Hope came in the form of a text message Friday morning for Utahn Kesha Ainsworth: "Your kids are OK and they need food and water," it read.
Ainsworth moved to Utah roughly three weeks ago to attend school and left her three children with her mother in their hometown of Biloxi, Miss., until she could find housing for her family. The last time she heard from her mother and children, Alexis, 9, Dewontay, 6, and Damion, 4, was last Sunday, when they were getting ready to evacuate to a hotel with other extended family members.
"I talked to my 6-year-old, and he was scared and asking me when I was coming," Ainsworth said, quietly sobbing. "He was scared and told me he wanted me to be there with him. We just told each other that we loved each other. I told (them) to pray to God and everything would turn out OK."
But Ainsworth's mother and her children never made it to the hotel. She tried calling the mystery number that sent her the text message, the only hope she has that her kids are alive, but the call wouldn't go through.
"My pain is so bad. I feel like I'm grieving them and I know they're OK, but it's just so painful not to be there or know where they are."
Ainsworth is among a handful of Utahns with family and friends in the Gulf Coast states, an area that was badly damaged this past week when Hurricane Katrina flooded cities, left tens of thousands homeless and hundreds — perhaps thousands — dead. Because phone service and electricity is knocked out, many people with connections in the hurricane-ravaged area are in a similar situation as Ainsworth: clueless.
She knows her mother, grandmother and aunt are homeless and her mother's boyfriend and uncle are probably dead. Then there's her father, stepmother, sisters and brothers, cousins and other aunts and uncles that she has not heard from.
"Everybody that belongs to me is in Biloxi, Miss. I haven't gotten updates on anybody in the family. All my family was in flooded areas, so everyone had to leave. I don't know if they were able to get out in time before the water rose."
Although she was born in Davenport and grew up in Biloxi, she vaguely recognizes pictures on the news and Internet because the areas are covered in water.
"The only reason I recognized my mother's neighborhood was because I saw a sign bent over," Ainsworth said. "I wouldn't have even recognized it if it wasn't for that sign."
After fellow students at the Utah College of Massage Therapy and her apartment manager at Park Place in Salt Lake City heard about Ainsworth's situation, they started a donation drive to help the 29-year-old mother fly to Biloxi and search for her family. So far, she has $239 — money raised when classmates passed around a sandwich bag in class Thursday — but through her school, apartment and a fund at Zion's Bank, Ainsworth hopes to raise enough money so she can bring her family to Utah.
"I didn't know where to turn. I thought I would be rejected," Ainsworth said, because she is new to Utah and has no friends or family in the area. "I feel God has answered my prayers."
Donations for Ainsworth can be made at any Zion's Bank branch. They can also be made through the Utah College of Massage Therapy or Park Place apartments. For more information, call Rochelle at Park Place at 604-3935 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I would appreciate the donations, big or small. And if you can't donate, the prayers would be even more worthwhile for my family," she said.