Coming home from the Gulf Coast, I remembered this piece I wrote at the time of Hurricane Katrina. It’s long, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget and we should all remember what these people had to go through. It was cathartic for me to write at the time…

Bear with me, guys.

My family spent a lot of time in New Orleans since my husband’s parents lived there for over 30 years, ironic for those strait-laced Yankees from Massachusetts to be transplanted for the final time into the deep South.  I’m not sure they loved living there, but we were taken with its uniqueness, its flavor, its sense of fun and the magic we felt when we visited.  We went to the World’s Fair with our kids and to Mardi Gras without them.  They grew up on Bourbon Street and Jackson Square, eating at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District and the alligator sandwich place in the French Quarter.  We walked to the Mississippi River levee two blocks from my in-laws’ house and climbed the hill to watch the ships go by.  We brought back pralines and shrimp and music.  Our kids grew up listening to me try to read the “Cajun Night Before Christmas” in my non-Cajun tones. As they got older, they explored the cemeteries and Marie Laveaux’s voodoo shop, which was much spookier on Bourbon Street than when they opened a branch in the mall by the river.  Catcalls from the strip joints and peeks into the clubs were exotic and probably stirred their imaginations, but they grew up unscarred.  My son and his wife went there on their honeymoon.  And we never never missed a chance to sit at Cafe du Monde for coffee, hot chocolate and beignets. 

Sure, we drove by neighborhoods of poor and met them on the streets and knew that our white skins were the minority.  It was a sad thing about the city that you didn’t ignore, but didn’t know what to do to change.  We were just visitors.

The hurricane and the ensuing disaster has been painful to watch and too riveting to turn off.  The images are haunting along that southern line, the worst being in New Orleans.  What can we do?  By Friday, I could watch no more.  I woke up and sent money to Red Cross online and packed up supplies for my grandson to send with his cub scout pack.  I kept thinking that there must be more.  I served as a volunteer at Red Cross for many years and worked there for two years, receiving all the training I could cram in, but barely got to use before they closed our department.  My hours, days, in classes were interesting exercises required by all, but my stack of certification cards was in a drawer someplace.  I was never going to go back there.  Never say never.

Friday, my friend called and asked if I wanted to go help.  She couldn’t stand it any longer.  She went to the shelter in Tulsa and saw some of our former coworkers who were thrilled to see her.  I said I’d go.  We met at the shelter in a church at Admiral and Harvard Saturday morning and worked in Family Services where they open case files on the people and start helping them meet basic needs.  It was quiet at first, a few kids in the playroom, people lined up at the medical station, more eating donuts and chatting with volunteers, telling their stories.  I filed their paperwork, trying to keep up with the stack.  I could read all the notes from the caseworkers.  These were the people who got themselves out and came to Tulsa to stay with friends and relatives.  They had some means although one young couple had spent all their money on gas and the motel.  Families walked out with diapers and pillows and voucher cards for medicines and clothing.  A family of twenty Asian people of all ages showed up.  A young family in that group looked very calm with their two small children, but he had lost his shrimp boat – not much call for that in Tulsa – and her nail salon had been destroyed.  Their annual income was under $10,000, but they were hard-working people.  It was orderly there with seasoned staff and volunteers who had worked countless disasters doing what they know how to do.

Around noon, my friend was sent to the Red Cross chapter and called me to join her team and go to Camp Gruber to meet the incoming buses with 2,000 evacuees from the Superdome in New Orleans.  I thought, sure, why not?  What possible excuse would I have not to go?  I hustled out to that familiar site, smiled at a few former coworkers, hugged a couple, got a new badge issued and we checked out a Red Cross van, which we filled with supplies donated by people stopping by.  We had water, baby supplies, personal hygiene stuff, toys.  Three of us took off, my friend who is half Muscogee Creek, an Hispanic woman who is a former Tulsa policewoman now working for Camp Fire (very fun woman), and lily-white me to meet 2,000 mostly black poverty sticken folk who have been stuck on a bus for God knows how long. 

Camp Gruber is where Oklahoma National Guardsmen are trained, so it is military to the hilt.  I’d never been there, but it’s close to Muskogee, near Braggs.  You know.  We found our way to the main place, a room that looked like it might hold one or two busloads, plus the Red Cross teams.  There were tables set up, snacks stacked around, and comfort kits for all groups.  One of the first things they would receive was an individual kit with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc.  There were kits for men, women and children with the basics they need to clean themselves up.  This happens in every disaster.  They hadn’t received enough standard issue kits from Red Cross, so a group was assembling kits from the items donated by citizens.  We unloaded part of our load at a warehouse down the road where they were taking water, toilet paper, and food products.  Another location, air-conditioned, took baby supplies, toys and clothing.  They were sorting the clothes by sex and size.  The medical center took the allergy drugs we brought with us.  We passed the media center and saw trucks from all the local broadcasters and cars that probably had the print reporters.  I’m sure they were carefully controlled, knowing how all that works.

The main place was full of groups of people, some trained, some who showed up.  There were people in the mess hall with food.  Our building had the people who would do the first intakes and everybody was assigned a team.  The plan was to take these people to security first, search them and their buses, then triage the medical cases, then get their basic information and assign them to barracks, walk them there, then feed them.  They would be sorted by men, women, families, those 65+ or with special needs (there were one story buildings closer to the mess hall for them).  It seemed like a plan to me. 

I was on a Human Relations team, which basically is to make sure they were treated kindly and decently and to see if they needed a translator, be it a foreign language or a signer for the deaf, etc.  I was finally told I would be with the group that got on their buses, welcomed them, got them registered and rode to the main office where we would leave them and head back for another bus, etc.  Sounded simple to me.  Smile, pat them on the back, fill out a form, get their signature.  All the teams rehearsed over and over, ad nauseum.  There was a tv camera, almost in my face. I never saw the media later in the evening.

Now for the reality.  Many of the volunteers had been waiting for these buses since the night before.  The arrival time had been moved from 6 pm Friday to 7 am Saturday and I was there at 5 pm and nobody knew where they were.  These 2,000 people had been on the bus for days, literally, and we had no idea when they would arrive.  So we drilled on the routine, the leaders met, and the routine changed – over and over. 

In a disaster, there are many people who respond.  I call the main group Disaster Junkies.  These are the ones who will go to disaster after disaster for the three required weeks and then go back again.  These are the ones who make it their lives, whose adrenaline pumps at the news, who live for their pager to go off in the middle of the night.  Some are saner than others.  Some are wonderful, kind people, who want to give their time, skills, love.  Others are in it for baser reasons and live for the power, the sense of importance. They make friends with other Disaster Junkies across the country. Just like the rest of life.  So you get all kinds and, somehow, it miraculously works, God bless them. If you can stand it.  I’ve always thought it was a fascinating spectacle of human nature and loved it in small doses.  I’m not one of the junkies.  Just give me my job and let me help. Then I can go home.

Shortly after we arrived, the skies blackened and a thunderstorm opened up, pounding on the metal roof of our building. It cooled things off, but it left deep puddles and muddy places around the area. We thought it was a pretty sad welcoming sight for those who had been walking through worse. If they’d ever get here. You have to picture an ever growing crowd of Red Cross do-gooders, surrounded by the National Guard, Oklahoma sheriffs, officers from the Muskogee police, medical workers, and who knows who else, standing around for hours waiting to hear where these people were. First we heard they were still in Dallas, stalled by FEMA’s attempts to get Oklahoma declared as a stopping place so we could get federal funds. Why were they even in Dallas on the way from New Orleans? Nobody knew. We empathized with their feelings, whatever they would be. Tired, frustrated, angry, frightened, confused. Next we heard they were at the state line. But the clock ticked on and the plans changed. A couple of women were screaming orders, their blood pressure rising, making everyone else’s eyes roll. Calm down. I saw a woman whose heart was pounding so hard her shirt was moving. They reassigned her before she irritated anyone else. There were college students, people who drove over to help with no training, veterans of 9/11, and the military. Who the hell was in charge? The longer we waited, the more the plans changed. The room must have been reconfigured twelve times to see which way they could move more people through faster. It didn’t matter because it was all going to change again anyway. News came that one bus was having mechanical problems so all the buses slowed down. They must have been driving 15 mph – a caravan of 37 buses. Or 39. Or 32. Whatever. That too changed.

