Thursday, October 20, 2005

Louisiana: Week Two

For some reason, the 2nd week is a lot more blurry than the 1st or 3rd. I think Killer Fatigue may have set in such that all I did was get up, work and go to sleep. I didn't really go out at night and didn't write in my journal (bad girl) beyond lists of keywords so I could try to fill in the blanks later. If my bunkmates were lucky I showered. That is actually something that sticks out from Week Two: the showers.

Back at Spirit you had two choices:
  1. The hazmat decontamination tents, which felt a bit like a human version of the car wash, with spray nozzles coming at you from all sides.
  2. Showers in the back of semi-truck trailer.

In both cases, Red Cross volunteers were in charge of cleaning them, which may not have happened all that often given the other work we were doing.

But at the First Baptist Church in Covington, the Southern Baptist Convention brought showers with them that they staffed for their own use and ours. They provided soap and shampoo, clean towels and washcloths, and THEY CLEANED THE SHOWERS DAILY! That was pretty sweet. Thanks Southern Baptist Convention!

I think the other reason Week Two is a blur is because that is the week my ERV went into Slidell. We'd leave Covington between 10 and 11 AM with 600-1000 meals and not come back until 8-9 PM (that is not including an hour on each end to load and unload/clean the ERV). To give you an idea of the condition Slidell was in after Katrina, our staff EMT (Hi Joy!) once said driving into Slidell, "Welcome to Hell." Unlike the areas I'd serviced my first week, Slidell had taken the full force of both wind and water, being right on Lake Pontchetrain. We couldn't even find people to feed on part of our assigned route because there was literally nothing left standing. The people we did feed were those who couldn't yet live in their home, but came during the day to completely gut the inside. Everything: furniture, clothes, carpeting, drywall, refridgerators, stoves...literally everything was put out on the curb. Some of the fridges still had magnets holding up kids' drawings on them. And those were just large items I could make out from the ERV window. That doesn't include all the "little things" like photos and keepsakes that were destroyed in the high floodwaters.

Most people seemed to be in surprising high spirits. I think that is a combination of the fact that four weeks had passed since Katrina so some of the initial shock had passed, if that is possible. Also, it is one of those situations where if you don't find things to laugh about, you'll cry. I heard over and over again, "It is just stuff. We are blessed because we are all safe and alive." I'd like to thing I could have the same positive outlook. But there were those people that came up to the window that appeared to be in shock. I often asked people where they slept at night. Most were with family and friends, but I met one guy who was sleeping in his wet, dark house with no lights or air conditioning. He put packs of ice over his body when he slept at night. And the eldery woman who told me "this is no way to lose weight." She'd lost 25 pds in 4 weeks cleaning out her house.

I didn't realize exactly how cushy my ERV routes had been the first week until Slidell. Navigating around downed power lines and flooded roads (I wasn't driving, but was sympathetic to Doreen- certified ERV driver and partner in crime). We got a flat tire in Slidell one day and I really needed a bathroom. Well, every place was closed (and even if it had been open, many people put their toilets out on the curb with everything else). We blew the tire near a church, so I tried there: No lights and full of mud. I finally noticed that a construction crew repairing a washed out bridge had a porta potty. I was afraid to just walk out onto the bridge (something about the "Danger: Do not Cross" sign) so I yelled from 25 yards away, "Hey guys, can I use your john?".

Another time we drove around for 20 minutes looking for anyplace to go to the bathroom when we remembered there was another kitchen and staff shelter right in Slidell. Well, we walked into that church and it too had been flooded. Everything from the floor to four feet up was gutted- no flooring, pipes exposed. We found the ladies restroom and there sat three bowls. There was no tile on the floor, no drywall, and no stalls. Just garbage bags duct taped together as dividers and no doors. We didn't complain- we were just glad to have a bathroom (and that it wasn't our staff shelter). There were Red Crossers staying there! Besides, I couldn't complain about harsh conditions when A) that is what I signed up for and B) there are survivors living that reality everyday- I only had to do it during daylight for a week.

I think at that point there were still 3 kitchens and 20 some ERVs serving in Covington/Mandeville/Slidell area. But some of these areas were getting back to normal. Covington was pretty much open for business, although often at reduced hours because a lot of the staff were still evacuated. They had power and water. So those ERV routes were shut down once we knew people were going to be okay without us. This resulted in access ERVs in the area. So when word came down that Baton Rouge HQ was requesting ERVs and ERV crews for places hit by Rita, we volunteered to be reassigned.

Which brings me to Week 3. To be Continued

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Louisiana: Week One

I left on September 20th, three weeks after Katrina hit and a few days before Rita. I returned 21 days later on October 10th.

Normally one doesn't join the Red Cross after a disaster. But due to the enormity of Katrina, The Red Cross needed additional volunteers than those already on call. I first contacted the Minneapolis Area Chapter on Tuesday September 13th and left 7 days later following training in Disaster Services, Mass Care and Shelter Operations.

I flew into Baton Rouge, where the Red Cross had a massive Staging area for all disaster relief in the State of Louisiana. The Baton Rouge HQ was housed in an old Wal-mart. After some paperwork and orientation, I was assigned to "Feeding," one component of Mass Care services. The staff at the Feeding workstation signed me up to be a kitchen tech in Covington, but my departure was delayed pending a meeting on Hurricane Rita. They needed to make sure it was safe for us to go there and determine the likelihood I would have to turn around and be evacuated. They eventually decided to send 7 of us from Baton Rouge to Covington.

We then arrived at yet another Red Cross staging area in Covington. This office oversaw all personnel for some 5 kitchens and 12 client (evacuee) shelters in the Covington area. We were assigned to Spirit of America kitchen in nearby Mandeville of St. Tammany Parish. Spirit of America is the Red Cross' largest mobile kitchen, capable of preparing 30,000 meals a day. The Red Cross provides the food through in-kind donations and food purchased with donation money. Members of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Convention staff the kitchen and prepare the meals. The Baptists then return the food to the Red Cross for distribution. This was true of the 3 kitchens I ended up working at during my 21 days.

Spirit of America was in the parking lot of the St. Tammany Center. The Red Cross staff shelter was on the third floor of the Center, in the classrooms of Southeastern Louisiana University. In addition to the kitchen, the parking lot was used as a sort of open-air warehouse with everything from generators, food, water, tent showers, coolers, baby supplies, tarps, etc. I would estimate there were some 200 workers staying in the Spirit shelter. In addition to the Southern Baptists and American Red Cross, there were volunteers from the French, Norwegian and Canadian Red Cross as well.

My first day at Spirit, the Red Cross asked us 7 new folks to help with shelter consolidation. There were several evacuee shelters closing and consolidating into 1 new shelter. Because 3 weeks had passed since Katrina hit, these shelters were running under capacity as people either found temporary housing or were able to return home. Plus the shelter we helped close was in a school that was probably getting ready to reopen. Shelter consolidation can't be easy on the clients. They've already been displaced and had to adapt to new surroundings at least once. While a shelter will never be home, I imagine clients would be attached to some degree to whatever shelter they had been in. They knew the other residents, had their belongings organized and sleeping accommodations set up the way they wanted, only to be moved into a new place where they'd be sleeping next to new people. I know it was hard for me just to switch staff shelters, and I had the benefit of knowing I had a home to go to.

For two days after the shelter consolidation, the kitchens shut down for Rita. The day before Rita, the ERVs took out MREs so clients would have extra food while the kitchens were closed. We were on the outer cusp of Rita, receiving some wind and heavy rain, but otherwise unscathed. Our decontamination tent showers were blown over. I felt safe because the Tammany Center is designed to be an evacuation shelter and had already survived Katrina with no damage. While some people welcomed a break from 12 hour workdays, I was going stir-crazy. I felt like I was taking a break before I had really gotten started.

