January 1, 2006. I spent the day working on built-in cabinets for the living room of my 167-year old historic home. It feels good to work with my hands again (despite the creep of age-related stiffness into some of the more critical bits) and while doing so reflect upon my overall good fortune. Several months ago-September 5th through 26th-I was one of thousands of Red Cross volunteers deployed in response to Hurricane Katrina. On the advice of the woman who trained me, I kept a daily journal. The stories here are drawn from that journal and from emails I sent to my department.
It is Friday September 2nd, 2005. The levees have failed in New Orleans and reports on conditions throughout the Gulf Region are grim. Nancy and I are driving home and listening to the radio when the Red Cross call for 4000 volunteers is repeated. We look at each other, and the only thing said is "which one of us goes?" It was as simple as that, without any forethought or consideration. We turned the car around and drove to the Washtenaw County Chapter to find out what that would mean. Since then, friends and colleagues have introduced me with a mention of my stint in Louisiana. If the conversation goes on to any length, I'm usually asked "why did you decide to go?" Well, it was my turn, and I could. If it had been a month earlier or later, obligations would have prevented it. For other disasters we've sent money or stuff when we've had it. This time I had my 45 year-old carcass to donate.
Training was, shall we say, abbreviated. Large sections of the course materials were bypassed-some amounted to reading through the table of contents and telling us to read the rest on our flights. On Tuesday I let my boss know that I'd be gone for most if not all of the month. The University has a positive attitude about this sort of work, and besides, I had something like 10 weeks of vacation time saved up.
I was scheduled for a 5:00 flight from Detroit on Thursday. Had I left on Wednesday, it would have been in a large group from the county. As it turned out, there were no other volunteers on the flight from Detroit to Memphis. The flight from Memphis to Baton Rouge had three other Red Cross volunteers and a contingent from Noah's Wish-the animal rescue group. We arrived at around 8:30, landing on a runway that must have been in another county from the terminal it took so long to taxi in. As we approached the terminal there was a commotion on the other side of the plane; in-taken breaths and exclamations of surprise. The apron outside the terminal was packed with military helicopters. The other passengers had never seen a major military presence before.
The terminal was nearly deserted. We were lucky to find the Red Cross desk just as the people there were closing it down. We got maps to the headquarters (an empty Wal Mart) and instructions on renting a car in the name of the Red Cross. The car rental folks set me up with a nice PT Cruiser. She mentioned in passing that she'd rented some 200 cars to the Red Cross that day alone.
The four of us loaded our stuff and crossed town to the headquarters, to discover that operations had shut down for the day. The only folks who remained were the IT squirrels who were frantically running communications to the hundreds of computers in the room, and the carpenters partitioning a lunch area. There was a staff shelter about 10 miles away, but none of us felt like searching for it, so we laid out sleeping bags on the tile floor. Within a few hours there were about fifty of us camped in one corner of the place. Believe it or not you can get a good night's sleep on a hard floor with the lights on and the sound of saws and hammers.
By 7:00 the next morning, the staff begins to arrive. First order of business is caffeine and donuts, followed by in-processing, signing for the rental car, and issuing cell phones. By mid-morning there are at least 500 people milling about the building, checking in, working, waiting for assignments, and generally finding things to do. Made myself useful by helping to unload a semi into the storeroom.
Every wall of the building was plastered over with maps, lists, posters, pictures, and the flags and identifiers of the different units involved. There was a desk for FEMA, an area for the National Health Service, and the German and Norwegian Red Cross contingents. There was a briefing session about 11:00, followed by an hour or so waiting around for an assignment. The dispatcher handed me a map and the phone number of a shelter in Ferriday LA. She dragged over two other volunteers, and off we went. By 4:00 I was on-site, and taking my first shift as night porter, slightly less than 24 hours after leaving Detroit.
April 21, 2006. In the last six months I've found out just how wide-spread the impact of this hurricane has been. There are students in our department whose families were directly affected. Two of our adjunct faculty were washed out by Katrina. Sometimes I find myself playing the "six degrees of separation" game; my sailing partner's lawyer's wife has family living in the affected area of New Orleans.
Dale Austin 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008