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Fall 2005 • Volume 11, Issue 4

Katrina Disaster Relief Diary

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Cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis,
Pumped a lot of pain down in New Orleans,
But I never saw the good side of the city,
'Til I hitched a ride on a river boat queen.

If you come down to the river,
Bet you gonna find some people who live.
You don't have to worry 'cause you have no money,
People on the river are happy to give.

Big wheel keep on turnin',
Proud Mary keep on burnin',
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river.
--Proud Mary

Written by John Fogerty, Originally performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

 

September 9, 2005: New Orleans International Airport

Today is going to be both easy and hard again, but in a different sort of way. My partner advised me this morning that when she departed the airport at 1:30 a.m., she left behind a very unhappy group of at least a couple hundred Katrina survivors. The planes had not come in as expected, and they had to spend the night at the airport. It was sweltering outside, but cold in the air-conditioned airport, and they had few clothes and blankets, and they were hungry. There were a lot of "heater meals," and they were actually pretty tasty, but someone had taken one on an earlier plane and it had caught fire and the air marshals were no longer allowing us to distribute them in Concourse C. I've been going on 5 hours sleep a day for 7 days, and today is my one day off in this disaster. The easy part is that we’re going to try to help insure that survivors have blankets and clothes and hot food tonight. It's easy because we'll make it happen and we'll feel good about it. The hard part is that I find myself standing at a computer in the Baton Rouge Library writing this down because I need to do this to sort out the cosmic soup of emotions in which I find myself swimming.

After the briefing, I noticed Joe again. I'd met him on Monday, four days ago, when he co-led a convoy of three vehicles to the naval airbase in New Orleans. It was one week after Katrina hit, and there were reports of sniper killings, police suicides, rapes, looting, and general chaos in New Orleans. We needed to get supplies to the base, which was a potential staging area for survivors being rescued from the city. He was a tough old ex-marine, crusty and gritty and determined to get the job done. And we did. And then he went on to another assignment, and I was deployed to the New Orleans International Airport to lead a team of mental health and spiritual care volunteers to assist Katrina survivors. When I woke up this morning at the volunteer staff shelter, I discovered Joe was in the cot next to me. He told me he'd been in one of the worst hit areas of the city the day before. A New Orleans policeman had come up to him with a vacant, expressionless face, and said, "My family, my house, and everything I own are gone, and here I am--I don't know what to do." Joe responded that even though the cop lost everything, he was still working, and asked him how he did it. "I just take one day at a time, and I try not to think." Crusty, gritty old Joe looked into my eyes and said, "You know, I turned away, and I looked up at the sky, and I started crying."

For five days now, we have been working together with airport staff, FEMA, the 82nd Airborne brigade, the National Guard, and others to take care of approximately 1,000 survivors a day who are being plucked off rooftops and out of attics, or are required to leave their homes, some against their will, as part of what must certainly be the biggest natural disaster evacuation in U.S. history. The survivors are helicoptered or trucked to the Convention Center and bussed or helicoptered to the airport. They come in groups of various sizes, 20 here, 40 there, sometimes more. Sometimes they walk in. Yesterday, an 18-year-old high school senior rode her bike in because she'd heard she could get a bus to Baton Rouge, where her family was, and then fell apart when she learned there were no more busses headed out. They come with only the clothes they are wearing, or with whatever possessions they could stuff into a garbage sack. And they come with their pets. Dogs and cats and dogs and parrots and dogs and snakes and dogs and hamsters and dogs. There's a veterinarian over at the makeshift hospital working around the corner from the medics. The survivors are angry and they are grateful and they are scared and they are appreciative and they beg to be told where they will go next. Are they going to prison? Have they done something wrong? Why all the military and guns? Has the U.S. been attacked? They've had no news for 10 days. They knew some people had died, but they had no idea how bad it was until they were up in the helicopter and looked down at all the floating bodies.

And we have the job of giving them food and water and hope and comfort at the same time we tell them we don't know where they will be going. Because we don't.

