Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hurricane Katrina

August 1995. I couldn’t take my eyes off the television screen, watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I wavered between tears for the death and devastation I was watching and anger for the lack aid for the victims. “Someone needs to do something,” I was thinking. My personal philosophy that I should do something about the things I feel strongly about has led me to some of the best and worst experiences of my life. So, I called the Red Cross and volunteered. And it did lead  to one of the  best and a worst experiences of my life.  Many other Oregonians felt the same way. An expedited fast track training program was quickly organized to certify volunteers in Disaster Resources. I took an intense crash course in Red Cross procedures and policies in accordance with my chosen track, family services, which is direct client casework. I chose this route because of my experience working with people in crisis. According to  a letter I received from the Red Cross, this disaster was “the largest series of disasters the Red Cross has faced in its 124 year history.” The training I took part in was the first local mass training ever. (Local Red Cross organizations provide volunteers to the American Red Cross for large scale disasters.) The Oregon Trail Chapter of the Red Cross deployed 300 people for Hurricane Katrina relief. After we completed the training and passed the necessary requirements we were told to go home, pack one small carry-on bag, and wait to be deployed. A phone call two days later, informed me I would leave the next day, destination unknown. I called the phone number I was given ,  told the anonymous unidentified voice the case number; the voice said I would be leaving the next day, destination unknown. The ticket was quickly delivered by a messenger. I was in the midst of a big annual parking lot sale with several friends when the call came. I also had a job. But I was on the plane the next day. The entire process seemed like something out of a spy movie. The destination of the plane was Reagan Airport, Washington D.C.  The instructions were to call another 800 number when I landed. Again an anonymous voice told me to get on a particular airport shuttle-the driver would know where to take me. I was taken to at a motel outside of the city, where I was given a room and another message; be in the lobby at 8:00 am. Seven others were in the lobby the next morning. Two of them were from Portland; I remembered one from my training class. We introduced ourselves, and tried to figure out what was going on. We thought we were going to Louisiana. A van picked us up and delivered us to a large multi-floor building. FEMA is the agency in charge of disaster relief. The American Red Cross operates under a charter with the Federal Government to disperse aid in emergency situations and coordinate with FEMA and other organizations. Due to the devastation in the affected areas and the lack of leadership local and federal governments no one was allowed into the disaster zone so alternate procedures were put into place. Two floors of this building were equipped as call centers, and we were to man the phones! After a day of training, my group was told we would be working the overnight shift. Groan. I’d never been able to work nights.  As it turned out, staying awake wasn’t the problem, sleeping was. Thankfully the others from our “group” had the same shift. We were dropped at the motel after our day of training; we would be picked up the next night to start work. We decided to explore the city while we had a little free time. That set the tone for most of our tour. Work all night, go to the motel for a little sleep, meet in the motel lobby and explore until the evening when we were picked up for our shift. There wasn’t a lot of sleep those three weeks. Listening to the stories from those polite, kind and, appreciative people was difficult, and being so angry and upset that we couldn’t help them made sleep virtually impossible. We operated on sheer adrenaline (and caffeine). That first night we made our way, by taxi and metro, to the area around the White House. Part of Cindy Sheehan’s “Bring Them Home Now Tour” culminated in a big anti-war protest around the White House, and some of our group wanted to participate. By the time we arrived at the white house the protesters were cordoned off from the public and no one was allowed in. It’s just as well I guess, Cindy and many of her supporters were arrested, and the Red Cross was adamant about keeping our politics to ourselves while we were representing them, a policy that became harder and harder as time went on. It was difficult to stay mum when the desperate person on the phone wanted to know why they weren’t getting help. Very difficult. We wandered the streets of the city, something we did quite a bit of in the coming days, and ended up at John Harvard’s Pub on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. After a wonderful dinner and  a couple drinks, we strolled around the mall and visited  the Lincoln Memorial; all lovely at night. We were all nervous going to the center that night, not knowing what to expect. Maybe if we had known what we were getting into we wouldn’t have gone. Each shift began with a briefing where any new services, government programs, deleted services etc., were announced. Then you grab a headset and go to your cubicle, equipped with a desk, phone and computer, plug in your headset and immediately answer a call. The phone system tells you how many calls are waiting; it’s always in the hundreds with the wait time in hours, and that’s after hours of dialing and getting a busy signal. The Red Cross had two toll free national numbers for Katrina-one  for emergency financial assistance only. The other, the one we were manning was for everything else. Many of our calls were from people who had been trying for days to get through to the other number. One very sweet elderly lady called in and asked for help, she had been trying to get through to the assistance line for days, never got anything but a busy signal. ‘Please, can we do anything to help her?”  