Katrina up close

A first hand account of a seasoned multifamily professional's experience as a Katrina volunteer.

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Katherine Gibson made a spontaneous decision to volunteer for rescue efforts after Katrina hit New Orleans. Exactly one week after the hurricane struck she was on the spot. Moved by the plight of people she saw on TV, Gibson devoted herself to the needs of others. Hats off to her for her selfless and giving response to a tragedy that affected so many Americans.

Read her journal entries below for a chilling and humbling first hand look at the early days of the rescue efforts.

I felt compelled to help the victims of this disaster via the Red Cross. I witnessed firsthand, the damage Katrina caused in Boca Raton when she first came ashore, but what I saw on the Gulf was a thousand times more devastating. On Monday, August 29, Katrina crashed ashore again, on Tuesday I called The Red Cross, then completed over sixteen hours of classes. On Saturday I was told that I was going to be deployed and one week after Katrina hit, I was in Louisiana with volunteers from more than 90 countries. There were over 13,000 Red Cross volunteers and I am proud to say I was one of them.

We were told that conditions were horrendous. There was no electricity, no air conditioning, no potable water, limited cell phone coverage and no hard line coverage. We were advised to take sturdy, waterproof hiking boots because there were snakes in the contaminated water. Despite the forewarning, I still found myself, one week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, driving from Baton Rouge, LA to Slidell, LA. I was unsure of what to expect, but I knew I was in for a life changing experience. What I received was so much more than I expected and by far the most rewarding three weeks of my life. I witnessed the incredibly destructive force of nature, but also witnessed another force —  the powerful strength of people uniting. This is my story.

Assignment: feed the victims

My choices for assignment were Feeding or Sheltering, I selected Feeding and was processed through Baton Rouge. I did not know what exactly Feeding entailed, but I knew I’d be helping. Being a first responder, I arrived in Baton Rouge only two days after headquarters opened; I had my pick of where I wanted to go. New Orleans was not an option, so I decided on Slidell, only twenty miles northeast of New Orleans. Slidell sustained winds of 175 miles an hour, which uprooted and snapped trees, and left gaping holes in homes which water and mud from Lake Pontchartrain filled at a rate of four feet in fifteen minutes. My family and friends were concerned when I called to tell them what I would be doing for the next three weeks, but it was vitally important for me to be where I could really help.

“Home’ for the next three weeks was on a National Wildlife refuge in Lacombe, with FEMA, firefighters, police officers from around the country, a kitchen crew from Phoenix, and the Fish and Wildlife Agency who provided us the only news updates we received. Approximately eighty of us, men and women with the Red Cross, slept side-by-side on cots about four inches apart in a converted chapel using the confessionals as dressing rooms.

My days began at 6:30 am. By 9:00 each morning we had loaded our ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) with hot meals, which we served one-by-one in take-out boxes, with cold drinks and snacks. When we had packed as much as we could hold and still get into the truck ourselves, we would start on the first of two five hour routes. The food was prepared at Grace Baptist Church by the Southern Baptist Commission from Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama. The church also collected donated toys for the children and clothing for the residents. The Chaplain allowed me to gather as many new toys as possible to distribute to children who had lost everything.

Inside the truck we mentally prepared for our day. It was hot, very hot, with temperatures in the high 90s and even though the AC was on in the front of the truck, the hot food and open window made for very hot, long days. Our second five hour feeding run usually finished around 8:00 pm, we then cleaned the truck and headed twenty minutes to the refuge where I grabbed a light dinner and talked with others about their day. With no electricity, the lights powered by generators went out at 10:30 pm, and there was little else to do but sleep.

Devastating effects

The windows of the ERV were portals to a landscape that nobody would have recognized a few weeks earlier. I saw a car sitting on top of a mailbox, downed trees that made streets impassable and tangled utility wires littering streets. Inside my ERV was a cast of unforgettable characters. Our driver Eloy, a Vietnam vet from Waco, Texas, had been through war, mud slides, fires and floods as a Red Cross veteran. I’ll never forget Eloy, he constantly told me “Don’t ever change, you have a beautiful heart.” And Ruben, a born-again Christian from California, who was quiet and pensive, and cracked an occasional smile. And me, a recently unemployed marketing and sales professional, who the crew decided would be best in the window handing out food and talking to each resident, listening to their survival stories and trying to make them laugh and smile.

Our route rarely changed, except when streets were blocked by utility trucks or debris. No matter what, the residents found us, even when they had to chase us on foot or hop on a bike to catch us on the next block. The people on our route became family and they expected and depended on us. Emotions swept over many, like the winds and flood waters that metaphorically brought them together. These people were courageous survivors. The most amazing sights were the selfless acts of cooperation I saw. Slidell embodied the spirit of caring, the people were resilient and grateful. The ERV brought people together, neighbors who had never met before came together at our truck twice a day, and like me, I’m sure they made lifelong friends. The children’s spirit and the smiles on their faces when I gave them stuffed toys helped keep me going.

What we saw on our first day was still there on my last. But there was progress.

Hundreds of homes throughout Slidell were damaged, either from flooding or trees crashing through roofs. At least seventy homes and businesses along Lake Pontchartrain Drive were completely destroyed, left sitting on a hill like matchsticks. Cars and boats leaned against homes and homes knocked off their foundations were leaning against other homes. The scene was the same all over the city, huge curbside piles of sheet rock and insulation, flooring, bedding, clothing, appliances, furniture and children’s toys strewn about. Flood-ed cars, cut up trees, soggy mattresses, carpeting, couches and other debris piled up along streets and in yards.

We were told and given many wonderful things by the people we helped. One lady was so grateful she gave us her mother’s St. Christopher necklace to hang in the truck to keep us safe; her mother was a Katrina victim. Another salvaged a plaque titled, “The Secret of Life” that she insisted I take and which now proudly hangs in my home. Their words of gratitude kept us going day after day. One woman remarked, “You don’t know how much it means to us that you are here and you care,” another asked “Do you all have wings on your backs?”, and yet another middle aged man teared up and said, “We love you all, thank you.” A lady just returning to her devastated home asked to take my picture saying my smile was a welcome substitute for the photos of devastation she had taken. We knew we were their shining stars. Our truck alone fed one thousand four hundred residents every day.

Life changing experience

Something unbelievable happened on my last day. I passed a young man in uniform sitting alone in the Baton Rouge airport. He was with the National Guard, and when he noticed my Red Cross badge, he walked over, shook my hand and thanked me for being there. I was totally overwhelmed to hear this from a man who helps our country every day.

Since my volunteer service, my life has drastically changed. I am now seeking a simpler life and one that is about service and what I can give to others. A new friend said, “It’s a better life, not expecting anything in return.” My experience showed me that negatives can be positives, as all these people came together for a common cause. Katrina took their basic material fundamentals, but we were able to give these back. I think about the residents every day, hoping they are getting back on their feet. I can honestly say that it was an experience and an opportunity I will never forget.

Author: Katherine Gibson