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September 13: On the Road to the Disaster Zone
Although, at first glance, it seemed like a normal day in America 's airports, it didn't take long to see signs that something was afoot. It started with the tall man with the furrowed brow who boarded the plane in Detroit. Donning a red hat, vest, and shirt that clearly identified him as a Red Cross volunteer, he marched hurriedly and with determination down the aisle, as if his very demeanor would get him to the disaster zone more quickly.
And then there were the two strangers exchanging their Katrina stories in the Memphis airport. One, a man in his 40s, was just returning from Iraq for a 21-day leave. His leave had been extended by five days so he could help his family who had evacuated from Biloxi and were now in Florida. The other stranger was an impeccably-dressed, professional woman in her 30s who ran a spa business in the Gulf area. She had come to Memphis for a conference before Katrina hit and was now also connecting with her family in Florida. Their conversation continued on a personal level, until the man lowered his voice and said, "You know, where I come from in Mississippi, it's all white and we didn't have the problems that they had with all those blacks in New Orleans." He went on to say that even though no one wants to say it's a black-white thing, he could see nothing else that would explain it. The woman concurred with him and in a quieter, more personal voice, started making her own comments about the connection between blacks and looting. At that moment, a five-year old girl of African decent came running up to where the woman was sitting. The professional woman smiled at her and said, "well aren't you cute," and then looked up at the child's African American mother, who had followed closely behind to reign her in, and told her what a beautiful child she had. The conversation between the two strangers quickly moved on to other things but their shared "secret" hung heavy in the air.
And finally, there was the flight from Memphis to Hattiesburg. A total of five people boarded the plane and my seat in 2A was switched to 16A to provide "better weight-balance" for the plane (I tried not to take it personally). The two women sitting near me, also providing ballast for the rear of the plane, were on their own rescue missions. One woman was going down to gather up her boyfriend, her mother, and her sister and take them back with her to her home in New York. The other woman, from Maryland, was responding to a plea for volunteers to help with rescued animals. She loved animals, and although she didn't know anything about the organization that was doing this, she decided to go. Apparently a shelter had been set up for rescued animals at the multi-purpose center in Hattiesburg and she was planning to go there and see how she could help. Little did I know then that this center was also the Red Cross family shelter where I would spend considerable time over the next few days.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi
Rev. Jacqueline Luck, the UU minister in Jackson and Ellisville, MS, spent the two weeks immediately after the hurricane hit visiting the people at Red Cross shelter in Jackson. On September 14 th, Red Cross officials announced to the remaining 200 or so residents that the shelter would close the next day. Everyone had to find a placement within the next 24-hours. Jacqueline arranged for three people, an old man and a couple from Honduras, to move into the old house where religious education is held at the Jackson church.
Although the three people where thrilled to be out of the shelter and into a more private space, it didn't take long for the old house, unused to full-time residents, to recoil. The toilets backed up and one of the showers didn't work. The estimate from the plumber came in at $2500. Because of the desperate need of the people seeking sanctuary there, the church gulped hard and approved the work. Some of the cost will probably be reimbursed from contributions to the UUSC Gulf Coast Relief fund and the church will pick up the rest.
Then, just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, the Honduran couple were car-jacked at gun-point in front of the church. Not only did they lose their car but they lost their driver's licenses, his work permit, and all of their other identity papers. Imagine being one of the thousands of American citizens who evacuated without all of their personal records. How would you prove your identity to get a new license, a new Social Security card, a passport? Now imagine, the terror of being in this situation if you were here on a work visa from a Central American country after just losing your home, your car, and practically everything else that held meaning in your life?
Unbelievably, they are handling this new development fairly well as the church is rallying around them. Already they have an offer of a donated car as soon they can get copies of their drivers' licenses. Because so many people are in this situation, the Mississippi Department of Motor Vehicles is allowing Louisiana residents to apply for copies of their licenses locally that they will then order from Louisiana. Although individuals have to wait for them to arrive by mail at the local DMV office, as long as the photos match, they will be able to get them with no other ID required. Of course, there is no telling how long this will take, at least a process has been defined.