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Hurricane families arrive this week

| September 14, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Four Hurricane Katrina victims, including a 3-year-old child with cerebral palsy, will arrive in Libby this week to begin putting their lives back together.

They will stay with two local families whose strong faith has prompted them to do more than contribute money for disaster relief.

"This is what God wants," Peggy Oleberg said. "This is why we're here."

She and her husband Trent, a retired minister, are turning their basement living quarters over to Vietnam veteran Paul Barbarin. The 57-year-old former New Orleans resident, who has had three strokes, spent days in the city's Superdome with a crush of people and went sleepless for 72 hours.

The Olebergs also will be welcoming Tony Bernard, 35, who lived with his fiancee Deidre Jefferson and their young son Tajh Jefferson next to one of the New Orleans levees that collapsed.

They took refuge in the attic of their home, and were saved when someone spotted Tajh's arm sticking from a hole in the attic's roof. Deidre and Tajh were rescued first, with the mother holding her son above her head to keep him from flood water as they got into a boat.

Bernard was missing when rescuers returned and he ended up in a rescue shelter in San Antonio, Texas, not knowing where his fiance and Tajh were.

Mom and son will live with Libby residents Jennifer and Dennis Micklon, who are adding a bathroom in the basement of their house for the purpose. The three will fly to Kalispell along with Barbarin late Thursday, with Bernard scheduled to arrive at 2 p.m. Friday for a long-awaited reunion.

Jennifer Micklon said the connection with the Olebergs, and the ensuing plan to bring four homeless Louisianans here, had a touch of serendipity. Micklon had a booth during Nordicfest where she was trying to recruit people who might open their homes to hurricane victims. Trent Oleberg stopped by and told her he'd already decided to do that.

"He said he had been wanting to do this, but didn't know how," Micklon said.

Micklon called her mother Nancy Hedegaard, who lives 32 miles northeast of Lake Ponchatrain, and asked for names of people left homeless. There was no shortage of candidates, especially since Hedegaard and husband Jorgen already had taken in all the victims they could handle.

A Baptist church in Hedegaard's town raised much of the money for four airline tickets. With other donations from Libby, tickets were purchased within days and four heartbroken people had reason to hope again.

Nancy Hedegaard praised her daughter's fund-raising efforts, and for being willing to share her home with strangers.

"That girl has a heart as big as the country," Hedegaard said. "I'm so proud of her."

Jennifer couldn't contact her mother for 24 hours after the hurricane hit land. She feared the worst even though Hedegaard had assured her that she would be safe.

"I begged her to get out," Jennifer said of earlier conversations. "As it turned out, she just had some downed trees in her neighborhood."

Hedegaard began sheltering people even before Katrina hit. A family of 12 was fleeing the city, but their vehicle broke down in front of the Hedegaards' house so the couple took them in. Then another family needed help. When some of the people were relocated to Texas, the Hedegaards accepted others.

"I'm having a blast," Nancy Hedegaard said Monday by telephone. "Everybody's helping. I have very strong faith. God doesn't let us down."

Micklon got another surprise Monday — a call from Libby resident Vicky Lawrence, who also expressed interest in housing hurricane victims. She can take up to four people, Micklon said.

The Libby residents already have seen and talked with their new friends via computer. Micklon set up a group chat, complete with video, at her house recently.

"The little tot was waving to us," Peggy Oleberg said. "He is so cute, and they've been through so much."

No one expects the coming weeks to be easy. First of all, there are material needs such as a bed and children's walker for young Tajh. Barbarin, the Vietnam vet, will need transportation to a Veterans Administration hospital. And Deidre Jefferson, a 38-year-old diabetic, was without insulin for four days during the storm and suffered kidney failure. Her fiance, Tony, must find a job.

First, though, he and Deidre plan to get married. Trent Oleberg will perform the ceremony.

Just as in bringing them to Libby, it seemed as though divine guidance was involved.

"Whatever God wants, that's what we want," Peggy Oleberg said.