No Katrina RELIEF Effort
I’ve Been There
An American’s Plea To
[These are some snippets from my input into a log, write-ups from the Katrina volunteers of the American Red Cross (ARC). The Red Cross is providing temporary shelter, food, and water, some minor financial assistance, and small amounts of bulk goods to the survivors of Katrina & Rita in northeastern Louisiana and southeastern Mississippi. I participated in the first financial assistance and bulk goods operation 10-miles north of Louisiana, 90-miles north of New Orleans. That site, which became one of several that were set up subsequently, closed a few days ago. That’s all that’s been done since Katrina obliterated and Rita spiced the horrific nightmare that tens of thousands of people who are roaming around that region, searching for help. More people have electricity than a week ago, but people are crammed into damaged homes in sweltering heat, receiving no medical help, no ongoing food or water supplies, no information other than what they here from the volunteers or on the radio, and literally thousands and thousands of people are living in their cars. Katrina hit on August 29th. That was five weeks ago.]
[From the Montgomery, Alabama experience] Red Cross Katrina headquarters in 97-degrees and 89 percent humidity today in the revered home of Dr. King’s old church and Ms. Rosa Parks. Red Cross was downsized a month before Katrina hit, so they seem undermanned to the extreme. Found out that the American Red Cross (ARC) mission is very narrow, actually: Shelter, food, water, small amounts of financial assistance and bulk goods. Some full-time employees and veteran disaster team volunteers populate ARC. I guess it could be viewed as a form of organized chaos. However, without exception, it’s the most disorganized, poorly managed work operations I’ve ever seen. To a person, every volunteer I talked with agreed.
Few highlights: Hundreds of United Rental Trucks sat in the parking lot, unused. Tons of donated supplies were piled 20-feet high in an area the size of an acre. With nurses, doctors, psychologists, therapists, EMTs, rescue specialists, architects, contractors, former military, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, advocates, college students, retirees from an array of career fields, executives, managers, white and blue collar workers, the Katrina volunteer force in Montgomery was formidable. However, there was no assessment of those resources and how they could be utilized. Instead, the relatively small, silo-disconnected, greathearted, fragmented ARC workers feverishly fumbled and fawned at trickling-out what’s needed within ARC policy and procedure. I spent two full days just waiting.
This is the American Red Cross. The mantra goes like this, “we’ve never encountered a disaster of this magnitude and so we are developing our system as we go.” That sounds pretty good. However, ARC has been around for 125 years, through Galveston, Camille, Ivan, Andrew, St. Helens, San Francisco, and internationally via WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Bosnia, Iraq. You mean to tell me that ARC doesn’t have a scalable disaster plan?
From what I’ve heard here, neither does FEMA, the military, or local, state, or our national systems. There are fantastic, dedicated, incredible people in these organizations. Nonetheless, people have and will die because of this failure, and thousands are suffering beyond all of our comprehension in unimaginable isolation as a result of it.
Pre-Deployment: The ARC Disaster Mental Health (DMH) coordinator asked me to stay after the Katrina mental health volunteer group introduced themselves, along with their professional summaries. She sat with me and asked more questions, then she told me about Tylertown. ARC was going to set-up their first financial assistance/bulk good operation in Tylertown, Mississippi, in the poorest region of the United States. There were some “incidents” in Tylertown and the situation was volatile. Reportedly, some prison-holding cells were emptied by way of the New Orleans’ flooding and dozens of convicts were roaming the area. The National Guard arrived recently, a curfew was in effect, and ARC determined that the situation could tolerate this set-up. As the day wore on, after talking with some 30-mental health volunteers, 9 agreed to sign up, to be deployed with the rest of ARC operations going to Tylertown, Mississippi.
[Tylertown, Mississippi] Cars lined-up each day for miles in both directions on the highway that led to the “arena” (a rodeo-like facility with bleachers and a large, metal roof). Temperatures soared into the upper 90’s with similar degrees of humidity, making the heat index around 110+ degrees. The hurricane victims have at best been living with anyone who’d take them in. Homes were packed with people, without electricity and until two weeks ago, without water. Thousands of victims lived in their cars. People had been searching for services, other than just food and water, traveling from county-to-county, wandering over northeastern Louisiana and southeastern Mississippi. ARC has an 800 number; however, in essence it doesn’t work. There’s TV, but no one could watch it without electricity.
The few ARC workers who managed the operations were great people, although stretched-out so thinly that, beyond basic parameters, the volunteers had to figure-out how to make the thing work. We formulated a plan that would organize the 500 to 700 victims allowed in each day, how to bring folks in, where to seat them on the bleachers, a method of reasonably moving folks through the ARC paperwork in order to get what assistance and good they could.
I became the primary crowd point-person, and Brian coordinated moving victims through the first element of ARC paperwork, in order to get folks inside the air-conditioned center as quickly and orderly as possible. We had a plan.
