By Shelley Grieshop
Family members said the Rev. Bart Pax was determined not to leave his New Orleans parish -- a makeshift shelter -- as Hurricane Katrina rolled in Monday morning
Now many of his relatives in the Grand Lake area are left wondering about his fate and that of the 50 or so people who took shelter in the church's parochial school in the city.
"We haven't heard a word," said Pax's sister-in-law, Marilyn Pax of Celina. "We're very concerned."
The Franciscan priest, the head pastor at Saint Mary of the Angels in New Orleans, spoke to his nephew at the family-owned business Pax Machine Works in rural Celina about 9 a.m. Monday morning. It was the last time the family had contact with him, Marilyn Pax said.
"He said everyone in the school had moved up to the second floor because about 10 foot of water had already filled the first floor," she said. The school is on North Miro Street and houses kindergarten through eighth-graders within its three floors. The parish is located about three miles south of the swelled Lake Pontchartrain where two levees broke allowing water to pour into the already flooded city.
When Rev. Pax made the call from his cell phone Monday, he said he was watching the roof on the school's gym being blown away, Marilyn Pax said.
"In my mind, I imagine that they (those in the shelter) made their way to the top of the building and waited to get rescued like everyone else," she said this morning. "As soon as he gets evacuated out and can call, I'm sure he will."
Rev. Pax told his nephew the area where the church is located was one of the first regions of New Orleans to be flooded when Hurricane Katrina arrived Monday. As the levees at Lake Pontchartrain failed, "the lake came right back on them, too," Marilyn Pax said.
New Orleans Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered a citywide evacuation on Tuesday as contaminated water continued to rise. Hundreds are feared dead; thousands of people are without food and electricity and are still being rescued from rooftops.
Marilyn Pax's husband, Dave, called his brother on Sunday when he heard the hurricane had grown to a catastrophic category five. Dave Pax asked his sibling if he had changed his mind about staying. He said no.
"It was his parish, and he felt responsible for the school and the people taking shelter there," Marilyn Pax said. "He planned to stay as long as he was needed."
Laurie Fleck, a 1999 Celina High School graduate, fled her home in Mandaville, La., on Sunday morning with her fiance Gage Banks. The town, with a population of about 7,000, rests on the north banks of Lake Pontchartrain and is a 15-minute drive from Slidell.
Fleck spoke to The Daily Standard this morning via cell phone from a friend's home in Florida.
The couple originally intended to head north about 30 miles to stay with friends, but after hearing the hurricane had picked up velocity, and fearing dangerous flooding to the north, they moved quickly to the east.
"We packed up our dogs and important papers, birth certificates and stuff like that. We put all the rest in two rooms -- in the closet or up on the bed," she said. "Now all we can do is hope for the best."
Fleck, a physical therapist, said traffic out of the area Sunday was "horrible." The pair slowly made their way to Destin, Fla., a drive that normally takes four hours but this time took seven and a half, she said.
"From Gulfport near Biloxi (Ga.) until the Alabama-Mississippi border and again around Mobile (Ala.), we sometimes weren't traveling five miles in an hour," she said.
Gasoline was difficult to find, but they managed to get a full tank and a few extra gallons as a precaution, after stumbling on an out-of-the-way station, she said.
Fleck is worried about the possessions they left behind but is grateful for their safety. Very little has been said on the news about damage in the Mandaville area, and she's been searching the Internet for updates.
Phone towers are disabled in many areas and conversations with her parents, Jane and Nick of Celina, have been few, she said.
The young couple are thinking about trying to go back Thursday to survey the area and pick up belongings before traveling back to Celina this weekend. They have an important date coming up to prepare for: They are to be wed in Celina on Oct. 1.
"We're supposed to leave for our honeymoon from a cruise ship out of New Orleans," Fleck said with a sigh. "We may have to take that honeymoon much later."