A New Orleans couple calls Vail Valley home, for now | VailDaily.com

A New Orleans couple calls Vail Valley home, for now

Scott N. Miller

Shane Macomber/Vail DailyGloria and Joe Darlak share their story of escaping their home in New Orleans and coming to Vail.

VAIL – Joe Darlak had a good offer to rent out his Brookstone condo for the winter. He pondered the offer, but something told him to say no.Weeks later, that something turned out to be Hurricane Katrina. Now, Darlak and his wife, Gloria, are calling their two-bedroom condo home until… well, who knows when? The morning before Hurricane Rita hit the Texas coast, the Darlaks’ TV was tuned to cable news. It hurt to watch, but there was no way to change channels, either.This is the longest stretch the Darlaks have spent in their Vail condo since Joe bought the place in 1971 when he was in the Army, a radiologist-in-training at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in the Denver area. And, given conditions in New Orleans, there’s no telling how long they’ll stay.”Hurricane season in New Orleans lasts until mid-November some years,” Gloria said.While the Darlaks got out ahead of the storm, the couple’s 25-year-old son Jeff is still there. Actually, he’s left and returned. He’s working now, and staying at his parents place, which is on high enough ground that it escaped the flood waters. There’s still no electricity, but Jeff has told his parents he has plenty of batteries, water and other supplies. He’s working, helping out around the neighborhood, and, apparently, having quite an adventure. “We’re still concerned about Jeff, of course,” Gloria said. “But I’ve had to suspend my worries, and rely on his good judgment.”Getting their youngest kid out of New Orleans the first time took a bit of luck.Joe and Gloria had gotten out the Sunday before the storm hit. Joe, who works in seven states, was already headed to an assignment in Deming, N.M., but had to fly first to Phoenix, then to El Paso, Texas to get there.

Over Labor Day weekend, after days of seeing graphic images of flooding, looting and destruction, the Darlaks decided to go back to New Orleans to get their youngest son.They flew to Houston, rented an SUV, and thanks to a tip from a paramedic coming back from New Orleans, set off down the only route back into the city. At a National Guard checkpoint at the entrance to the city, the Darlaks found themselves behind another SUV full of doctors. Those doctors were passed through, at which point Joe said, “I’m a doctor, too.” They then drove mostly deserted streets to their home.There, Jeff was getting ready to take some water to friends. With the flood waters just three blocks away, he had decided the best way to get to his friends was by canoe. Later that day, Jeff rowed off to check on his sister’s place, and ended up rescuing her cat.With life in the city still hazardous, though, Jeff took a break and went with his parents to his older brother’s home in Dallas. The whole family – 11 strong – got together in that three-bedroom home and spent several days there.Leaving by boatThe Darlaks’ daughter, Jean-Marie, and her husband had the closest call in the family.”She’s a jogger, so she’d run to her in-laws house to check on it, then to our house,” Joe said. “By the time she got home, she was in water up to her hips.”

As the first floor of Jean Marie’s home filled with water, she and her husband started to climb. While they were getting ready to move from the second floor to the attic, and, probably, the roof, the couple heard a boat puttering down the street. They flagged it down and caught a ride to dry ground.”They had no escape but that man and his boat,” Gloria said.Dry land ended up being a few blocks from Joe and Gloria’s house, where their SUV was parked. Jean Marie, her husband and the boat’s owner found the key and headed out of town.Settling down – for nowWith Vail as home base for now, the Darlaks try not to worry about Jeff and take comfort knowing their other children are safe, if a bit snug, in Dallas. Sleep comes a little easier now.They’ve met a few other folks from New Orleans who have landed in the valley, and may get together in the coming days and weeks. And, while there wasn’t time or room to pack much, they have all their important documents in hand, and they did pack a few sweaters for fall in the mountains.Through it all though, they wonder when they’ll be able to go back. And they are going back, they say. “We have to go back,” Gloria said.

“We’ve been there 25 years now,” Joe added. “We’re part of New Orleans.”But what kind of New Orleans will rise from the muck remains an open question. “If New Orleans is going to survive, we’ll need levees and evacuations plans like they have in Holland,” Joe said.And Gloria hopes the city’s poor have a chance to benefit from the rebuilding.”They’ll probably bulldoze the poor areas, and I hope they give people a chance to own part of what’s built, and make their lives better,” she said/ Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado