A Christmas Story
Twists of fate
Tuesday, December 19, 2006 BY ANNE LEVIN
Special to the Times
Andrea and Frank Bridges tried their best to ignore Christmas last year. For the first time in their marriage, the couple didn't put up a tree. There was no Christmas dinner; there were no gifts. The Bridges were staying in Nevada with family members, having been displaced a few months earlier from their Bay St. Louis, Miss., home by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
"We were still in shock," says Andrea Bridges, curled up a few weeks ago on the sofa in the tidy home in Ewing where the couple, grateful to be on their own again, now live. "
And to some degree, we still are."
Celebrating Christmas remains low on the Bridges' priority list. But this year, they feel ready to at least acknowledge the holiday in small ways.
They will attend church and have Christmas dinner with friends. They will give gifts on Christmas morning to their two adored pugs, Misha and Pierre.
But they won't put up a tree. "As far as Christmas goes, we have no Christmas," says Andrea Bridges, "but what you have to understand is that we've been sort of having Christmas for a few months, since we moved into this house and got a roof over our heads. "People have been so amazing to us. This has been the most humbling experience. People are so generous and, more than that, they are so loving."
The people she refers to are those she has met through her apprenticeship at the Anthony Rabara Studio for Pilates in Princeton, where she has been studying for certification as a full Pilates instructor since last fall.
Rabara, especially, and his partner Donald Brokate have been "angels," says Bridges, hosting her in their Trenton home and helping her and Frank find the house they are renting today. The Bridges will have Christmas dinner next week at Rabara's and Brokate's and will attend church services for the holiday with them.
Andrea Bridges, 49, is a former ballet dancer who hails from New Orleans. Her husband, Frank, 48, from Ocean Springs, Miss., is a graphic designer and percussionist. Andrea's two grown daughters live in Alabama. The couple met on a blind date 11 years ago and were married soon after. Living in the quaint, seaside town of Bay St. Louis in a house they were renting and about to buy, the Bridges were content. Andrea Bridges had been working as a nail technician for a few years after she stopped dancing, but was thinking about getting back into a field that would make use of her dance experience. She had heard a lot about the Pilates method of physical conditioning a favorite of many dancers -- and was anxious to investigate it as a next step in her career. On the night of Aug. 28, 2005, Frank Bridges was playing a gig in Bay St. Louis when the news came through that the impending storm had been bumped up from a Category 3 to a frightening Category 5 hurricane. Andrea Bridges called him and told him to get home right away. Meanwhile, she went to check on Miss Wilma, their 92-year-old neighbor who had just gotten out of thehospital where she had been treated for an injured hip.
"She refused to leave," says Andrea Bridges. "We wanted to go to a safeplace inland and take her with us, but she absolutely refused to go. So wedecided we had to stay. We couldn't just leave her there all alone."
The Bridges got Miss Wilma, Misha and Pierre into the nearby one-story home of a neighbor who had also elected to stay. They holed up together to wait out the storm. Living on the Gulf Coast, they were used to fierce weather.
But Katrina -- which caused $81 billion in damages and was one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States -- was something none of them had ever experienced.
"We prepared all the hurricane supplies they tell you to get, which for some reason I had gotten together a few days before," says Andrea Bridges. "When it was time to get into a room with no windows, we all huddled into this little foyer. Before long, the water was making itself known. We started loading up the attic with supplies because we figured we'd be up there and maybe out on the roof.
"We got some Styrofoam pieces to put the puppies on. We tied a rope around all of us, because we figured if they find one of us they'll find all ofus." During all of this frantic activity, Andrea Bridges had a moment of realization. "I stopped for a moment and thought, 'This is it. This could really be the end.' But then right away," she says, "I thought, 'No, we're going to survive this.'
We just kicked into gear and we're still in gear, with as much force as a year and a half ago."
As it turned out, the water rushing into the house started receding before it became necessary to climb into the attic. The group began trying to help push the water back out. When they stepped outside the next morning and made their way to their own house, the Bridges found themselves sur ounded by15-foot walls of debris. Frank Bridges, who had driven around townphoto graphing buildings and streets before the storm hit, was stunned to find an almost completely changed landscape.
"We didn't recognize half the places we'd gone to every day," he says. "It looked like Beirut. Houses were cut in half, like doll houses, with the furniture still in them. Asphalt was crumbled up. A big metal food-warmer from a nearby restaurant had floated down and washed up right next to ou rhouse."
It was almost impossible to tell who had survived the storm and who had not.
People were dazed. Historic houses had been washed away. The Bridges' house, though standing, was ruined. A tree had fallen through the roof. There was no electricity, no water.
"It was very hot. The puppies were suffering. I stayed up all night putting batteries into my fans to blow on them and try and keep them cool. We slept on lawn chairs and were happy to have them," Andrea Bridges says.
"You'reso filthy. There was nothing, no civilization. It was such a feeling of helplessness. We were just trying to survive till the government came in to help us. And they never came."
The people who did show up to help were from church groups of many denominations.
"When the government was still sitting there twiddling their thumbs, these church groups were really helping us out," she says. Her husband managed to get a generator going, which eased things a bit.
Nobody's cell phone was getting a signal, but after a few days he noticed a girl standing on a big shard of pavement sticking up in the middle of the main street, talking on her phone.
"You could see she had gotten a signal,"he says. "So people started lining up to stand in that one spot." He got through to his brother, who lives in Red Bank, and was relieved to hear from him.
"We had been on the missing list," he says. "My nephew drove down to get us. It took him five hours to drive here from Mobile (Ala.), a trip that usually takes an hour. "He brought us water, ice and other things. So that's how we got out. We left with him."
The Bridges spent the next several months with relatives in Mississippi and Nevada as well as New Jersey. After a few weeks, Andrea Bridges was able to get to a computer. In between the endless attempts to deal with insurance agencies, which still continues, she began researching the Pilates method.
She spent many sleepless nights combing through the Web sites for training programs, trying to weed out the ones that weren't the real thing. One day, Rabara's site popped up on her screen. "I looked at this picture of Anthony and I just knew, without even reading what it said," she recalls.
"It was something about his face."
After an unsuccessful stint with a training program in California, Bridges decided to follow her instincts. She phoned Rabara and told him she wanted to train with him, and he invited her to come to his studio. For the next eight months, she shuttled between his Hiltonia home and her relatives in Red Bank, learning from Rabara and taking the "True Pilates" certification course in New York. The course normally takes two years; Bridges is trying to finish it in eight months.
"Everything happens for a reason," says Rabara, who didn't know about the Bridges' ordeal until Andrea apprenticed with him for two weeks.
"She didn't tell me about Katrina right away. I had accepted her as an apprentice because I knew right away that she was a very fast study. She seemed well grounded and she is a lovely individual.
"It was not out of any kind of pity that I took her on and asked her to stay at our house. It was because I could see that she was the type of hardworker and generous individual that fits into the ideals of our studio and allows us to maintain the Pilates tradition."
Andrea Bridges reaches for the tissue box on her ottoman as she talks about the job that Rabara has given her and the help he and Brokate gave her in finding a home. Nearly every piece of furniture in the house was given to them, by Rabara and Brokate and other new friends as well. Still sparsely furnished, it is a cheerful house, despite the ordeal its inhabitants have been through.
"I still don't sleep," says Andrea Bridges, "and the dogs have never been the same. They want both of us in the same room at the same time. But though we don't dream, though the dreams are gone, we look at today. We get excited about little things like paper goods. Just to have a roof over our heads, our own place we just sit and cry and feel the love."