The heat and insects were overwhelming. We had shade, but it was sweltering anyway, with still, hazy air over the dirt horses and prize bulls are usually shown on. Love bugs, disgusting creatures with a foul odor mingled constantly with the victims and volunteers. Then there was the result of not having utilities or running water on people’s hygiene and the diseases that come along on that ride. We were also in a main root of white-to-black racism, the foundry of the South’s crucible for black people, the heartland of the Jim Crow laws. There were also great local people, black and white, who worked together outside the box, rippling the status quo in Tylertown. The Southern Baptist volunteers were there before the Red Cross and they were great. Nonetheless, the racism was as palpable as the heat in Tylertown.
I planned to conduct crowd “behavior management,” joining, reframing, explaining, providing needed information, problem-solving, encouraging, caring about, working around barriers, diffusing the potential for violence, and somehow, someway reconnecting with people without any. My role in our plan, connection, would prove pivotal at this point within this sociological context. After so many weeks of abject suffering, some brutalization, rampant rejection and isolation, and no response to horrible, horrible circumstances, the potential for something going wrong was very high and we had to try everything we could think of to prevent it from happening. I managed and embraced the crowd and the victims saved the ARC operations and me. I had four days of varying degrees of dehydration, one resulting in a time-out on the MD/RN cot. I also caught a sore throat, my voice was ravaged, I lost 10-pounds, and fatigue, stress, and physical elements were difficult. I used “Dr. Phil” as a known metaphor. I’d walk from section to section of the bleachers and say:
“Ladies, gentlemen. Good morning. I’m Dr. Bob. I’m from Los Angeles, California and I’m a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Everyone you see here is a volunteer. There are also a few folks who work for the Red Cross. Our American Red Cross manager is from the International Red Cross. He’s been all over the world and seen the worst of the worst. He’s a good guy, as are the other Red Cross folks here. Our volunteers have come from Canada, Ohio, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Florida, Washington, Oregon, and the Carolinas. Most of us were not Red Cross volunteers before Hurricane Katrina. But we signed up after this monster took your homes, your lives, your dreams, and released things beyond your greatest fears. We just want to help. From all of us, I want you to know that no matter what the Red Cross does or does not do, or FEMA, or that 800 number, or the government, or anyone else, I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT PEOPLE, REAL PEOPLE ACROSS THIS COUNTRY AND THE WORLD CARE ABOUT YOU, ARE VERY WORRIED, AND WE WANT TO HELP. YOU’VE HAD NOTHING UP TO NOW, WE KNOW THAT. BUT TODAY, WITH YOUR HELP, TODAY WE WILL GET SOMETHING DONE!!!”
I’d then describe what was going to happen, how long it would take, how we’d do it, what information they needed, giving updates, etc. I’d then walk up and down the bleachers in between various “Dr. Bob” announcements or instruction, answering questions, hearing suggestions, diffusing a phenomenon of tension, and giving psychological first aid.
Throughout the day, the volunteers, including myself, would sit with victims outside, take down their information, then get folks inside to receive financial assistance cards, and then back outside for bulk goods. Everyone worked on everything, and worked as hard as people can. We worked with the local police, sheriff, National Guard, and had great support from out-of-area police form Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Every evening we spent time trying to figure out how to do it better. Other than a few “incidents,” a couple near riots, some hidden weapons, problems with how the local sheriff and police handed out tickets and sent people away, it worked. In fact, five other ARC assistance sites, set up over the time we were there (e.g., McComb, Centerville, Beckman), modeled operations after our system. The Red Cross did its job.
The people who’ve been victimized by this natural, human, and inhumane disaster are the most remarkable humans I have ever encountered. The pain, loss, despair, suffering, anguish, and agony they have, are unlike anything any of us can comprehend. Thousands and thousands of people came from New Orleans. Their stories create pain in the listener; they are incredibly powerful.
A woman, who miscarried during the flooding, yet had her baby still inside her, walked for miles from one hospital to another, and no one treated her. A third hospital brought her in, got her baby out of her, and sent her on her way. She was told, “you can always have another baby.” A police officer and two assistants came up, taking a two-day break from New Orleans. Houses are marked with a red circle and a line through it, like a “no smoking” sign, to indicate that no one remains inside. An inverted triangle means there is a corpse for removal. The officer said there are not 10,000 dead, but there are probably hundreds. Rescue workers and officers tied or chained corpses to streetlight posts, signs, rails, tracks, and fences. One of the assistants said that they keep finding people in their homes. One fellow was holed up in the attic of a home marked as clear. He’d been there with minimal rations for three weeks. There are hundreds of folks still trapped in their homes. The relief and police services are undermanned. I asked how they could possibly handle so much death. The officer said one grows sort of numb to it, like how an MD might become. He said that if I dropped over in front of him, he’d check to see if I was alive and if I wasn’t, he’d just step over me and go on. Later, the assistant said that she cannot get to numb, that she’s been crying for hours in between trying to function, with each corpse is found. A man clung to his wife as they tried to get to their car when the water poured in from Lake Pontchartrain, but their hands were pulled apart suddenly and she was gone. So was his house, his pictures, all of his records, books, clothes, and he doesn’t know where the rest of his family wound up, if they made it.
