September 08, 2005

Once more, from Mandy

Mandy is my friend. She lives in Houston, Texas. She, like countless others in the South affected by Katrina, has a story to tell. And, although hers' may not be as harrowing as some, it's still worth passing on. Her workplace gave everyone Tuesday off to volunteer. What follows is her recounting of what she did and saw:

Hurricane Katrina became extremely personal for me this past weekend. I had been watching the images on the news of New Orleans and knew that my family in Poplarville, MS, Gulfport, MS, and Picayune, MS had been hit, but with the majority of news coverage on NOLA I figured my family was okay. I had received sketchy reports last week from various relatives, but due to the power/communications outage, most of the reports were from someone that had talked to someone else or heard from someone and they said to get in touch with this person, etc. I finally talked to my grandmother Monday evening and her entire family resides in that area. She was the only child of 5 that had left MS and LA and relocated. My family is rather large so I refer to many of these people as "uncles" although that may not be the exact relation they are to me. My grandmother reported that her brother, Farrell's, house is still standing but they lost everything as portions of the roof are gone as well as all of the windows. They have been living in it for over a week with no power and no roof. One of my aunts, along with both of her adult daughters, (3 households) lost everything, but they are all safe. My great-grandmother (by marriage) also lost all she owned. As of last night, we have 2 confirmed deaths in our family in MS with one of them being discovered by Farrell as he was walking around the area a couple of days after Katrina hit. It appears an elderly uncle was trying to get to Farrell's house, but did not make it. They did recover the body and were able to identify him which is a blessing although it is also a tragedy. There is basically nothing left of the town where my mom grew up and went to school, the same town where my grandparents grew up, met, and married. Volunteering and donating has taken on an extra meaning for me and much of my family.

A group of us decided to meet up at the office on Tuesday morning to volunteer for the Katrina evacuees. We weren't exactly sure where we were going to volunteer because the needs and locations were changing everyday in Houston. After reading a volunteering link from a local news website, we decided to head to the Astrodome as they were extremely shorthanded after the holiday weekend and many of the volunteers returning to work.

We arrived at the Dome and signed in with about 30 other volunteers and as soon as they finished the 5-minute orientation a lady started pulling groups of us that were needed in various locations asap. My group of 12 volunteered to go to processing as they had a bus of new arrivals pulling in at that moment. This didn't make a lot of sense to me because the news continually reported that Texas was full and we could take no more survivors. Well, 7 – 8 busloads of new arrivals passed through processing during my shift on Tuesday. Processing is the first place for the evacuees to go when they step off a bus and it involves being registered so we have some idea of who is where, getting a list of lost family members, finding out which medications people need or have been missing, etc. It is also the first location where survivors can pick up much needed items like the personal care kits, clothing, diapers, and snacks. The first group that entered the Dome was from a state home of some sort in LA and they had evacuated to a hotel during the storm. While talking to the group throughout the day I found out that the winds & water were blowing the a/c unit into their hotel room. The power had gone out and the men were standing at the windows and trying to put chairs in front of them and towels around the window so their room would not get wet. After 1 ½ days in the hotel, they relocated to the Convention Center. They said it was not too bad when they first arrived, but as time passed people would use the restroom wherever they were standing and fights were breaking out. Because of the group's special needs, they were one of the earliest groups taken out of the Convention Center and bussed to Arkansas. When they arrived in Arkansas, they were told there wasn't room for them but they could stay for the night. One man told me this was the only night he had slept in the past week. The next day the group was bussed from AR to Houston on a Metro with no restroom. They were stopping every half hour for restroom breaks and had been refused service in one of the facilities where they stopped.

I spent much of my day with the special needs group because they couldn't leave their area without supervision. They had to be escorted to the bathroom and to smoke. One of the men in the group, actually the first one I made contact with, asked me (with tears in his eyes) to find his wife and kids and started listing their names. I had no idea how to respond to him and knew I was in for a looooong day. The Astrodome, however, does have a computer room facility for the survivors to track down relatives and other evacuees. One of the oldest ladies in the group, in her late 70s, needed to go to the restroom and required help in getting there and getting her clothing situated. As I was helping her in the port a potty, I saw she had on about 8 layers including corduroy overalls, 3 shirts, a skirt, and jeans. Once we navigated through the layers she said she had put on everything she could because they had told her they were evacuating and she didn't want to be left with nothing or take charity. One lady asked me why it took us (America) so long to get to them. Why did we leave them stranded? How do you answer that?

I was also tasked with locating the clinic and taking new arrivals in need of care to the medical station. One diabetic older lady, carrying 2 garbage bags of possessions, did not want to go get treatment if it meant leaving her bags behind. She said her life was in those bags. We did "hide" her bags the best we could & I wheeled her to the clinic, outside and around the other side of the Dome. When she returned later in the day, her bags were safe, she thanked me & hugged me. Before getting on another bus to depart, she grabbed my hand. She said, "Please keep me in your prayers. Lord knows I need some help."

Another man asked me where he could volunteer or find out about volunteering. He wanted to have a place to stay and then come help any others that needed it. This was a man with half a garbage bag holding everything he owned and had probably slept 1 night in the past 6 or 7 and his first thought was volunteering to help others.

In my day at the Dome, I saw every age, race, and income bracket step off of those buses. I saw families, people who had lost their families, and some people who still had no idea what was going on or where they were. I saw kids with no parents because their parents had handed them to others to make sure their kids made it out of NOLA even if the parents didn't. There were people who would not take any of the donated items because others needed it more. Most of the people I spoke with simply wanted a place to call home so they could get jobs, find family, and start over. I was asked numerous times about housing, employment opportunities, and getting kids in school.

Many people wanted to know about their city. Was there anything left? How many people died? Did the cops catch the looters? Was everyone out? When could they go home? These people hadn't seen the 24/7 news coverage the past week so they really had no idea what has happening other than what they witnessed firsthand.

I was thanked over and over throughout the day. I was told how great Houston was to take on this many people. I was also told that no other city has opened their arms & hearts the way we have & they will never forget us. A lady told me she was remembering all of the faces of the volunteers to ask God to send them an extra little blessing for their service. People hugged me with tears in their eyes or grabbed my hand before they were shipped off to their next location. I have never felt more helpless and more helpful at the same time. And honestly, I wasn't doing anything other than being there. I wasn't performing a special skill or doing a task for which I needed any training. I was just there and willing to do what I could, and for the people I encountered that was enough for that day. I thought about my own family while I was in the Dome and that is all I wish for them as well. Just let someone be there. My other relatives can't reach them or get to them, but I thank God for the people that are there and willing to do what they can.

Posted by Ryan at September 8, 2005 11:25 AM | TrackBack
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