On Tuesday, New Orleans commemorated the 12th anniversary of the August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina landfall. Ironically, Harvey was waiting in the wings. What happened with Katrina provides lessons for those dealing with Harvey.
Many do not realize the Red Cross is funded primarily through donations. Damage from Katrina plus that from subsequent Hurricane Rita was so extensive, it became the greatest challenge in the history of the American Red Cross. There is no charge for Red Cross shelters or for the food and supplies it distributes. The organization incurred huge debt which forced it to consolidate operations and reduce staff and shaped the way it still works today.
My personal opinion is the people of New Orleans were betrayed by their corrupt local politicians and state officials. Then in their grief, they lashed out at the federal government and sometimes even at the Red Cross for not providing relief that properly should have been planned in advance at the local and state level.
There were 1464 officially recognized deaths in New Orleans. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. Those who returned often found their homes destroyed or intact but with no water, electricity or gas. Others found roofs damaged, water-soaked moldy walls, damaged furniture and appliances. In mid-December 2005, the Red Cross was still providing over thirty thousand meals a day to the people of Louisiana.
There is often a huge out-pouring of support right after a disaster. But that support tends to wane as weeks and months pass by. Knowing that, and because we do not have children, I chose to go to New Orleans just before Christmas. I drove an emergency response vehicle, ERV, with two other volunteers delivering food for three weeks. It was very rewarding. It was an eye-opening experience.
The news media immediately focuses on the extent of the disaster and the suffering. Interspersed are stories of heroes and sacrifice. Then as time goes by and public interest flags, they being to look for what is going wrong. They interview what a nurse in New Orleans called BMWs, bitchers, moaners and whiners.
My first impression on arriving was I wasn’t as needed as I thought. There was no shortage of volunteers; college students were out in force during their holiday break.
Secondly, I did not meet the BMWs on the street. The people I met were happy to be alive, had put their grief behind them, were working hard to repair their homes and were grateful for the support they were receiving.
Most food stores were still not open. Volunteers from Baptist churches slept on a church sanctuary floor, got up at two o’clock in the morning, and prepared food in large mobile kitchens owned by the Southern Baptist Convention to be loaded on our ERVs for a seven a.m. departure.
On Christmas day, we had a few toys and cards to give out donated by children from around the country. Some volunteers bought more on their own. Until told it was prohibited, volunteers also bought dog food to take on their ERVs for stray dogs.
Perhaps because we were so close to the operation, we were surprised when some people thought we were paid to be there. The Red Cross operates almost totally on donated money with a few federal grants, and ninety-eight percent of its staff are volunteers. Phil, the site supervisor, was a bartender from Maryland. He arrived the day before Katrina hit. Terry, the kitchen supervisor, was an insurance broker from New Jersey. Uba, a second generation Croatian, was a twenty-one year old student from Wisconsin. Margaret was a retired South Carolina school teacher. Rufus was a mortician from North Carolina. Young man E’an, a second generation American from Scotland, was from Oregon. Probably Jessie traveled the furthest. He was a student at the University of Hawaii, but his home was in Bogota, Columbia. Tito, a Puerto Rican, was a retired transit worker from the Bronx. Usa, whose mother was from Thailand, was a biology student at Cornell. David was a California lifeguard. Mike was a fishing guide from Montana. Matthew was a Tuscarora Indian from New York. Roberta was our oldest volunteer at seventy-eight.
We drove up and down the streets delivering food every day except Sundays when we also were in a church parking lot in the afternoon. By odd coincidence, I spent two Christmases away from my wife, one thirty-five years earlier in Viet Nam and that one in the parking lot of a New Orleans Vietnamese church.
We met people who lost family members in the storm. We met people who seemed to have lost everything. They continued to smile. Unless distracted, they always said “thank you” and frequently “God bless you for being here.” Even elderly Vietnamese who spoke almost no English and held up fingers to indicate the number of meals needed said “thank you very much.” One group of men asked if they could pray. Of course, we said yes. We thought they wanted to give thanks for their food, but they wanted to pray for our well-being.
Although it is strictly forbidden by Red Cross rules, how could we reject three small gifts wrapped in red tissue given to us by an African-American woman on Christmas day. She gave Roger a calendar, Amy a pen and me an eyeglass repair kit I still own.
During our time on the ERV, Roger and I served (with Bill and later Amy) 8505 meals. At that point, the American Red Cross had a 30.35 million dollar loss to make up. It got bigger.
Before Harvey made landfall in Texas, Red Cross volunteers were already gathering in Texas and Louisiana. Harvey did not cause as many deaths as Katrina but damage is more wide-spread and recovery will also take months. Complete recovery takes years.
I can no longer deploy out of our area. Southwest Florida, however, has its own flooding [but much smaller]. Our local Red Cross opened shelters, and I spent yesterday again driving up and down streets, but this time helping with “disaster assessment” to assist in later relief decisions. As I said, it is a rewarding and eye-opening experience.
Please remember your support will be needed not just now but for months to come. You might even want to consider going to http://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer. They are swamped right now but will continue to need help later.
Click on photos to enlarge.