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Surviving a hurricane

DUFFY HAYESsummit daily news
Summit Daily/ Adrian DiUbaldo
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SUMMIT COUNTY – It might not seem possible for a Category 5 hurricane to catch you by surprise, but that’s exactly what happened to 34-year New Orleans resident Michael Dauser.”Storms (like Katrina) came by so many times, and they’ve always turned,” he explains. But Katrina didn’t turn, and the city of New Orleans didn’t fully evacuate as hundreds of thousands found themselves in a desperate state of limbo, with no home or possessions to return to or any semblance of a life left since the massive storm struck.Sad is the story of hundreds of thousands of destroyed lives, but uplifting are their stories of recovery and the creation of new lives for themselves in communities nationwide.The story of the Dauser family is just such a tale, and it ends (at least for now) here in Summit County.Riding out the stormFor single dad Michael Dauser, his younger brother Matthew, and Matthew’s fiancee, Alison Ingram, their story begins in their hometown – New Orleans. When the devastating Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in the overnight hours one doomed September day, Michael found himself alone in his home, riding out the worst storm he’d ever seen.”I watched a 150-year-old oak tree literally bend all the way over, the top of the tree actually touching the ground, before the root snapped,” he said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”Michael’s brother Matthew was working that night as a security guard at a popular mall outside of the city. His fiancee, Alison, was at the mall as well, and recounts horrific hours spent fending off looters bent on raiding the mall for food, water, cigarettes – anything.Matthew tells harrowing tales of drawing his gun on desperate crowds. Later, the two shuddered at stories of other New Orleans malls raided by looters while entire security forces were murdered before whole buildings burnt to the ground.

So, in the days following Katrina’s impact, as the city devolved into chaos following the collapse of levees all across town, the Dausers took stock of what they had. It wasn’t much.”(Matthew and I) both had great jobs, we had plans to get married, we had an apartment together – we had a life started together and that was all blown away … literally,” Ingram said.The group high-tailed it out of town, packing a Ford Explorer with all of their earthly possessions, and hit the road – destination unknown. Dad Michael Dauser, 8-year-old son Dylan, Matthew and Alison jammed into the mid-sized SUV with nowhere to go and no money or resources to get there.Outside of Tulsa, after parting ways with the other two members of their group, their Ford broke down. After spending 10 days in Oklahoma, they scraped up some money to buy a van and headed west – again.With visions of either Utah, Oregon or Idaho as their final destination, the van stuffed with the weary travelers rolled through Summit County late one evening around the first of October. Desperate and tired, Michael ponied up for a room at the Comfort Suites in Dillon.Though it just seemed like just another stop along the way at the time, the next morning would prove fateful to the untethered travelers as Dillon started to look a lot like home to Michael. The feeling started the moment he drew the curtains in the hotel room.”We were on the top floor, and I opened the curtains and looked out the window,” Michael recounts. “And all the tops of the mountains had been powdered with snow.”For a group of folks who had never even seen snow beyond a slushy frost that covered New Orleans some years ago, the site of majestic peaks dusted with beautiful snow was moving.A trip down to the front desk followed, when they finally realized they were in a town named “Dillon.””My son (Dylan) was with me and he kind of hit me on my side,” Michael said. During that same front desk visit, he found out Vail Resorts was hiring at Keystone Resort, just down the road. Michael’s long-time experience as a restaurant manager paid off, and Vail Resorts hired him on the spot. Today, he is an assistant general manager at the Mountain House facilities in Keystone.

The cosmic tumblers seemed to be falling into place, but run-ins with open hearted locals really sealed the deal for the Dausers to stay in Summit County.At the Dillon Post Office, a concerned Frisco resident, Amy Pierce, confronted the group about their lack of warm clothing on such a cold day. Michael wore a short-sleeved shirt and sandals. “It got cold real quick,” he recounts.Pierce soon pointed them toward the Family and Intercultural Resource Center, a local nonprofit that offers assistance to families in need. At the FIRC store, Michael met Brandon Head, who offered vouchers for the group to purchase warm clothes and jackets for free.With a job in hand, and their prospects looking up, finding a permanent place to live for the makeshift family of four became top of list. After spending a number of nights at the Comfort Suites at their own expense, Michael got in touch with Jerady Zunno, the service center manager for the local Red Cross. Soon, the Red Cross was able to secure lodgings at the Holiday Inn in Frisco, where the group stayed for free for two weeks.But a hotel is not a home, and soon Michael turned his attention to finding a more permanent place to live. Enter good-hearted Friscoite Pierce, who in addition to helping young Dylan get enrolled at Frisco Elementary without all the requisite paperwork, she enlisted the help of local real estate agent Rob Mitchell with Coldwell Banker. Since then, Mitchell has been helping the Dausers to find a permanent home of their own. Those prospects, however, are quickly unraveling at the unfortunate expense of many of the good Samaritans who’ve stepped up to help Michael and his family.’… a secure place to live'”I’m not looking for handouts … I’m looking for a hand up,” Michael Dauser says.And while the Summit County community has reached out in unbelievable ways so far, Michael Dauser finds himself still in need. The family lives in a rented house in Silverthorne’s Willowbrook subdivision, but they need to be out by the end of the month.”I’m in a situation now where I’m struggling, and struggling, and I just can’t make up any ground,” Michael laments. “It seems like every time something is going to go our way, it’s like there’s a door being slammed in our face.”

It’s the federal response that continues to do the slamming, Michael claims. Since the group didn’t register at a shelter immediately following the storm, FEMA won’t finalize their claims, which would open the door to all sorts of loans and assistance.”We made a mistake by paying our own way out,” Michael says.So far, they’ve received only a single payment of $2,358, paid by FEMA for moving expenses.”All we’re looking for is a secure place to live … so that we won’t be homeless for the second time in a year,” Ingram said.”I need a permanent status. I can’t stand this limbo where I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Michael added.But fate has blew his family here to Summit County, and the fact that the community has thus far welcomed them so warmly makes him want to make the next stage of his life here in the High Country.”I’ve probably gotten a thousand hugs, man,” he said. “And honestly, there’s a lot of times when that hug comes on, and I really need it. The community here is just unbelievable, and I just love it.”Duffy Hayes can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13611, or at dhayes@summitdaily.com


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