Officially there was nothing. “I’m sorry ma’am, you just have to keep calling over and over until you get through, just keep hitting redial.” That sweet old lady replied in her southern drawl “well honey, I have a rotary phone.” She had been sitting by the phone, all alone, dialing a phone number hundreds of times, hour after hour, day after day, in a house damaged by a hurricane. In one respect she was lucky, many of the people with cell phones had their batteries go dead while calling and no way to charge them. Over the course of the next three weeks we all learned many of the realities of this disaster. There were TV’s mounted where everyone could see them, CNN was on 24/7. We saw the Presidents and the FEMA director giving news conferences, telling people that services were being provided, at the same time the thousands of people on the phones were begging for help, telling us there was no services. Calls from Tangipahoa, St. Charles, Plaquemines Parish, Metairie, Beaumont, Texas, Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish, Houston. My house is gone; I don’t know where to go. I can’t find my mother, husband, my daughter. We’re out of gas-I can’t get out of town. Why doesn’t anyone help us? Why isn’t anyone here? That’s what we heard, over and over. What could we do for those thousands of people who desperately needed help? Not much. Our hands were tied in so many ways. Just tell them to keep calling if they needed the financial assistance. We had lists of organizations in their area, if any. We could direct them to the nearest local Red Cross shelters, Red Cross aid stations and FEMA stations if there were any in their area. We learned what questions to ask to get assistance for those most in need. If a family member had medical issues, we could call in a medical person and take steps to get them help. You always ask how many people in the family, where they were when the Hurricane hit, where they are now, what kind of damage to their home. But truthfully we just couldn’t do much for anyone. Just listen to their stories; it was heartbreaking. I couldn’t even reassure them that help was on the way, because it wasn’t and we didn’t know why. So we did the best we could with the few tools we had to work with. WE knew there were tons of provisions waiting on rails and beside the road outside the areas but for some reason it wasn’t allowed in. People were waiting for help too, but they weren’t allowed in either-including the Red Cross. Many of the calls were from people separated from their families. One young man called from Houston; he had been in the Astrodome, and was now staying in a single motel room with his baby and several other people. He had left the Astrodome; it wasn’t a good place to have an infant. Fortunately I was able tell him how to get formula and diapers for the baby. His main concern was his family. He was at the New Orleans Superdome with his girlfriend, their baby, and her young son; I always wondered if I saw them in the television coverage. He was holding the infant when the first buses came to evacuate people there. The elderly, disabled, and infants got priority so the  young man was pushed onto the bus with the baby, separated from the girlfriend and other child, and brought to Houston. He had no idea where his family was but fairly certain they were not in not in Houston. I gave him yet another phone number, this one a line compiling a list of missing people, trying to connect the families. His voice was so weary. He sounded like he was ready to give up. I talked to him as long as I could, and tried to give encouragement. I’ve always wondered if he found his family. I hope they were OK. Some of the most distressing calls were from people who were asleep. You knew these people spent days on the phone trying to reach help, after days of getting busy signals, they finally got through and were put in line; that took more hours on hold to reach a person. We did everything we could to wake them: yell; make noises, whistle, but generally to no avail. There were so many calls waiting we had to disconnect. As it turned out we had no trouble staying awake all night. Quite the opposite was true, it was hard to sleep, after all the horror stories we heard. I’m on the side road with my children, the traffic is at a standstill and we’re out of gas. I have no food for my children. What can I do? I give them another number to call. I spoke to one man, whose home was in an isolated area on a bayou. His house was destroyed so he was living in a makeshift tent made from tarps. He was a hunter who planned to hunt for food, but his guns were stolen. On the way home from a trip to town the National Guard stopped him and confiscated his truck. The district was under martial law and it was past curfew.  He couldn’t charge his cell phone without his truck. He told me with yearning in his voice, what he wanted most was a bath. He could have his bath and a place to sleep, I told him but he had to find it himself. If he could find a motel with a vacancy he could have a room. He still had a bicycle at home. So his plan was to set out on his bicycle looking for a place to stay. I doubt he found one before curfew that night. I have no idea how far he might have to go. Trouble was, we told many of the thousands of people who called they could have a motel room but they were difficult to find.  