Finally, finally, we were told to go to our sites. There were two places the buses would stop first once they were on the base. I now had my own team – four women who showed up to help with no training. They were from Muskogee – normal people. We didn’t even have stick-on name badges for them, so I scribbled their names on a piece of cardboard so I’d remember. I can’t today. I told them they were lucky – they only had to come do their jobs and not go through all the changes of plans. I think it was another two or three hours after they arrived that we finally moved. We also had a greeter, who would enthusiastically welcome the busload to Oklahoma, tell them how happy we were to see them, and explain that we would be coming aboard to get them registered. We were down to taking their name and age and asking them if they had children with them. If they had missing family, we starred their form so someone could help them find the family or get them mental health professionals to speak with. We walked across a muddy field, sinking in the rainwater, walked a block and stationed ourselves to meet the people. There were men with drug dogs, a line of soldiers to meet them, the scanners like they have at airports, and a line of soldiers with hand-held scanners to run over their bodies. All their belongings were searched, as was the bus. There was a bathroom there, which they could use. There were medical teams and mental health workers. This was on a brightly lighted covered concrete pad. We were standing in the mud in the dark beyond to meet them as they got back on the buses to take them another block to start the process.

The news spread that they were at the gates, on the base. Not far. It took forever. In the meantime, we learned, from a Disaster Junkie mental health worker, who was a little mental himself and overly pumped for his assignment, that there was news of people who had died on the buses, and bleeders were sighted. There was rush to put rubber gloves on all of us. I was too hot & couldn’t get mine on & threw them away. I was only going to ask their names, not exchange bodily fluids. I used to teach this stuff and I wasn’t afraid of getting hepatitis from them on a block ride. How comforting for them anyway to think we were afraid of them. We were told what to do if they were hostile, what to say, how to react. We didn’t know what awaited. Some might be criminals. Who knew? Overkill. Where the hell were they? Someone in our two groups wanted to pray, which seemed appropriate, even for the least religious in the group – most of the people were anxious. A rough circle of former strangers formed, holding hands, and someone started the Lord’s Prayer. We stood in a circle in a muddy parking lot on a military base in the middle of Oklahoma late at night and hoped for the best. Help!

Then a line of lights appeared, an endless line of lights. Please, let these people off the damn buses. They had to be numb. It was around 10 pm.

My first image was a black family, dressed in very new, very clean white t-shirts. The children’s were oversized adult shirts that hit their ankles. The first face was a handsome young boy and, in the glare of the lights, he looked like an angel. Our first family was a group of angels. Not too threatening. I could feel the relief from our teams. And they looked exhausted. We weren’t allowed to get close to them, so we watched, taking in the faces of the people we would soon meet, a few inches from their faces. Many lit cigarettes (how do the poorest of the poor afford cigarettes – always a question), they stood around waiting one more time. There were elderly people put in wheelchairs, nurses talking to them. We watched the men remove their belts as the scanners went over them. It was pretty calm, everyone was too tired.

I met the National Guardsman who was in charge of this whole deal for the base, a pleasant young man with an Oklahoma drawl who told me he’d been up for 61 hours. Still smiling. He wanted a drink of water.

The bus pulled to our side and we helped them cross a patch of sloshy mud to reboard the bus. We smiled, not knowing what to do yet. I reached out to an elderly woman so she didn’t slip in the mud. The first team left with their busload, our team was next. Our bus unloaded. It’s hard to remember who we saw. A sea of black faces of all ages, all tired. A few white faces in the group. Varying kinds of dress. A guardsman told us the smell of the bus would knock us out. I think they’d been riding for 31 hours, maybe longer. I doubt they got off. My greeter was a nervous wreck, but my team was game. Good women, nice people. We were laughing as I told them I was not a very good leader because I had no idea what the latest change in plans was. I told them to do their best, the forms could get corrected later, these people mostly needed us to be kind. We welcomed the people crossing the mud path to the bus, our greeter gave her spiel and we boarded.

