This is the slightly edited text of an email I sent to coworkers and friends during my deployment. Names and most identifying details have been removed, and my 3 AM typos mostly cleaned out.
A coherent narrative of the last few days of my stay in Concordia Parish is well nigh impossible. Putting it in some sort of order it went like this:
9-18 The long sleepless days and stress have caught up with me. A ringing in my ears told me to get to the nursing staff to for a blood pressure check, and sure enough it's way up. I'm ordered to bed in the middle of the morning. I managed two hours. Feeling somewhat better, I try to sneak out, but am intercepted by the nurses who go on to declare me unfit to drive and beat me back into the bunk room. Six hours later I'm feeling much better. A mental review of the last day convinces me that I haven't been drinking enough, so I make a point of constantly having a water bottle handy.
A doctor from Cheboygan Michigan arrived to set up a free clinic in nearby Vidalia, bringing with him a trailer full of medication and equipment. Tetanus/diphtheria doses are in short supply.
It appears I received special mention in the pastor's sermon today. Mystifies me as to why.
9-19 I learned of a woman who qualified for Red Cross assistance, but who was not staying in our shelter. She was the mother of one of the residents, staying with her mother in a nearby town. The grandmother had opened her small home to 8 evacuees, including her daughter-who, at 62 years old, was diabetic, required dialysis three times a week, had lost both legs just below the knees, and was incontinent. If there are heroes here, my vote goes to people whose resources are already stretched thin who find it in themselves to do for others. Folks like me who have a home to go back to hardly count at all.
We've loaned one of our volunteers with some nursing experience to the free clinic to act as check-in person. At the end of the day I go back to pick her up, just in time to help a woman into the building who has been walking for two days on a broken ankle. Wheelchairs are also in short supply, but I think I know where I might, um, liberate one for the clinic. The final patient of the evening is a heartbreaker. She's a middle-aged grandmother raising her daughter's two very young children.
The backstory on this last patient is the sort of tragedy you couldn't help but trip over under these conditions. She took on her grandchildren because her daughter's drug problem made her incapable of responsibility. Everything she'd owned was gone in the floodwaters. The car she drove was borrowed, and her place to live was temporary. And the breast cancer which had lain dormant for some time had metastasized. We played with her children while the doctor let her know just how bad it was, (very-terminal) then drove with her to the nearest hospital. February, 2006
9-20 While in a meeting with Pastor Wayne and the shelter manager, Wayne gets a call-the Baptist Church in Wisner, about 35 miles away, is on fire. The manager sends me with Wayne to do a quick damage assessment. After a high speed run in the pastor's truck, just behind and keeping up with the local fire truck, we arrive to find a 15,000 square foot church building fully in flames with perhaps two dozen emergency vehicles working, including water tankers filling a temporary pond to pump from. The involved buildings are a total loss. The good news is that the pastor there does not live on site, and the nearest homes are 150 yards away, downwind and a bit smoky perhaps, but otherwise unaffected. So, the Red Cross won't have any victims of this incident to shelter. A fourth building of the complex survived undamaged, even though separated from the fire by no more than a 30 foot breezeway. The congregation will be able to hold services and work out of this structure until they can rebuild.
The ride to this fire was an odd experience. It was a bit surprising to see the minister whipping that big rig along the road so far above the speed limit. But what made it surreal, was that in the middle of the trip, he glanced, thankfully very briefly, over at me and enquired as to my religion. My answer-none of the above-seemed to leave him a bit nonplussed, but he recovered quickly, and appreciated that some of my friends have accused me of being a deist. In response to his seeming surprise I allowed that I might just be living proof that atheists could do good things as well. We chatted a bit about C. S. Lewis' rationalizations and Pascal's wager, as the scenery flashed by. February, 2006
Today, we have the first indications of food-borne illness. Two children and one of the nurses are throwing up. Thankfully, our sanitation measures seem to be holding and it does not spread.
9-21 Arrive at the shelter in the morning, to be told that Steve and I have been given a day off. Decided to spend the day touring the Antebellum homes of Natchez, and trying out a few restaurants-including Mammy's Cupboard. We also drove about 60 miles up the Natchez Trace Parkway just for the scenic break.
My day off was simply surreal. The contrast between the communities of Ferriday and Natchez was so extreme that even the colors seemed more intense. It was as if Natchez was nothing more than an elaborately overdone movie set.