Did I mention his fiancĂ© had been killed recently in a car wreck? He was heartbroken, he was devastated about all this-you could hear it in his voice, but through it all he was as sweet and charming southern man. I hope he’s OK. He was such a sweet talker. There were so many heartbreaking stories. One call concerned a street person who had been evacuated to Houston from New Orleans and was at the Astrodome. His mother, who  gave birth to him while living on the streets in New Orleans,  had died at the Superdome, I believe. His birth never registered, he never went to school, he had no education and no social skills. He was alone and unable to function at the Houston Astrodome, where he was picked on and abused; he had no idea how to cope. But, according to the bureaucracy he was a non person, he had no identity and so he wasn’t eligible for any assistance. No one knew what to do with him. And after all that there was Rita. On September 22, Hurricane Rita struck, causing 11 billion dollars damages to an already ravished gulf coast. The mistakes made during Katrina were repeated during Rita. Federal orders necessary to set the aid process in motion were not given, or given much too late. On September 27 there was no official assistance in place for Rita victims. No hot line number, no FEMA aid, and no emergency assistance dollars available. Did someone forget to sign the orders? Every day when we came to the briefing the first question was “is it declared yet?” When people affected by Rita called in we could not help them. No wonder people hate the Red Cross, I would too. Finally on September 28 the declaration was made and Rita victims could call the assistance line and get help. Then FEMA began the process of minimizing zip codes. On Monday your neighbor got in touch with emergency resources and was eligible for emergency assistance, a motel room, $2000 in FEMA aid, etc. On Tuesday, you got through and even though your house was in worse shape than his, you were no longer eligible for emergency assistance; your zip code had been eliminated from the disaster list. If extensive damages and losses were reported we could “create a case” - a computer report forwarded to someone who someday would contact you to see if you indeed deserved assistance. Of course you needed a phone and an address first. Then there were the many people who left the New Orleans area after Katrina and settled in the path of Rita. Maybe they had a place to stay, a mattress to sleep on and a few donated clothes. Then those were gone too. If they had they received any aid from Katrina relief they could not get more. Imagine the despair of those people. On September 29 we were told we could  no longer refer people to local Red Cross agencies; they were overwhelmed and could no longer provide any assistance to hurricane victims. Many calls were coming in about people in their homes, or returning to their homes and mold was everywhere. There were some instances, when people were very ill, or had small children who were affected who were told to get out immediately; again-where could they go. On September 28, informed at our briefing that day that mold was now consider a health issue and we could “create a case” for people living with mold-they were instructed to wipe everything down with bleach. If they could find a FEMA or Red Cross aid station there was some bleach available. There was some good news: Wal-Mart would provide free medication to people in need. They just had to take their medicine container to the nearest pharmacy and it would be refilled. It was just a few days before the initial 11 million dollars was used up. For people who had lost their glasses Lens Crafter offered free replacements to Hurricane victims. Although you heard on the news about people illegally getting emergency money, that was not common, but occasionally there was a call from someone abusing the process. There was a student at Tulane whose apartment had been damaged, but not destroyed. When I talked to him he was upset because he was having problems with his reservation at the Hilton. He felt the Red Cross should pay for his room-he had already used up his emergency assistance Red Cross money and his $2000 from Fema, and his emergency food stamps in two weeks. His apartment wasn’t ready to move back into. What was he supposed to do, sleep in his car? In a breach of Red Cross conduct I said “why not, I just talked to a mother with four kids at the side of the road living in a car with no gas. And I have 97 people waiting in line to talk to me who need help.” And I hung up! By Saturday, October 1, we had answered 518, 627 Katrina calls at this call center. On October 5th the order came to create no more WI cases (welfare information). The authorities would no longer look for missing people. Anyone not found by now was considered a fatality. After our shift was over at 8 am we went to our rooms for a few hours of sleep and generally some of us met in the lobby about noon. Several of us became good friends we were drawn together by our shared beliefs and our shared experiences, and tried to deal with all the emotion s we had. There was incessant talk about failures of government and agencies, the plight of the people we talked to.  Some of us coped by keeping as busy as possible exploring the neighborhoods of of the capital. There was no one there who wasn’t even angrier now than we were before. So we would go into D.C.  and wander the city. We became quite familiar with the metro, a great transportation system. . We visited many Smithsonian museums, had a hilarious group picture taken at the Air and Space museum, but mostly just wandered the city. DuPont Circle became a favorite destination for dinner along with John Harvard’s. It was a good experience because of the bonds formed by the people I worked with. I met some wonderful, caring people and I will never forget them. It was the worst because I listened to all those people, saw them on the news and I couldn’t really help them. It was the best because through it all the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast were amazing. Waiting day after day, weeks, for help that didn’t arrive. On the telephone 24/7 trying to get assistance. Calling for any help we could get to them and all we did, it seems, was give out more phone numbers. Surprisingly there were very few angry or belligerent callers. They were generally appreciative of anything we could do, even just listen to them. They were very appreciative that we were nice to them! Having someone to talk to, having someone listen to their story seemed to help. You just can’t imagine, unless you know these people, how great they are. So many times, at the end of a call, whether I gave assistance or not, I would hear “Well thank you Miss Judi, You people are wonderful, God bless you.” It’s Thanksgiving and I am happy that the people affected by Hurricane Sandy are getting some aid. I hope that all the Gulf Coast people I talked to found their family members, have a safe place to live, are having a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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