And we watch in amazement as they respond with grace and understanding when we explain to them that they will have to get on an airplane that could be bound anywhere in the U.S., possibly thousands of miles away, when their family may only be a couple hundred miles away, because we're trying to evacuate a city of a half million people and we have neither the time nor other resources to run a travel agency. And they have to leave New Orleans even though they don't want to because even if they have food and water, they may die of disease if they don't get out. So getting out to anywhere is a good thing, and that is our job--to get them out and help them keep their dignity and self-respect. And the only people who know where they're going is the flight crew, because if we knew and told them, for example, that they were going to Boston, then how many would say no, they wanted to go to Little Rock or Houston or Dallas, and we don't have the resources to do it. And so whether we agree with the strategy or not, they won't be told until they get on the plane and it is in the air. And we understand that even if their home withstood the hurricane, it could be looted and trashed while they are gone. And we wonder if we could accept that reality if it was us instead of them that had just lost everything and now were being told to get on a plane to who knows where.

So we walk the lines of people, both seated and standing, in Concourse C at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. At first we ask them if they're OK, how are they doing? Before long, we don't need to walk at all. We can just stand and smile, and the survivors come up to us. "What will happen at the other end of the flight--can you at least tell us that?" Yes, you'll be met by more people like us to help you with food and a bed and assistance in finding loved ones and an eventual home for however long it takes. "I'm diabetic and have asthma and a heart condition and I feel weak--what should I do?" Sit down in this wheelchair and we'll get you over to a medic. "I'm cold and so is my baby." OK, I'll go look for blankets, and I'll be back as soon as I can. "My boyfriend has been drinking since the hurricane, and I think he's going into DT's." "My girlfriend is on methadone, and just ran out yesterday." "I was on the psychiatric unit at the hospital because I tried to kill myself, and they released me today." OK, hold that wheelchair; let's make a caravan to the medics. "Can you find me a new garbage bag--this one has a hole in it and I keep losing things." You bet--we have a stash right over here. "I want to call my mom but don't have any money--what can I do?" Here's a phone card--but understand many phones don't work, the lines are often busy, or the circuits may be busy. Keep trying. "Is there any way I can get a clean tee-shirt--I've been wearing this one since the hurricane hit." I'll look for them and be back as soon as I can.

And they want to tell their story. And the stories are incredible. When the water rose to the rooftops in 20 minutes in Saint Bernard's Parish, residents who got out swam from roof to roof rescuing others. The stories were about acts of heroism, not looting and crime and civil disobedience. Survivors found boats, food, and water, and when outside help was not forthcoming, they helped each other survive. They got barbecue grills and cooked on the roofs. They shared their supplies. They listened to each other’s stories.

And now, we are listening to their stories.

Dusty and Mary

The two women clearly looked out of place as they stood in front of the Restrooms sign around the corner from the security checkpoint outside Concourse C. Somehow they had managed to get out of the security line, and they were each standing behind a wheelchair filled with plastic bags containing the only possessions they could carry out of the city. Their expressions suggested shell shock, as they stared straight ahead and didn't say anything, didn't even move. I walked up to them and asked if they were OK. At the same time, the sandy-haired woman in front, with camo pants and an army-type hat, snarled at me "We are just fine, thank you," while the brunette behind her changed expression to hold back her tears. The first abruptly walked towards the restroom, and the second burst into tears. "I am so scared."

She looked to be about 40, and was dressed in shorts, a short-sleeved blouse and a short-brimmed black leather cowgirl hat. She went on to tell me they had been staying in the French Quarter with a group of other locals since the hurricane. The soldiers came today, and the men, who had also been drinking for the last 10 days, refused to evacuate. The women decided to leave. They took what they could carry, and here they were.

The sandy-haired woman came back. She had several cuts on her face. I asked her what happened to her eye. She hesitated, and then said, "A tree hit me." I don't know what she read in my subsequent expression, but I caught a trace of something that said to me she was trying to keep from laughing. I said the first thing that came to mind: "You can't say that with a straight face, can you?" And I smiled. She laughed out loud, and the snarl was gone. I asked her if she needed medical attention, if she wanted to see a doctor or talk to a nurse. No way. Well, how about taking this comfort kit--it has a washcloth and you can wash those cuts, and we can get you some band-aids with antibiotic ointment. "You're telling me I need to clean up, aren't you!" I just smiled. She took the sack and disappeared into the restroom again. The brunette talked some more. She was a waitress at a restaurant in the city. She had family in Texas. I'll call her Dusty. Then the second woman came back. The shell-shocked look was disappearing. Let's call her Mary--she reminded me of the song Proud Mary. She had run away from home and come to New Orleans when she was 15. She didn't talk much about what happened next, but did say she had raised a family. Then she said, "And last year, 30 years later, I came back to New Orleans again." She talked about living on the streets and being involved with a group of homeless people in trying to eradicate homelessness in New Orleans. She had some sort of contact with the Mayor's office, and Catholic Charities came to her a few days before the hurricane and asked her to be involved in setting up a homeless shelter. She gave a faint smile as she said, "I think our job is a lot bigger now than it was two weeks ago!" We both laughed.

