Everyone’s writing about Katrina on the 10-year anniversary, and something in me wants to stick my head under pillows. The radio stories with the sounds of children crying in the shelters and people running or yelling at reporters for help put me back in the Lake Charles shelter, on the cement floor in the hall where we, in our red vests, were trying to get people’s (former) addresses, something to identify them, some way to connect them with the thousands of people unconnected. I was there day 6, and over the last 10 years I’ve been sorting what I saw and smelled and heard in the space between Katrina and Rita.
It wasn’t pretty.
One man pissed into a white bucket instead of walking to the bathroom, the bathrooms that weren’t safe even though we, Red Cross volunteers, cleaned them, walked through them, tried to reduce the theft. I emptied his bucket a couple of times. In the women’s bathroom at the coliseum where we had 4,000 “clients,” women showered in pairs, one woman guarding the other’s clothes, towel, and privacy, the other showering. There was no place to do laundry, no place to hang a towel to dry (and the temperature outside was 103 degrees, 90% humidity) so people threw away the towels.
On the first day of dispatch from Houston to Baton Rouge to Lake Charles, four of us volunteers drove together, and became family. We lived in a casino hotel (later destroyed by Rita) and drove together for our 6am to 6pm shift. We signed each other up for special assignments like family processing, which meant hearing the stories and writing them down and getting the paperwork for releasing money, the only money people had access to in a week. That’s why 7 police cars with lights flashing greeted us when we arrived at the little Red Cross headquarters, where 700 people lined up outside from 4am, people hungry, thirsty, desperate to fill gas tanks and prescriptions and baby bottles. Some people with guns. We didn’t put on our vests until we got in the back door. Then, we sat for 12 hours as people told us what happened. We listened. We wrote. We gave out as much money as we could.
|Stephanie and me, 2 of the 4 volunteers who became family in Lake Charles|
That process was shut down the next day. We didn’t know why.
We were dispatched to the 3 cavernous floors of the coliseum in Lake Charles where families of 12 or more or fewer tried to create privacy, especially for their girl-children, by stacking boxes around the stacked mattresses. The mattresses were in 3 long rows, longer than the length of football fields. The 4 of us in red vests tried to look out for the most vulnerable: an elderly grandmother caring for a hyperactive toddler, an Italian mother and daughter who were tourists visiting New Orleans, a 10-year-old girl taken in by strangers who came up to me 3 days in a row to ask me to undo her combination lock (left-right-left). I don’t know why.
The hardest was a young woman who had just given birth. She had family, brothers and sisters, an aunt. Everyone cooed and praised God for the miracle of her safety, the baby’s safe delivery. The next week her drunk uncle killed her entire family in a car wreck a few miles from the shelter, and we tried to wrap her in support, separating her from the cavernous floor, bringing in counselors and social workers, all of us white, all of us with homes we could return to, all of us strangers. She left the room with her baby when we spoke softly the story, the accident, everyone gone. I know why.
On this anniversary, I love seeing the pictures of new “shotgun” houses on FB. What I still can’t bear is the destruction inside the people I met. The people who used “baby” to punctuate their sentences, whose gold teeth filled their smiles, who slapped my back in thanks when I found them the morning paper or a cold bottle of water or a fresh towel. One woman called me “Smiley,” and wrapped her arms around me whenever she saw me. What of them?
I was a witness, only, an interloper, definitely. I neither experienced the storms, nor the years of upheaval, the promises unkept and broken.
From the people who survived Katrina, I’m still learning.