After Rita, I was assigned to work on ERVs (emergency response vehicle). ERVs are essentially an ambulance modified to work as a mobile feeding line. The ERV coordinator for Spirit would assign ERV crews and routes. ERVs usually had a crew of 3 (driver and two in the back doing feeding). The driver would get on a PA system that could be heard for 3 blocks announcing that the Red Cross was there with hot food and cold water. Meals included beef stew, chicken and dumplins, BBQ beef patties, Chicken patties, Corn beef hash, ravioli, chili, red beans & rice. There would always be a side of veggies, side of fruit and some bread. We would also hand out snacks , drinks and bags of ice. Sometimes we'd have juice or gatorade, which was a welcomed change from water.

After about a week in Mandeville, word came down that the University wanted their building back to resume classes. There were rumors for a few days that we were going to move into a tent on the other side of the parking lot, but that idea was eventually squashed. Not sure if it was because the powers that be decided to close Spirit of America or because of the fire ants in the field where the tent was supposed to go. But either way we packed up and moved to another kitchen in Covington and a staff shelter at a Baptist Church. Spirit of America was supposed to be going into New Orleans while the remaining kitchens would service the Covington/Mandeville/Slidell area.

Next time: Week Two

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I'm back

So I got back Monday from my three week volunteer stint with the Red Cross. I'm still at a loss as to how to describe my experience. The awesome camaraderie I felt with my fellow volunteers, the frustration with the inevitable inefficiency at times and the way in which I was most certainly ready to return home and never leave at the same time. I managed to take 6 rolls of film but all the pictures in the world can never encompass the darkness of New Orleans at night, a post apocalyptic ghost town with no working street lights. Or the smell of a Slidell neighborhood that had been evacuated, flooded and left festering until homeowners could return to completely gut their their homes. One snapshot of a lake-front home in Slidell that has been reduced to a pile of matchsticks doesn't show how this devastation continues for a mile or more down the road. My observations of returning to "normal" life thus far: It is cold in Minnesota compared to Louisiana. I'm suffering from media cluelessness as I went from watching the news 24-7 with the rest of America after Katrina to practically no TV, newspaper, internet or radio for three weeks. My hurricane injuries are healing (ok, so a few scabby mosquito bites and my grazed knuckles from trying to open a bottle of Heineken with a rental car key in the parking lot of a Baptist church). It is very satisfying to shower in a facility that is neither a decontamination tent or semi-truck trailer and one which doesn't require wearing flip flops in fear of gangrene. After three weeks on army cots, I feel a bit like Tom Hanks in Cast Away when he returns home and is more comfortable sleeping on the floor than in a bed. Or perhaps that is just because my girlfriend and the cat got used to having the bed to themselves, as evidenced by my pillow on the couch and the bite marks on my toes. After a day at home, my immune and adrenaline systems said, "Well, I guess you don't need me no more" and I promptly got a cold, slept for 12 hours and my back gave out.

But I must not be too messed up because I passed my mental health exit interview in Baton Rouge and the Red Cross "stress team" called me at home the other night and I didn't seem to raise any major red flags (or he was very good and covering up my true diagnosis and the people in the white coats are on their way as we speak).

I missed a few things while I was gone. I was a bad girlfriend and missed Allegra's gigs (storytelling gig for U.S. Fringe Festival conference, Sax in benefit for New Orleans musicians and a band concert). I also didn't make it to the Cirque de Soliel touring performance we'd had tickets for since April. I seem to have missed Fall. When I left Minneapolis it was in the 80s and now there are Christmas Cards for sale in Walgreens.

Also, she and the in-laws completely redecorated the apartment while I was away. The place looks awesome. We basically live in zig-zagging hallway and weren't making the best use of the limited space. My Real Simple subscribing Mother-in-law rearranged furniture and installed curtain rods and shelves galore until there was enough storage space in our apartment for all the shit Allegra still had in her parents' garage. My only gripe is that I noticed my Kung Fu Fighting Hamster got stashed in a closet. The only thing I have to say about that is, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner!".

More thoughts and photos to come. Until then, check out fellow volunteer MJ's thoughts on returning home. MJ and I were assigned to the same kitchen my first week.