August 28, 2005. It was the last day of a week-long vacation with my family on Cape Cod. My daughter and her husband had leased a summer cottage, with accommodations to sleep ten. And the best part, a beat-up pine table, long enough for a late night, full-on family and friends game of Mexican Train, until only one was left standing.
Television and contact with the troubled world was off limits, crabbing, wave plunging, power lounging, shell collecting and sunning preferred. But my last night, with a return flight to Texas the next day, I rummaged for the clicker, and surfed for a weather report. There it was. A wrathful crimson eye, filling the whole Gulf of Mexico, headed dead-on for New Orleans.
As my plane flew south toward San Antonio, I knew that by now Hurricane Katrina had made landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast. But where? I had Georgia - and Alabama, and Mississippi, and Louisiana - on my mind, with room for little else. Once home, like the rest of America, I sat riveted to the television. The whole Gulf Coast was in ruins, but New Orleans had the additional blow, levee breaks which flooded the low lying areas.
Again and again, the news stations played a clip of a young girl filmed in front of the New Orleans Superdome, desperately chanting the unimaginable. “We want help. We want help.” Could any of us believe what we saw happening in the United States of America? No help anywhere, day after day? Impossible! I ached for New Orleans, and took the betrayal personally. Where had my country gone? Only Anderson Cooper’s steely blue gaze and frank truth-telling, “Keeping them honest,” made me believe in human decency.
Over and over I tried to get through to the San Antonio Red Cross, but the lines were jammed. Local news reports had announced that shelters were opening in San Antonio. As a Red Cross Volunteer, this was the only place I wanted to be, so I decided to just show up.
Kelly USA, once a vital military base, now closed to active duty, provided endless space for refuge shelter. The walls vibrated from the din of desperate activity. Camouflage clad soldiers broke down office cubicles, unloaded sleeping cots, food and medical supplies. Nametags were everywhere and security tight, as workers from agencies all across the city hastily arranged aid stations. Volunteers spread out lists, posted names and locations of survivors in other towns, other shelters, waved their arms and shouted directions, “Put it over there. Over here!”
9-11, 9-11, my mind beat like a drum. This country has been here before. But I remembered too, the words my grandmother use to say, “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.” Tearing down to build up? Reminding us who we are? That we are all the same beneath the skin of race, politics and religion?
With a lump in my throat, and trying not to cry, I stood in shock on the blistering concrete pavement outside, numbly waiting and watching as desperate survivors poured from buses, finally delivering them from death and dying at New Orleans’ Third World Superdome. As a Mental Health worker, my job was to assess needs, give mental status exams, make referrals for medical care, and see that the lost were found. I grabbed a clip board, grateful to do something - anything - and headed into the crush.
Kelly’s hallways, broad enough to accommodate a military tank and a Humvee or two on the side, were a clogged stream of dark humanity. Week-old, putrid Mississippi mud matted in their hair, clung to their garments, briny Gulf waters parched their skin. Nameless voices shouted to name tags. But not, as I had anticipated, “Where is the food?” Instead, they spoke to their greater need for cleansing, washing away the pain, heart and mind, body and soul. “Where are the clothes? Can I get a shower?” The stench of human struggle overwhelmed my senses, but stories of courage and faith, took my breath away.
A wrinkled grandmother and young girl, once Ninth Ward neighbors -- one black, one white - both lost family members when the rising flood waters breeched the levees. Terrified, they clung to each other, castaways on a flimsy scrap of wood until they were rescued. “We held hands the whole time,” they said with love radiating from their eyes, as they cast a proud glance at one another. “And we’ll hold hands ‘til we’re safe.”
There was the bent old gentleman, so polite, a survivor himself, yet he insisted in spite of his own physical needs, “Show me to the kitchen. I’ve worked my whole life as a cook on an offshore drilling rig. These people need my help and I’m goin’ to give it!”
These people demonstrated selfless concern, as if they were all part of a bigger family, returned home to the vast cavern of makeshift rooms. They had hope. They had faith. Forget professionalism. Forget my well-trained ability to remain detached. The light shining in their faces reminded me of deep truth. We are our brothers’ keeper. I knew I would never be the same.
Katrina lay New Orleans waste, thirty-five days before my American Airlines flight touched down at the Crescent City Airport, City of Soul. Part of a team recruited by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, I was swept along in the second flood. Compassion, long overdue, finally opened her arms to embrace The Big Easy.
The airport was deserted. Humanity was out there somewhere, but not here. Generated electricity cast eerie beams of light down dim corridors. Our team had been warned: Water not safe to drink or bathe. No electricity. No public services of any kind. Food? Catch-as-catch-can. Bring two days supply.
Brown hair listlessly grazed the face of the Avis Rental Agent, her eyes filled with who knows what terror. Having shown up for work in a world gone mad, her body crumpled uneasily on the a high stool behind the counter. Rigidly she fixed her gaze, and said, “Don’t you think they should have cleaned this place up before they brought us back? It was used for a morgue you know.”
I wanted to plunge behind the counter and wrap her in my arms, but this was business. The more normal we acted, the more normal we would feel. Stupidly I shook my head up and down, scrawled my signature on the rental contract, shivered and said, “Thank you for being here. We couldn’t do without you.”
The streets were all but empty, except for an occasional car or wandering truck. No movement. No human sounds. Rank sludge and watery remains cut a muddy swath across concrete overpasses, twisted vehicles mounded in rusting heaps, trash and sludge buried chain link fences. I couldn’t stop an explosion of tears, as I maneuvered around the spaghetti bowl of highways, and right there, looming straight ahead was the Superdome, much larger and more ominous than it appeared on television.
My downtown destination, Le Pavilion, would be the teams’ resting place, or so we had been told. A culturally out-of-place sea of insignia shirts crammed the chandeliered, elegantly carpeted and appointed lobby. Large bowls of ice stuffed with plastic water bottles were arranged on pedestals at the elevator doors. The NOLA water supply was not safe to drink, bathing not recommended. Team leaders from rescue and restoration organizations all across the country shouted at bewildered clerks behind the desk, and demanded rooms. I felt a thrill of hope that so many were now responding to New Orleans' need. FEMA, EPA, insurance adjusters, the shirts declared the wearers intent and expertise. But I wondered: What is left to adjust?
Soon there would be no room in the inn. This was not a vacation. The SAMHSA Team, like everyone else, scrambled in the chaos for a dry, accessible place to sleep. We would make do. It was distressing. It was unsettling. It was Katrina.
Before I turned in my rented blue Chevy at the end of two weeks, I traveled a thousand miles to work destinations, in clinics and shelters across the Lake Ponchatrain thirty mile expanse of causeway, to the battered North Shore. Everywhere I went, on every drawn and troubled face, the stories were the same: loss of loved ones, loss of property, families dispersed to who knows where? But no matter what losses had been experienced, someone else “had it worse.” Across the colorless landscape of devastation, human compassion was in full bloom.
Along with convoys of yellow repair trucks, and a sparse number of ordinary vehicles, I drove alone most every morning. For an ecstatic half hour I watched the grey dawn give way, relinquishing its shadowy hold on the city. A brilliant sun rose from murky waters, bathing me with transcendent wonder. In the early morning stillness, skimming across the watery deep, my whole body tingled with awareness and I knew: God and Goddess -- the Lady of Soul -- are here. They are smiling on this place, these people, and me. It made all the difference.