sign Language.

"We got here and other deaf people were signing, but we couldn't understand what they were saying," Sevilla said last week. "Most hearing people don't know that there are over 100 different types of sign languages."

In 2003, they moved to Louisiana. Sevilla worked on cars and Quintana got a job at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown New Orleans.

Through their hard work, they were able to buy a trailer in Jefferson Parish, which is right outside of New Orleans.

Then, Hurricane Katrina came and destroyed everything. "All of our stuff, our pictures, furniture, our home, we lost everything," Quintana said.

Too late to escape
On Aug. 28, the storm knocked out power to the area. By that time, it was too late to escape the city, so Sevilla and Quintana left their trailer and took shelter in the basement of a neighborhood church.

The couple typically relies on text messaging and electronic communication for their news and emergency alerts. But when Katrina's 160-mph winds knocked out cell phone reception and other communication systems, they were forced to depend only on each other, family, and friends.

The National Organization on Disability conducted a special needs assessment in September following the hurricane and found that the majority of shelters did not have access to American Sign Language interpreters or TVs with open caption capability.

While many of the hearing turned to battery power radios for updates, Sevilla and Quintana could not. Also, without power, there was little light in the church's basement.

Without light, it was nearly impossible for them to sign to each other.

"It was very frightening," Quintana said through sign language interpreter Thomas Smith of Catholic Charities. "It was very hard for us to get information."

After the storm passed, they walked outside to see their neighborhood in tatters. Broken trees, debris from houses, and overturned cars were everywhere.

While their trailer was left somewhat intact immediately after the storm, the flood water was beginning to rise.

Local police said that they had to leave town immediately.

They would later learn that their home, like so many others, was overtaken by the flood waters. They have not been back.

The couple packed into a family member's Honda and started making the trek to Baton Rouge. A drive that normally took one hour took well over five.

"It was slow going," Sevilla said. "We were frustrated and still didn't really know what was going on or where we should go."

Once they made it to Baton Rouge, they stayed with 20 other family members in an aunt's cramped small apartment for 12 days.

"At that point we realized that this wasn't working, so we decided that we had to go somewhere else," Sevilla said.

Decision time
So Sevilla and Quintana sat in their aunt's apartment thinking about their next move.

One offer came from Alberto Hernandez, a friend from West New York. Hernandez knew Sevilla when there two were at a school for the deaf in Cuba. Hernandez came to America in 1980 and had lost contact with Sevilla.

Last year, Hernandez found Sevilla's e-mail address and thought he would contact his old friend. They hadn't talked in over 25 years.

The two quickly renewed their friendship, and this August, the couple visited Hernandez in West New York. They said they had a fantastic time on the trip and loved New Jersey and New York.

After the hurricane, Hernandez invited the couple to move in with him.

"I told them to come here so they could start a new life in New Jersey," Hernandez said through the interpreter.

Sevilla and Quintana took them up on the offer, and in September they used a plane ticket that FEMA paid for to come to New Jersey.

Hudson County reaches out
Once in West New York, the couple reached out to the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, which in turn got in touch with United Way of Hudson County.

Maria Gomez from the United Way managed the case for the evacuees. She made sure they had hot meals to eat, along with clothing and shelter. She is still working with them to find employment.

Gomez helped coordinate the efforts of charities that included the Hudson County Welfare Department, Catholic Charities, FEMA, and Social Security. Also, the Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation in Union City and St. Mary's Thrift Shop donated clothing to the family.

Fr. Mike Guglielmelli, pastor of St. Francis Church in Hoboken, was contacted by the United Way to inquire if the church would adopt the couple. About five years ago, the church had adopted three families from then-war torn Kosovo. In fact, a member of one the Kosovo families is now the head of maintenance for the parish and became an American citizen about a month ago.

The Applied Companies of Hoboken made a rent-controlled apartment on Hudson Street available, and the St. Francis Parish agreed to pay for all of their expenses for housing, food and clothing for one year.

St. Francis parishioners have also donated enough furniture to fill the apartment.

Guglielmelli said that adopting this family was a challenge, but one worth overcoming.

"As a church, you look for those couples that have special problems or needs because they are the ones that need help the most," Guglielmelli said.

Settling in
Sevilla and Quintana said it was difficult losing everything they owned, but they are enjoying their new home. Sevilla is looking for work, and Quintana has a second interview scheduled with an area hotel.

"We love it here, the people have been so nice and helpful," Quintana said. "We look forward to living here for a very long time."

She added it's also nice that the area has such a large Cuban population.

"In New Orleans, there was only one good Cuban restaurant," she said. "Here they are all over the place."