During our absence, the two shelters are consolidated into one, relieving the church folks for the first time since the hurricane.
9-22 The predicted course of Rita now shows at least the edge of the storm passing over us. Much of the day is spent inspecting the building for weaknesses, locating the better protected spots, and duct taping all of the windows to keep down any flying glass. Tables and chairs stored outside, as well as anything else that might be blown about are picked up and moved inside.
In mid-afternoon, two of our residents return belligerently drunk. They'd been warned that this was unacceptable in a shelter. Sheriff's deputies arrive to provide alternative lodging for the next few days. Another resident is rushed to the ER with cardiac symptoms. Thankfully, it turns out to be a panic attack. Not surprising under the stress of being displaced and now threatened with a second hurricane. Another resident is off to the emergency room, and later to a state hospital if we can find him a bed. After lasting several days in this environment, the flashbacks to the 1965 flood and a childhood stay in a shelter just like this became too much.
By the end of the day we are laying out every cot and mattress we have in anticipation of the forced evacuation of southern Texas.
9-23 Shelter fills in just a few hours, with the roads outside still packed. The church reopens their facility for the overflow, while we send as many as we can further north to other shelters we've been told exist. We are completely blind in this, trusting that the shelters exist and can easily be found, as the sheriff has reported.
9-24 In the early morning it seems that the storm will pass us by. There are only some high thin clouds to be seen. By 5 AM the wind is strengthening. H and I sit outside watching the storm build. He's just taken his angina meds, but tries to pass it off as a breath mint. He's been toughing it out all week, even after the emergency surgery to place a new stent.
The levees in New Orleans failed again last night. One resident called this the rinse cycle. Yesterday, a packed bus exploded on the freeway outside Dallas.
By 6 AM Rita's eye has come ashore just west of Lake Charles. Winds and rain build steadily throughout the day. At 9 PM, the first of a series of tornados are sighted in the north end of the parish. Windows, doors, and the walls themselves are leaking. The water is being driven into the concrete block walls by winds that are about 30 mph and peak in the 50's. A late arrival announces a snake (holds arms 6 feet apart) in the parking lot. Everything is seeking higher ground as the lower area behind the shelter begins to fill with water. It will be two feet deep before the night is out, and will have soaked in by the next day. The electricity flickers several times, but never goes out completely. Phones are out, including cell phones, and the wind has blown over the satellite dish. During a lull, I lie down for a nap, and don't get up for 6 hours-slept through the second half of the storm, including three more tornado warnings. Water on the floor of the room.
9-25 My planned day to out-process at the regional headquarters in Alexandria. Things are quiet enough that I can go ahead and do so, even though the headquarters area was right in the path of the storm. I spent a few hours collecting all the signatures I needed and verifying my travel plans for the next day. In the middle of which I got to drop everything and transport another volunteer to the emergency room.
Headquarters is the former armory of the decommissioned England Air Force base. There is power and air conditioning, but the water pressure is so low as to be unusable. The director announces that we have to use the lawn as a bathroom. This annoys the skunk living in the bushes outside to no end.
Dinner is cold MacDonald's food and MREs. The meal demonstrates a difference between those about to go into the field and those who've returned. We ate like wolves, then stood up and positioned ourselves where we could watch the room. It was a subconscious response to life in a shelter. The two of us just glanced at each other and nodded, having both recognized what just happened-we'd been warned about things like that.
The person I was thinking of when I wrote that is going to need therapy for some time to come. You've heard the phrase "thousand-yard-stare", but you'll never understand it until you've seen it. The shelter he'd been working at had been closed because they couldn't keep it safe. We spent the late evening talking about it outside the headquarters, tying to make ourselves heard over the roar of C-130s warming up just across the road. I imagine it was one of the most disjointed conversations ever had by anyone. By that point we couldn't string together a complete sentence without intense thought. February, 2006
9-26 4 AM wake up call for a 6 AM flight. The terminal building is less than 200 feet from headquarters. A small plane to Atlanta, followed by a much larger, though mostly empty, flight to Detroit. A major moment of disconnect occurs in Atlanta, as I sit with the first cup of Cappuccino in three weeks; where, I wonder, did all these clean people come from?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much covers the events of the last week. As to what it all means, I don't know yet. I will never know what happened to most of the people I tried to help.
Dale Austin 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008