[Sept 25th, Greenville, Mississippi] I went from Tylertown to Greenville Mississippi yesterday after completing a shortened ARC services day, due to the arrival of hurricane Rita. She hit landfall on Friday night. That was something in Tylertown, with wind, rain, air pressure, and a moving, counterclockwise eerie mass of Rita over us. Today, Rita’s tropical eye was about 50-miles away from Jackson, Mississippi when a former colleague and ongoing friend of mine met the ARC courier who driving me up from Tylertown. The rain and wind became so furious that we couldn’t see more that 20-feet beyond the vehicle. We finally had to stop on the highway. My friend has an 8,000-pound Hummer H2, and at times we would hydroplane sideways, even at 5 to 10 mph. Hurricanes carry tornadoes along as they travel about on land and Rita was no exception. There were several of them around us.
I came to Greenville, because my friend has taken matters into his own hands. In 1999, the VA completed the construction of an assisted living building in Greenville, Mississippi, and then abandoned it due to financial redirection. My friend works for a company that wants to make it available to take-in forensic psych patients, diminishing pressure on overloaded state hospital systems. My friend is now finalizing negotiations with FEMA to dedicate half of the 225,000 square foot facility to house survivors of Katrina, and do something far greater. The goal will be to integrate these folks into the community of Greenville (or wherever they choose), so they do not return to the abject poverty lived in before Katrina. I design and manage large operations and programs, and my friend wanted to talk with me about the project, lessons learned from Tylertown, and brainstorm it all into a plan for community, vocational training, medical, mental health, church and educational support for the survivors of Katrina who come to Greenville for relief. Yes, real relief. It’s about time someone stepped up to do it.
He’s a staunch Republican and I’m a Democrat. We vehemently disagree on many things, but we are the closest of friends and on what counts, we’re on the same page entirely.
[Los Angeles, California, back home in late September] Yesterday my armor came off and I spent a lot of time crying. I also began to feel the fatigue. I’m so grateful for what I have, and I love being home again with my beloved wife and sweet kids. I’m so tired, and still going in and out of a tiny bit of post-dehydration wooziness. Already had a call from someone in Tylertown. I guess a victim/survivor had a gun that fell through the bleachers. Never sit in the bleachers with a gun and a hole in the pocket you’re carrying it in, I’ve always said. My experience in Montgomery and Tylertown has opened another door in my life. I intend to go through it.
[October 7] Talked with an EMT, Dan, who’s continued to work in Tylertown until the Red Cross closed operations a few days ago. Scene remains the same, although more people have electricity. Standing homes are packed with people in sweltering heat, with health problems untreated, many folks living in their cars. Miles of cars wait each morning for Red Cross assistance, yet there remains no relief, no real help, and no one else is stepping-up.
The most incredible, unbelievable and poignant part of this journey was the hope and faith of these amazing people. Almost to a person, over and over and over again, I heard about their faith in God and their preservation of hope. The unwavering love among those who found or attached themselves to each other was indescribable, and people were so grateful for help, even too little and too late. It was beyond astounding to me to hear such words after these accounts of infinite, ongoing suffering. I have never met people who carried such grace and love in the face of horror, inhumanity, annihilation, anger, despair, and sheer agony. It will change me forever. It was the greatest honor I’ve ever had, to be among them, wading for a time in the waters of courage, integrity, and spirit in purest definition.
May humanity meet the level of integrity, hope, and faith of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
A Plea for America
It will be important going forward to understand what should be improved, to make disaster relief and recovery in our country work the way it should. However, now, right now, thousands and thousands of New Orleans and Mississippi Americans are without power, living in their cars, homes are gone, friends and relative’s whereabouts unknown, food and water doled-out to our citizens, as though they are refugees. I’m just an American and in my view, this situation is intolerable.
No matter whose to blame or what should be done in the future, one thing should be abundantly clear: Bureaucracy is failing. The money is there, and there are phenomenal people in FEMA and the Red Cross doing everything they can to help, within the limits of their respective bureaucratic structures. The need in Mississippi and Louisiana screams, “think outside the box.” We cannot wait for the bureaucratic systems, public sector or non-profit, to figure this out. Too many Americans are alone in a Hell few can imagine. If we are moral, if we have values, if we are the great country that we all believe in, we must act.
I know from meeting so many, incredible volunteers who came to the American Red Cross with great heart and a multitude of skills that the necessary workforce is readily available. We’re lined-up to help. I believe many who read this are ready as well, to contribute their time, hands, and hearts to help fellow Americans. I will be sending this to news agencies, but more importantly to those who have the means, the economic power, and the influence to coordinate something Americans can do that government or agencies thus far can’t.
Americans need our help. There is a great lesson about color that we can all take away from this situation. It’s very clear: Red, White, and Blue.Link Here