We had to lean down to hear their names, so we were inches from their faces. It was loud from the bus engine. The bus lurched, so I balanced myself against the seats to write and hear. I think I only had about four to do before we were there. That was fast. Our team was through, we waved goodbye and cleared the bus to return to the starting site for our next group. My people were grateful. A couple handed me ID so I could write their names. It was hard to hear the spelling over the noise and I was leaning across them to get signatures. Many apologized for smelling bad, but heck, I’d been standing around for 14 hours by now, so I wasn’t much of a flower myself. I was at the front of the bus – I heard the back was worse – by the bathrooms.

My friend called my cell phone from the other site. It was night and day from ours. The military people there were rougher, tougher. At our place, they were friendly, asked if we wanted chairs while we waited, seemed kind to the people. The other site was not so nice for anyone. Who knows why? Some gung-ho type over there. The first group at the other site included people who brought their dogs – a Great Dane and a German Shepherd. Red Cross shelters don’t take pets, mainly due to logistics & sanitary issues, although there are people who are trying to change that. Too many people die because they won’t leave their pets behind. Sheltering your pets, livestock, exotic animals is a huge issue and part of disaster planning. Who was going to tell these people “no” after they’d come through a hurricane like Katrina? Nobody.

We thought the process would speed up. They added another team to our site, which only meant we waited longer between buses. Later that night, I figured we were doing a bus an hour, although our part only took minutes. It was the search and medical assessment process that was the hangup. So we watched a lot. A bus arrived and I counted 7 dogs, all small. The owners were clutching them and the teams were petting them, admiring them. We would have dogs at this place, for sure.

My second group included a cute man with a Cajun accent who laughingly told us he would have to get used to our accents. He said he was getting us first. He was my first stop on the bus. The driver vanished, so we finished quickly and had time to visit with this group. My new Cajun friend moved to New Orleans in 1972, but left and came back many times. He was a jockey, race horses. He said he was single and liked to move around. Not a successful jockey, I guessed, but he was friendly and glad to talk to me. He said the bus was like heaven after the Superdome and apologized for not being cleaner. He asked me if I could imagine sleeping on a bleacher. I asked him what it was like when the roof blew off and he just said, “Oh, man.” He thanked us for our hospitality, but said he wouldn’t be staying long as he had friends who could get him a job in another state. He thanked us and said he wanted to get moving in a day or so to let us take care of the ones who were needier. Nice guy.

Mostly, the people were tired, hadn’t eaten since 7 am, wanted a bath and bed. None looked too threatening simply because of fatigue. While we waited, one man griped about the long wait for help. He said it was too little, too late, always too late. He was angry, but not in a bad way. One of my teammates, Lana Turner, a black woman from Tulsa who joined us late, and I listened. I told him I agreed with everything he said, which I did. He’d watched a baby die waiting for help. He had the right to be upset.

It was after midnight. We were waiting for our third?? bus. The line looked endless, headlights in the distance. By now, we were shaking hands with the people as they walked on the bus, welcoming them, smiling. They were smiling back, thanking us. My next group included a young mother with a sleeping two year old and a nine year old child with a different last name. She told me she had no idea where four members of her family were. I assured her we would do everything we could to help her get information. A woman on an earlier bus had been separated from her children. They were put on a bus that went to Houston, she ended up in Oklahoma. She knew who they were with, but not where. She was worn out.

I visited with a nice looking man, dirty but decent clothes. I’m not sure what his problems were as he could pass for normal on the street. I patted shoulders of worn out folks. Behind me a couple of rows was a baby, almost one year old. I think her name was Jediah, something like that. I could have eaten her up. Beautiful face, smile that lit up the night, happy baby. Clapping her hands, bouncing on the man’s lap. I played peek-a-boo with her. Her eyes were as shiny as could be, her hair pulled up in three little bunches. I would have loved to hug her. The family said she entertained them the whole trip. They were laughing.

