September 14: Establishing My Credibility
Although Jacqueline was able to walk in to the Jackson shelter, flash her ministerial credentials, and be given a Red Cross name tag, access to the Hattiesburg shelter proved to be more difficult. The supervisor refused to let either of us in unless we registered first with the Red Cross chapter office in town. Clearly, they were trying to control what was an exceptionally challenging environment to control. It would not be safe to let just anyone in that said they wanted to help. However, they did strongly encourage Jacqueline to come back to conduct a 4:00 non-denominational worship service. Apparently, a Baptist minister was trying to have people "receive Jesus" and that was not acceptable in a Red Cross facility. Although Jacqueline scrambled around to prepare a service in less than a couple hours notice, when she returned to the shelter, something had happened and they decided not to hold a service that day.
While Jacqueline was preparing her service and ministering to a congregant, I went off in search of Red Cross credentials. It only took talking with five people, filling out two different application forms, going from the local chapter office to the national office, which was set up in the 1st Baptist church, and then printing my social work license from the State of Michigan web site to be given an official Red Cross Disaster volunteer vest and name badge. Considering it took up to three weeks after September 11 for at least one of our ministers to do the same in New York City, it shows how desperate the Red Cross is for volunteers in this far-reaching crisis.
On to the Shelter
Becoming an official mental health volunteer meant taking an honest-to-goodness shift at the shelter. So last night, I started working the 4-midnight at the Hattiesburg shelter. Within an hour, I was totally overwhelmed by the enormity of these people's situations. I have worked with homeless people in Goodwill shelters, domestic violence shelters, half-way houses, even in prisons. I have dealt with people in all kinds of crisis situations, from suicidal people to people who have lost a child, and I can say that without question, nothing has affected me more profoundly than my first hour in this shelter.
These people have not just lost their homes, many of them have lost the entire infrastructure of their lives: their schools, their neighbors, their grocery stores, their doctors' offices, their drug stores, the telephone numbers, everything that made them part of a community. It is as if they have been beamed up to another planet and are now living in an alien world where nothing is familiar and nothing will ever be as it was before. Take Georgia and her mother, Mary, from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Mary was on oxygen and they knew she wouldn't survive if they lost electricity. So hours before the storm was slated to hit, they packed up their car and drove to the newly opening shelter in Hattiesburg. When the reports of the storm's aftermath began to filter in, they learned that Bay St. Louis, a Gulf Coast community that survived mostly on fishing and gaming, had been flattened—in essence, totally annihilated. Not only do they have no house to return to or no neighbors to take them in while they rebuild, they have no way to communicate with Mary's doctors, no way to order her prescriptions from the pharmacy, and most importantly, no way to contact other family members who literally have scattered to the wind. They are alone, scared, and destitute.
And then there is Joe and Maria, a middle aged couple from the Gulf Coast area of Mississippi. They lived in a beautiful cabin in the woods and being quite a ways from the ocean and not at risk of flooding, they figured they could ride out the storm. They had ridden out at least one hurricane every other year of their twenty-years in the area. This one looked a little stronger but they, like so many others, couldn't appreciate the enormity of Katrina.
At the height of the Katrina 's fury, a tree fell on the house, crashed through the roof, and pinned Joe 's right leg. Unable to free him and with no means of communication available, Maria drove through the storm to a neighbor's house a mile away to seek their help. However, they had already evacuated and Marie felt she had no choice but to return to Joe and pray for a miracle. When she returned, she saw that the tree had continued its' fall, completely crushing the house under its weight. She cried in panic and despair, knowing she had lost Joe to the storm's rage. What she didn't yet know was that Joe figured the tree was only taking a respite and that he would soon be crushed if he didn't free himself. He pulled his leg out from under the tree by sheer force of will. Bleeding profusely, he crawled out of the way of the falling tree and was lying just beside the crushed house when Maria returned. He called out to her and, with great relief, she went to him and was able to help him into the truck. They quickly wrapped his leg to try to stem the bleeding and then headed out and away from the center of the storm. Eventually arriving in Hattiesburg, they got Joe to the hospital where he received the care he needed. When I met them and heard their story two weeks after the storm, they were happy to be together, happy to be alive, and happy that they had been reunited with four of their six dogs – the dogs had been found and brought to the animal rescue out behind the Hattiesburg shelter.
Most likely, Joe and Maria will fare much better in the long run than Georgia and Mary. But it will still be months before they can return to their house and probably even longer before Joe doesn't walk with a limp.
And Then There Are the Children
Many of the children at the shelter struggled to survive before Katrina hit and will struggle to survive long after the memory of Katrina fades. They live in extreme poverty, attend failing schools, look forward to low-paying jobs, and have children of their own at much too young an age. They clamor for attention by any adult who will give it to them. Case in point, I spent and hour and a half with a group of about 15 children and a digital camera. Up to this time, nothing any of the volunteers had done had held their attention for more than 10 minutes. But they couldn't get enough of having their pictures taken and seeing their photos appear instantly on the screen afterwards. Several of them wanted their pictures taken individually and fought off other kids to get that special, individualized attention. They even rehearsed skits so I could record them on video and play them over and over and over again. Within no time, I had kids crawling all over me, hugging me, saying they loved me, and making me promise I would come back with the camera tomorrow. Their desperate need to be loved and comforted was clearly palpable—it will live with me for a very long time to come.
Safety in Computing
After I finally tore myself away from the children, I retreated to the Microsoft mobile trailers out back where people can come to get aid from Microsoft employees in completing FEMA applications, looking for lost loved ones (and yes, there are still many of the those), searching for jobs, sending e-mail, and all other things computing. I got a chance to talk with the staff and was impressed with their caring and concern for the people they were helping. As I was only two and half hours into my 8-hour shift, this short respite gave me a chance to catch my breath and be ready to head back into the shelter with a clearer head and a stronger heart.
What You Can Do
I have many more stories to tell, observations to make, and emotions to express but it's time to get ready to head back in for my second shift. I know many of you who read this will be asking what you can do. My answer is pray, pay, and plan. Pray that these people are treated humanely, fairly, and respectfully; pay whatever you can and more to the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund and to the American Red Cross; and plan for the long haul. The people who live here will need help for months and years to come. We have to start planning now to help build houses, restore our churches, provide emotional, spiritual, and financial support, and rebuild entire communities. Our presence is needed and there has never been a better time to grow Unitarian Universalism in this region.
I'll share more as time, energy, and emotions permit.