- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - Eighteen-year-old Emily Strickland, like most high school seniors as May approaches, is ready to get final exams over with, don a cap and gown, wrap her hand around a diploma and spend the summer with few to no commitments before beginning the college chapter of her life in the fall.

While the Opelika High School 12th grader is on the verge of exiting the school system on a high note as she readies to attend Huntingdon College, the reason she entered the school system 10 years ago is not one associated with fond memories: Her family fled the Mississippi coast because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I was 9 years old, and it was just kind of a big shock,” Emily said. “I didn’t really know what was going on.”

Three days before Katrina hit, Emily and her family decided it was time to get out of D’Iberville, Miss.

With relatives already living in Opelika, the family fled to Alabama to stay at Emily’s grandmother’s house. Just days after they arrived, Emily’s parents enrolled her in third grade at Opelika’s Northside Intermediate School.

Emily was one of approximately 20 Katrina evacuees who enrolled in Opelika City Schools between Sept. 1, 2005, and Sept. 5, 2005, when the Opelika-Auburn News published an article titled “Opelika schools open to evacuees.” The article featured Emily as the first of those 20 evacuees to register in the school system in that five-day time span.

Days after Emily became a student, and still 10 years later, Emily’s mother and grandmother talked about how welcoming the school system was to their tragedy-stricken family.

“I was very proud of the way the school system and everybody opened to her,” said Emily’s grandmother, Barbara Strickland, sitting on her couch in Opelika last week. “I mean the schools, the kids in the school that were in the classrooms with her, the teachers, the kids’ parents - they were totally awesome to her.”

While Emily spent her third-grade year living with her grandmother in Opelika, her parents Donnie and Carola were in Mississippi recovering what they could of the life they had left there.

“When you lose everything, it’s hard,” Barbara Strickland said. “I mean, the only thing they had left is what they brought up here when they first came, when they were having the warnings down there. And that’s all they had left.”

Though she did not see what happened to her former house, Emily said her parents found it two lots down from where it once stood.

“It actually got lifted by the water and moved two houses down into the middle of the road,” she said. “But in order for them to clear the roads, they actually had to take a bulldozer through it.”

Emily’s parents traveled back and forth between Mississippi and Opelika during her third-grade year, making the four-and-a-half hour drive every weekend to see her.

Emily, the youngest of four children, and her family returned to Mississippi for her fourth-grade year, when Emily got a first-hand look at Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.

“It was something to hear my parents talk about how nothing is there, but it’s totally different to see it,” Emily recalled. “Everything was just kind of gone. The plots of land that used to have houses on them, they didn’t have houses anymore. And it was just kind of something to know that a storm could take away a whole house - a whole neighborhood.”

After an unsuccessful battle in court to collect insurance money for their rent-to-own property, the Stricklands decided to make a permanent home in Opelika, during Emily’s fifth-grade year in school.

“In a lot of ways Mississippi is always going to be my home,” Emily said. “Me and my dad, after school we would just go to the beach almost every day. I mean during the summer, it was amazing because you could just get up and walk to the beach if you wanted. And up here obviously you can’t do that.

“But I mean this is kind of home, too.”

Months away from the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, evidence of the lasting effects of the disaster still exists in the facial expressions and in the voices of those who experienced it.

“It’s just still so emotional for me that I just, it’s very hard to talk about still,” Carola Strickland said last week, fighting back tears.

“I don’t think anybody that ever lived down there before the storm and got affected by it, I don’t think their lives are ever going to be the same, ever,” she added.

Emily kept in touch with friends from Mississippi for a while, but in the past few years she has lost touch with most of them, having become more focused on her life in Opelika and beyond. She plans to attend Huntingdon College in Montgomery this fall.

“In a weird way - of course I’m upset that it happened, but if I had the chance to go back and change it I wouldn’t because if it wasn’t for that, then I wouldn’t be here with all the friends I have now,” Emily said. “I probably wouldn’t be attending Huntingdon in the fall - just a lot of opportunities I probably wouldn’t have gotten.”


Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, https://www.oanow.com/

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