[Written on September 10, 2017, first day of Irma, before Maria…]
Today the winds will break the measuring instruments on the west coast of Florida, a crane may fall on Naples, and too many people are without stars.
On the third day in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the 9th day after Katrina broke the wind meter, if you were displaced, you could get money from the Red Cross, but you had to know where to go. The lines started forming at the little Red Cross office at 3am, and since everyone seemed to own a gun in that state, the police arrived, too. When those of us assigned to the office got there at 6am, police cruisers were flashing their lights and cuffing desperate men who were out of money and food for their children. One of my co-workers said, “Let’s not put on our vests just yet,” and police escorted us through the backdoor.
We heard every story. That was our job. We filled out a packet of forms, and listened to the next. One older man I’ll never forget. His eyes full of cataracts, he kept smoothing down his shirt, the one he had worn since the storm, the only one he now owned. He told me that his wife was diabetic, and they didn’t want to go, everything they had, everything they needed like medication and the machinery was in that house, and the water rose so fast, and they had to swim for it, both of them in their eighties, and he lost his glasses, but he kept ahold of her hand, and the Red Cross gave her insulin, and he looked over my head because he couldn’t see my eyes, 9 days without seeing, and he was here, and he was in the shelter, and he felt lucky. His wife nodded.
The cameras on CNN are blurry with water and shaking, and they go out often. Irma’s hitting now. A fury worse than Katrina’s. And I’m in my house in Portland, OR, my house that doesn’t shake in the wind, a house that is not the first house I’ve owned, is not my only house, and most likely will never flood.
In the shelter for 4,000, we were in the direct path of Rita. And when we saw that white eye, like a cataract in a sea, move toward us on the enormous screens that so many families carted with them into the shelters, their savings accounts, the four of us went to the Red Cross Human Resource person who said, “Get out. Get out now or you won’t get out for weeks.” So, we sat in the orange seats high in the convention center and all four of us dialed and dialed. At three weeks into the disaster, there were 10,000 volunteers, and we couldn’t get through to the Red Cross travel agency. When one of us did get through, we passed the phone down the line. My flight home originally was scheduled for the exact hour that Rita was supposed to hit Houston, and we all got earlier flights. The only reason we got out was because we did not turn in the car we were given to get there and were supposed to turn in. We called it the stealth car because we hid it in plain sight, and we packed it with 6 volunteers and left before the highways were jammed with people trying to escape, that is, the people who could get to cars, the people who had them or knew people who had them.
The people in trailers, in subsidized housing, the people who can’t pay for a bus ticket, who can’t walk, who can’t see, those are the ones who will be lost. One woman told me she lived on the first floor of subsidized housing in her first bed ever. She was older than I was, and she kept saying, it was the wind what scared her. Everything was gone, and when the people made fun of the forms, when they smiled at me and found ways to make me smile, I learned they couldn’t read, and I read them everything they needed. I learned what I needed to write on the forms so they could get as much money as possible.
In the twelve years since Katrina, I’ve eaten eggs almost every breakfast. For the three weeks I was in the shelter, I didn’t eat an egg. With so much flooding, the chickens were wiped out.
Unless you’ve been in a disaster you don’t think of these things.
Irma is still battering Florida as I write this. The wind didn’t break the gauges the way they did in New Orleans, but Irma’s storm surge tore through two stories of everywhere. That means parking garages, trailers, ranch houses, subsidized housing, prisons, banks, hospitals, and libraries. Maybe Florida learned from Louisiana and didn’t store records, like birth certificates in basements. Maybe Florida didn’t open the jails and let inmates out the way Louisiana did, sex offenders released into shelters with children.
When I see the pictures of convention centers and high school gyms packed with people in orange seats in the stadiums, I can’t help but think of the convention center I was in, and how people set up compounds by piling clothes into shopping carts and stacked boxes and TVs to make some sort of privacy, normalcy. Women held up towels to shield girls when they changed their clothes.
How does someone emerge from water like that? How does someone find a star to guide them when all they see is mud or their belongings in a shopping cart?
