Extended family of evacuees calls Natchez its new home

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 17, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Three generations of Leona Uzzetta&8217;s family have found refuge in Natchez.

The New Orleans family &8212; grandmother, mother, aunt, children, spouses, significant others, dogs and cats &8212; fled their wind- and flood-damaged homes and now look upon Natchez as a little Eden where life can begin anew.

Katrina was the immediate impetus but not the original one, said Nona Colombo, 40, who came to Natchez for the first time at 18 and fell in love with the city.

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&8220;I just loved the town. I thought it was the most charming, quaintest town. It was kept well, and the people were so polite and cordial,&8221; Colombo said. &8220;Life was pulling everybody in our family in different ways, and I kept telling them, &8216;why don&8217;t we go to Natchez?&8217; I just kept raving about it.&8221;

Her sister, Stephanie Nielsen, and husband, Bobby, years later, in 2003, planned a trip through Natchez on their way to Washington, D.C.

&8220;It was beautiful,&8221; she said. &8220;For Christmas that year, we brought Mom to Natchez and stayed at Monmouth. On a whim, we called about real estate.&8221;

The sisters were impressed. Colombo said she already had started thinking about investing in a place where she could retire some day. &8220;And Mom was getting close to retirement. But our dilemma was splitting up the family.&8221;

In New Orleans, they lived close to one another. &8220;We had always said we&8217;d move somewhere together,&8221; Nielsen said.

Colombo was the first to take the step, purchasing her house on St. Charles Avenue in 2004. &8220;We first came here to take refuge from Ivan,&8221; she said. &8220;Gran and (Aunt) Judy came and liked it.&8221;

The house became their hurricane house, as the family fled two hurricanes before the biggest, Katrina, struck the coast in August 2005.

&8220;We had made friends in Natchez by then,&8221; said Nielsen, an occupational therapist. After Katrina, she found a part-time job with a nursing home in Jonesville. &8220;Natchez had rolled out the red carpet for us.&8221;

The sisters&8217; mother, Leona Adams, had purchased a house only a few doors away from Colombo&8217;s St. Charles Avenue house &8212; only a week before Katrina hit New Orleans.

The post-Katrina experience left the family in awe of the city&8217;s hospitality, they said. &8220;Perfect strangers would come to the door and say, &8216;if y&8217;all need anything at all, let us know,&8217;&8221; Colombo said.

Twenty-one people, nine dogs, 11 cats, one bird, two rabbits and a bearded dragon lizard resided in Colombo&8217;s Natchez home during and after Katrina.

&8220;Mom&8217;s house was completely empty. We were renovating the kitchen at my house,&8221; Colombo said. &8220;People would knock on the door and say, &8216;come on over; we&8217;re cooking.&8217;&8221;

Adams said she never will forget the generosity shown her family. &8220;We received things and don&8217;t even know who to thank,&8221; she said.

Most in the family lost everything &8212; homes and possessions. &8220;We were stunned when we realized it,&8221; Nielsen said.

Natchez became more than a place to retire, Colombo said. &8220;When everything came crashing down around us, we could not have found a more peaceful, welcoming place.&8221;

Colombo for now has kept her job at The Times Picayune newspaper. Adams continues to work as a kitchen designer for Singer Kitchens in New Orleans; they travel together Sunday night and return to Natchez on Friday.

Colombo&8217;s fianc/, Tony Kirsch, has found work in Natchez, opening his own business, On the Spot Mobile Car Care, with help and encouragement from several Natchez businessmen.

The Nielsens are working on their Natchez house on North Commerce Street on the weekends and &8220;doing our part in the recovery and cleanup in New Orleans during the week,&8221; she said.

Grandmother Uzzetta and her daughter Judy Uzzetta, whose job allows her to work from home, have bought a house on Robinson Street.

&8220;It was the first house we looked at,&8221; Judy Uzzetta said. &8220;A small gully rolls down and back up behind the house. I said to myself, &8216;it&8217;s not going to flood.&8217;&8221;

Adams said Natchez was meant to be their place of safety. &8220;Someone was pointing us in this direction,&8221; she said.

Grandmother Uzzetta, 89, said she has not cried about her losses.

She has come to terms with the changes in her life.

Loving her new home and neighbors, she said, &8220;It seems I&8217;ve died and gone to heaven.&8221;

For Colombo and the rest of the family, that has been important.

&8220;Gran&8217;s house had 89 years of memories,&8221; she said. &8220;We were concerned about how she was going to handle it. But she has done well.&8221;