She continued to talk about her passion and compassion for homeless people, especially women. She said some people seemed to be starting to understand that homeless people know more about eradicating homelessness than all the politicians and professionals put together. But then she sadly said it seemed like it was all for nothing, now that the hurricane had virtually destroyed the city. I told her about our experience in Illinois with hiring people with mental illness to help people with chronic mental health problems, and how successful it was. I told her--honestly--that she had a gift as a spokesperson for the homeless, and she should not waste it--she should keep doing it, wherever she ended up. She beamed.

She had family in Baton Rouge, and at the time we thought we might be able to get a bus to go there. By this time, they had passed the security checkpoint and were waiting to be assigned to a plane. I told her we could pull them out of the line and check further into the possibility of a bus to Baton Rouge. Dusty tightened up visibly. "Mary, you know I'm scared of flying alone." The soldiers came, and asked if they wanted to continue or get out of line. Mary said, "We'll stay and get on the plane." We got up and walked towards the gate where a plane would eventually take them to an unknown destination. Mary whispered in my ear, "You know why I did that, don't you?" Yes, because you love her. "You got it."

Before I left for the evening, I introduced the two of them to my partner, Kathy, who was staying for a second shift. This morning, when she was briefing me on the events of the previous evening, she said "Do you want to know what happened with Dusty and Mary?" You bet.

The plane came, and Dusty was in line ahead of Mary. After she boarded, the soldier came back and said the plane was full. Mary was next in line, but they would not let her on. Dusty had gotten on because she assumed Mary was behind her. Mary was distraught for a short time, and then said to Kathy, "If I'm going to be able to deal with this, I have to quit thinking about us and start helping others." No more planes came that night. Mary spent the night helping other Katrina survivors wait until morning, cold and hungry, waiting for a plane to an unknown destination.

“I Just Kept Calling Jesus, Sir.”

She was a big woman, probably in her 50's, and she had parked herself in a wheelchair in front of the welcome station we set up to provide snacks and drinks to the survivors when they first entered the airport. I'd gotten a call from one of the volunteers, saying that she was refusing to move. I carried a chair over and sat down beside her, and asked her how she was doing.

"I ain't getting on no airplane, sir. I ain't ever been on one, and I ain't getting on one. I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. I can't do it, it's just too scary."

So we just talked. I don't remember the details of her story. But eventually, she got to the part where she'd been rescued by helicopter.

By helicopter? By helicopter!

Excuse me, ma'am, but you just flew in here in an army helicopter, and you're telling me you can't handle a ride in an airplane? Did you get sick to your stomach on the helicopter?

"No, sir."

How did you make it here?

"I came in a helicopter, sir."

No, I mean, as you flew in the helicopter, what did you say to yourself that calmed and reassured you and allowed you to get here safely and without throwing up?

"I just kept calling Jesus, sir. I called him and I called him."

Did he answer?

"Yes, sir."

What did he say?

"He said everything would be OK."

Ma'am, this airplane is going to be a piece of cake. Most everybody that rides in a helicopter says it feels a whole lot safer in an airplane. You've already done the hard part of the flight.

She began to softly cry, but the expression on her face was no longer one of fear. It was changing to relief. I seized the moment. Do you think you could call on Jesus now, while we walk down this concourse, and call some more when you get on the plane? Jesus helped you with the hard part of the flight this morning, and he'll be there to help you with the easy part this afternoon.

"Yes sir, I do believe I can do that, sir. I do believe I can do that."

The last time I saw her, she was getting on the plane. She was smiling. I'm sure she was also praying.

 

 

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