In the Pacific Northwest, we speak water: landslide, flood, mold, watermark, salmon, sturgeon, waterfall, sneaker wave, tsunami, and now we’re learning fire: drought, burn ban, scorch, fire break, burn-out, ash, fuel, plume, suppression, evacuation. Fires rage across the state. Today the Eagle Creek Fire, started by a teenager tossing fireworks down a gorge, is 7% contained, consuming 31,000 acres, the iconic waterfalls that brought me to Oregon. On the second day the wind made the fire leap 16 miles in 9 hours. A horse cannot escape fire that fast.
When the winds subside in Hurricane Irma, people will line up for everything: bathrooms, trays of overcooked food, showers, electrical outlets to charge phones, computers to register their missing family members, confessionals. They will not eat fresh fruit. They will not drink milk. And they will not receive credit cards from the Red Cross because the country, as it did in Katrina, will not have enough plastic made to make the cards. We had to wait. In Katrina, we waited with people who were desperate for money, for gas although the pumps were empty, for medications, and no one told us when the cards would come because they didn’t know. The credit card companies had to get the factories to make the cards, and those factories were under water. With millions of people in Florida needing help, I doubt there will not be enough plastic for them, either.
The clients, that’s what we called them, always knew more than we, the volunteers, knew, and one day during the third week, the shelter was packed. FEMA checks were arriving. We had a riot. The National Guard had already been called in. These were men and women called back from Iraq, from serving in the war, soldiers whose houses were flooded, and they were called to guard Americans from harming Americans in the shelter. They were disoriented, grief-stricken, and angry. On September 11, the National Guard personnel were going to do a brief ceremony to honor the victims of 9/11, and another volunteer said, “Don’t be crazy” when I said I was going to go. He said, “Think about it. They’re going to fire their guns, and what’s the sound of guns going to do to someone just back from war?” I didn’t go. Nothing bad happened, but we had war-weary soldiers guarding displaced, dispirited people who had lost everything, who owned guns, who had no money, and who were tired of lines and wanted their $2,000 checks from FEMA. We had a riot.
In the shelter, we had 3 Sarah Jones. And Sarah A. Jones, a woman in her 60s, shook her head when she passed me after the riot and people settled into lines. I asked what was wrong, and she said another Sarah Jones had stolen her check.
And then, there was an older woman, maybe in her 90s, who refused to give her address when she was picking up her check. She told me, “Baby, I’m getting money. Why would I want to let my good-for-nothing grandchildren know where I live? Besides, my house is gone.” She tucked her check into her bra and walked away. A lot of people didn’t want to be found after the disaster.
The first days I was there, families were frantic to find each other. A man, whose day job was sweeping streets in New Orleans, had single-handedly set up a computer lab with donated desktops. We figured out how to register people in the Red Cross database.
One of the most amazing moments of my life started with a friend of the man who created the computer lab. She called me, Smiley, because I smiled a lot, because my heart was breaking and that’s how I coped, because I was born to pay attention to people’s stories, and she told me that her son had been in jail and was being released on parole, and she knew where he was being held but hadn’t heard from him, so I started calling down the list of social service agencies, and no one was picking up. But then Catholic Charities did, and somehow someone there knew the priest that visited that correctional facility, and I called that priest, and he knew that boy, and he would try to find the boy. And that evening, when we were able to give another inmate the microphone for the PA system, this huge guy we couldn’t find clothes for, who sang gospel all day long, earphones connected to a Walkman a volunteer gave him, his face dripping with the fervor, and he sang praise, and I was standing in the middle of the main floor where his voice echoed in the convention hall where we couldn’t see the sky, and men and women rose to their feet, children quieted down, and women sang harmony. The man sang over the loudspeaker, “Jesus,” and I was standing with tears running down my cheek, and my phone rang, and it was the priest who had the boy on the line, and I was standing next to his mother and handed her the phone, and after she hung up, we cried in each other’s arms.
That’s the moment I hold on to.
I hope there are moments for those people in shelters all over Florida, in the shelters where they will eat boxed cereal and powdered milk for breakfast, where they will have to guard their towels and clothes when they take showers, where they will have to wait for government money that will be too little, where they will have to find the paperwork that says they exist, they were born, they paid taxes because by the third week after a disaster, almost every claim is fraud.
I hope there are people looking for their relatives in shelters. I hope there are neighbors bringing fresh food to each other. I hope no one will be too busy, move on to the next disaster, to forget that each person needs a star, something to guide them, to hold on to.