This time, we had to wait when we got close to the building – some kind of backlog. I don’t know. I found my friend and she said she wanted to ride back with me. We found our van and she told me stories from the other side of the driveway. At her site, they had immediately filled four containers with contraband, drugs, knives, guns. One bus had more dogs than people on it. One bus had bags of feces and the smell was overpowering. The people had to resort to plastic bags. They found a drug addict and took away his drugs. One man told them he is HIV positive, another was mentally ill. Bodies were removed from the buses before we got on. There was a young woman with a three day old baby – the mother was bleeding. They stopped her for some reason rather than taking her to the medical unit. There was a deaf man, a blind man. Our driver said a man peed in the van. We could see people lined up to get a change of clothes as we drove. It was a surreal vision in the night. I could see people in the barracks, sitting on beds. Saw people wandering to the mess hall in search of food. They’d run out of lasagna early & had MREs for them. That’s military for Meals Ready to Eat – like in battle. They’re not bad. I had them in Alaska. These people said they were so sick of snacks, wanted real food. Not yet, sorry.

I heard the story of a man who said they were all taken to the Superdome and left there. Anarchy broke out and people began breaking into the concession stands, selling cigarettes for $10 a pack. Gangster types took over. Another man had been sleeping on a mattress in a factory in Algiers (a section of New Orleans across from the French Quarter) where his group had been taken and left. There’s an untold story, isn’t it? All these people were taken to evacuation sites and left to fend for themselves. They said sanitary conditions deteriorated. There was no way to clean anything or find help.

The stories abounded. The other landing site had turned into a mess because someone in the military started issuing insane rules, so those teams were through for the night, disbanding. Our site was running like the plan. Why the difference? We don’t know.

My friend told me I had to quit, 15 hours was the maximum for a disaster worker and I’d been going for over 17. I told her she had to come back, too. I told my team goodbye. I think there were only a handful of buses left all of a sudden. We found our friend and I stood there for my last look around the main center.

There was the young white couple with the hugest Harlequin Great Dane you’ve ever seen sprawled across her lap while he sat with the tiniest gray kitten in his. I think they had another dog, hard to tell. Dogs were sniffing dogs, trying to figure it all out. I noticed another category of barracks had been added – Co-Ed with pets. I heard there were more cats, a bird. Who knows. Can you imagine living in a non-air-conditioned barracks with pets of all types and sizes? Not to mention the people? Humorous. The four-legged animals all seemed to be getting along.

The room was a swirling late night blur of red disaster vests mixed with camouflage uniformed troops, tables with volunteers, people milling. Most had moved through the line of snacks and drinks to be registered, assigned to a barracks and assimilated into this new world. I wondered how it would look in the morning. One man said he knew he was in the middle of nowhere – he couldn’t see a Pizza Hut. I think he thought he’d been moved from one hell to another. Mostly they were grateful.

It was close to 1:30 am when we left, a thousand stories later. I drove, not well. The ex-policewoman in the back seat kept telling me to watch the speedometer in a pleasant voice as I sped along. I got home well after 2:30 am and hugged my dogs. I was too pumped to fall asleep, even after I stood in the shower and cleaned off mud, rain and the sweat of a hot day in August. My Cajun friend told me it was ironic that the hurricane hit in the holy month of August. I looked puzzled and he said August in New Orleans is so hot even the devil leaves town and we both grinned and shook our heads at the humor in that.

I didn’t go back today, although my friend called at 7 am. She was taking a new recruit. She gets into this more than I do and I could feel the fatigue in my bones. I couldn’t envision what today would bring and I could hear the rain. She’ll bring me more stories. I don’t know what will happen to these people who were put on buses, not told where they were going (two men said they had family in Memphis, but were put on buses going the opposite direction anyway), have nothing to go back to, no immediate help in the future. This is a stopgap measure, not a solution. This is not even a beginning for these people, just one small step out of their misery. I know it’s going to affect us all in many ways in this country.

For me, it was a day to assuage my feelings of helplessness. For these people, it’s one more day in lives of constant struggle. They said “God bless you” to us. God bless them.