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• Storm presence: Aug. 23-30, 2005
• Confirmed deaths: 1,833
• 705 people reported still missing
• Damage: $108 billion
• At one point, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water.
• Landfall winds: 125 mph (peaked at 170 mph)
Source: National Weather Data Center fact sheet
After Rob Turan examined a nondescript bottle lost among the carnage of Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 21, 2005, he found a note tucked inside and kept it for daily inspiration. The note served as a beacon of hope while he worked to save lives in water-logged New Orleans and repair an unthinkable amount of damage.
The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park ranger was inspired by the chillingly sober words of then 14-year-old Angela Caballeros, whose family sought refuge in the attic while the entire city stood under 8 feet of water.
"At the age of 14, I went through Hurricane Katrina," she began as floodwaters raged outside her family home.
Caballeros put pencil to paper knowing all the while, she would need positive thinking to survive.
Eight years later, Turan finally made contact with the 22-year-old author. On Aug. 14, the unlikely pen pals met in the same Third Ward home that did battle with levee runoff.
"It was so surreal because I've waited for so long," Turan said. "Imagine a real-world Tom Hanks in 'Cast Away.' He kept the package because that's what he did for a living. I always felt like it was my mission to get the letter back to her."
Since Caballeros dropped the pineapple "Big Shot" bottle -- a local New Orleans soda product -- into the floodwaters and bid it adieu eight years ago, her family has indeed survived. Her mother and grandmother endured the costliest natural disaster in United States history, and Caballeros graduated high school with the "Katrina Class" of 2009. The family still lives in the same restored white house, save for a "bathtub ring" of water stains on the outside.
But Turan, who could not reach Caballeros, spent each day wondering what happened to the young girl and her family.
Caballeros' letter floated three-quarters of a mile away through the "dead zone" to a house Turan and his company was clearing out. Xeroxed copies of the letter kept the crew motivated to dig harder, look longer and hug tighter as they salvaged the city.
"It was so huge to me and my company," Turan said. "Who was this girl? Was she still alive? She became our poster child for what was going on."
When a Times-Picayune reporter heard about Turan's story, she amped up his efforts to find young Angela. After locating the prophetic author as a Southeastern Louisiana University student, the quest was on for a real-life meeting. Turan took a week off to drive to New Orleans.
Turan had since preserved the letter behind glass, and embarked on journey to return it to her.
"I kept reaching in the back seat just to touch the letter," he said. "I don't know how many times I actually checked to make sure it was still there, still behind me."
Their meeting was still, yet honest and loving. Angela's family dressed up in their Sunday best, and Turan showed up in his usual olive-green park ranger uniform with a framed gift.
"I have something that belongs to you."
Angela's letter was a secret -- while the family huddled in the attic in bare survival mode, she etched out her determination to survive. Before anyone could see, she graciously dropped the bottle off the roof into the abyss.
"Angela didn't even remember what was in most of the letter," Turan said. "But I had it memorized."
Angela and Turan are now Facebook friends and text each other daily. The aged park ranger, badge #1582, carries an iPhone full of pictures of his longtime -- yet new -- friend. Turan, a fellow biology major, has already made plans to attend Angela's graduation. Angela has since gone back to college, and Turan returned to Chickamauga with one less item in his possession.
"The letter was always hers."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.
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