|Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans August 29, 2005|
A dozen years ago, I responded to the call for federal agencies to send volunteers to work with FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I was one of 272 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to serve with what then was called Crisis Corps. From November 7 to December 7, I worked in Beaumont, TX, with refugees from those twin disasters. When I returned I wrote a piece called "Fe, Fi, Foe, FEMA," which was published in my local weekly, the Colville Statesman-Examiner, as well as Peace Corps Writers online. Here's a link to the original article...
And here's an update I wrote this past May:
"One can't predict the weather more than a few days in advance." –Stephen Hawking
A dozen years ago I decorated a Christmas spruce with treasured trinkets. As I positioned a miniature violin from Vienna, an embroidered heart from Kenya, a carved parrot from Costa Rica, I reflected on the people I'd met a few weeks earlier at FEMA's Disaster Recovery Center.
I wondered then what I’d do if all my possessions abruptly ceased to exist. Not only my Christmas ornaments, but everything... my income tax returns, birth certificate, photographs, school annuals, marriage license. That’s what had happened to people in the Gulf States that year.
Their belongings had washed away in the New Orleans floods that followed Hurricane Katrina, or had rotted in the house trailers of Beaumont, Texas, on the heels of Hurricane Rita.
When that harrowing first storm approached New Orleans, my husband and I had been huddled in a shipboard cabin, staring at our TV screen. We'd long anticipated our Alaska cruise. But our enjoyment had been diminished by the scenes of crowds pouring into the Louisiana Superdome, seeking shelter.
I'd turned to Ken. "If the predictions are right, this could be a horrendous disaster."
"There's nothing we can do about it, baby. Let's relax and enjoy our cruise."
We tried. We gazed at totem poles, marveled at calving glaciers, and feasted on steak and lobster. When we returned home, the evening news still was filled with the plight of people who couldn't evacuate New Orleans before the hurricane hit and the levee system failed.
|ms Amsterdam, Holland America|
"There might be something I can do," I said. "I'm a therapist. Maybe I could help some of those who are being uprooted. I'm going to check into it."
My husband nodded. "Do what you think is right."
Health and Human Services reported that over 30,000 medical personnel had come forward to volunteer. Unfortunately, I'd been unable to serve in my professional capacity as a licensed clinical social worker. My California license wouldn't be accepted in Louisiana. I resigned myself to sitting on the sidelines. I sent a check to the Red Cross. It was the least I could do.
Then, weeks later, the winds of Hurricane Rita destroyed a wide swatch of gulf coast homes. Uprooted trees toppled homes. Hot temperatures and soggy furniture paired to create layers of mold. Hundreds of thousands now sought emergency shelter.
Federal agencies sought volunteers. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, in late October I received an e-mail asking if I could serve with Crisis Corps. For the first time in Peace Corps' history, Volunteers would work here in the States rather than on foreign soil.
"What do you think, Ken? If I join Crisis Corps, I might be assigned to work with the toddlers evacuated to Arkansas and other surrounding states."
I could depend on Ken to give me the answer I'd been hoping for. When we'd first married, I'd heard him brag to old friends about my adventures with Peace Corps. Now I overheard him bragging anew of how I’d be one of 270 former Peace Corps Volunteers who would serve with the Katrina Initiative.
Peace Corps rolled out assignments, sending new batches of Volunteers weekly. I didn't leave until November 7 when I flew to Orlando to be trained as a FEMA "affiliate." Instead of conducting play therapy sessions with children, I'd be processing applications for aid in one of the Texas FEMA Disaster Recovery Center outposts. I’d return home December 7.
My job was to greet and register applicants at the reception desk area, nearly 300 of them a day, working 12-hour, six-day weeks.
Even now I still remember several. There'd been Carol, a carefully-coifed 74-year-old blonde, who'd sobbed that she'd put a gun to her head if she were to be put out of her midtown Holiday Inn on the deadline FEMA initially had announced. Though FEMA and Texas agreed to extend this deadline, I wondered if she’d go to church on Christmas morning. She'd lost 40 pounds since Rita roared over Beaumont, destroying her travel trailer and her personal belongings. She owned one decent outfit, purchased at Goodwill.
For a while, she’d believed God was punishing her. But when her application had been accepted for a mobile home, she brightened.
“I’ll have a home now,” she told me. “I’ll be happy.”
Cathy, who'd broken her collarbone in an auto collision just days before Rita swooped through, had been a mandatory evacuee. She'd been bussed to Houston, housed in a hotel there, hours from her local physician and available medical treatment. Because she wasn't allowed to take Heidi, her border collie, she'd boarded the dog into a local kennel. Heidi escaped during the hurricane aftermath. Now Cathy roamed Beaumont, posting flyers about the missing pet.
“It doesn’t feel like home without Heidi,” she said.
Jim and his son Bobby came weekly to check on the status of their applications for personal property damages. Jim had been evacuated earlier from New Orleans when his 9th Ward home had been washed away. Then he and his Beaumont son fled oncoming Rita.
“I’m Rita,” Bobby said, grinning, “And Dad's Katrina.” He understood FEMA’s habit of identifying applicants by disasters. “We’re glad we got each other.”
Over a decade later, the full extent of the hurricane damage remains unknown. An area nearly the size of the United Kingdom had been declared a federal disaster zone. Close to 600,000 Americans eventually had volunteered help in some form.
I still remember that all the people I met at FEMA wanted one thing most of all…to go home. Even when there was no home…no schools, no daycare centers, no grocery stores, no houses, no apartments. Nobody wanted to be relocated forever.
"I realize New Orleans might flood again," one grandmother said. "But it's home. That makes me happy."
A few years after the hurricanes, my husband died. I no longer put up Christmas trees. Without him to share the holiday traditions, I'd lost interest. And the home we shared no longer felt like home.
I know that everything we hold dear could be swept away. What remains are memories and yes, a longing for place, for what feels like home.
So, I sold my house and gave away nearly everything I owned, including those Christmas ornaments. I no longer treasure trinkets.
I’ve moved back to California, not far from where I grew up. I’m near my son, near old friends. I live alone in a tiny apartment. I'm safe. I'm comfortable. I'm home.
At Christmas, I’m happy to simply hang a wreath on my door.
|Houston, TX, August 28, 2017|