Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday, August 29, 2005.
Within a few days it became obvious that the people of Louisiana needed more help than they were getting.
My church in the suburbs of Atlanta had a 15-passenger van we made available, with driver (me), for hurricane relief. The church was also willing to buy supplies to go in the van. On the morning of Friday, September 2, it was impossible to get any information through FEMA or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance on how to use the van, or what supplies were needed. I left a message at Catholic Social Services.
I couldn't get through on the phone to the Red Cross, so...
The rest after the jump.
I couldn't get through on the phone to the Red Cross, so I drove to their office a few blocks from mine and offered the services of the van. A woman told me the Red Cross was getting together a convoy, working with the governor's office, that would probably leave later on Friday. She assured me they would have plenty of supplies to load on the van, so we didn't need to buy anything.
After I got back to my office from the Red Cross, Catholic Social Services called me back and said a New Orleans family of 11 had made it to a shelter in Thibodaux, a small town about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. They had relatives in Atlanta who could take them in, but no way to get to Atlanta. I told them I was going down with the Red Cross convoy, and could probably bring back the folks from Thibodaux when I returned. CSS put me in touch with the district manager of Family and Children Services in Thibodaux, who had some responsibility for running operations there. She said they had enough food and water, but needed pillows, blankets, and feminine hygiene products.
I heard nothing from the Red Cross about the convoy, and still couldn't get through on the phone, so late Friday afternoon I drove back to the Red Cross office and spoke with the same woman I'd talked to that morning. She said the convoy was definitely not going on Friday, might go Monday, and they probably wouldn't know anything more about it till Monday.
I called back the woman in Thibodaux and told her I'd come down on Saturday.
On Saturday morning I went to the local wholesale club store, bought all their twin-size blankets, a matching number of pillows, and set a new record for purchase of feminine hygiene products by a person intentionally sporting facial hair.
Then I drove to Thibodaux. Thank God the van had a cruising range of 500+ miles—gas stations in Mississippi either had no gas, or had long, long lines to get what gas they had.
At Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, at 11:30 PM Saturday, there were 200 or so people in the old (small) gym, and 300 or so in the new (big) gym. Most were on cots; some on mattresses; some on blankets; some attempting to sleep with nothing between them and the gym floor except what they were wearing. The DFCS manager said they were expecting more people to arrive. A New Orleans city bus sat in the parking lot; a man had commandeered it, loaded it with people, and driven it to Thibodaux. The folks I was to transport had come in two cars with most of the windows blown out and covered with plastic sheeting held on by duct tape; one of the cars was running hot. They didn’t think either car would make it to Atlanta. The DFCS director said to park the cars on the edge of the parking lot. She was keeping a list of cars left there and to whom each belonged.
A dozen or so tents were set up in the parking lot with stacks of bottled water, packaged food, diapers, etc. The DFCS manager said it had all come from the Catholic archdiocese, the city of Thibodaux, and local volunteers; they had heard nothing from the Red Cross, and nothing from FEMA except a very few people who had arrived on Thursday bearing nothing except a desire to give orders to everybody else. At midnight, a volunteer in the food-prep line under one of the tents served me a delicious plate of hot ham, rice, and white beans.
The DFCS manager offered to let me sleep on her couch, and I accepted. I thought maybe I should sleep in the gym with everybody else, but I didn't want to use any resources that had been donated for those truly in need. If there's a next time, maybe I'll stay in the gym—I still don't know.
On the way to Nicholls State Sunday morning, the DFCS director told me the president of Nicholls State had rented three big air-conditioned buses and loaded them up with people from the gyms, telling them they would be taken to nicer, air-conditioned shelters in other towns. Turns out he had not arranged for the other shelters to accept them. The people sat on the buses for two or three hours while it was determined the other shelters were full, then were told they weren't going anywhere. They got off and got back in the gyms.
We arrived at Nicholls State and loaded the van with a two-year-old boy, his four-year-old brother, their 8+ months-pregnant mom, and nine other women ages 18 to 62, and all their salvaged clothes and small personal items that would fit on the van. Turns out they were not all members of one family, but were all either related or close friends from church. The only exception was a woman who had a sister in Detroit who would arrange for a Greyhound ticket from Atlanta to Detroit, if the Louisiana sister could make it to Atlanta. Greyhound was not operating in Louisiana.
All the group was from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, one of the areas of the worst flooding. They had tried to make it to the Superdome, but couldn't get there. By the time I met them, they’d heard about the terrible conditions in the Superdome, and were grateful they’d ended up in the Nicholls State gyms instead.
The 62-year-old's husband had refused to evacuate. He was a diabetic and in poor health. She did not know where he was. A 23-year-old in the group did not know where her father was. A 50-year-old did not know where her brother was, or the father of her children, or several other friends and cousins. A man who did not know where his wife was helped us load the van.
There was plenty of gas in Thibodaux, but we had a problem with the valve on one of the rear tires, and it took awhile before we could get the tire pumped up to the recommended 80 PSI, which was essential because the van was packed to the gills. By the time we got the tire pumped up and topped off the tank and headed north towards I-10, it was noon. We planned to go northwest on I-10 to Baton Rouge, then east on I-12 to Hammond, Louisiana, then north on I-55 to Jackson, Mississippi, then east on I-20 to Atlanta. It would have been quicker to catch I-55 further south at LaPlace and avoid the loop through Baton Rouge, but I-55 was closed between LaPlace and Hammond. I-55 there had passed on a narrow strip of land between the western edge of Lake Ponchartrain and the eastern edge of Lake Maurepas. That strip of land was mostly gone.
On I-10 headed northwest to Baton Rouge, around 1:00 PM Sunday, we passed a convoy of New Orleans city buses heading the same way. Our van rode high enough that we could see through the bus windows. There were only a few people on each bus. Why didn't the convoy run BEFORE the storm?
We stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Hammond, Louisiana, just south of the Mississippi line. Before we got out of the van, I suggested we read a passage from Romans. I didn't know exactly where in Romans, but I could recall a few words which several women immediately recognized as coming from Romans 8:38. We read verses 35-39:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Cracker Barrel staff were a little overwhelmed, but could not have been nicer. The pregnant woman had back pain and something that felt like gas, and thought she might be going into labor. I got directions to the nearest hospital, just in case. False alarm—thank God. We topped the tank and headed north on I-55.
During the long hours in the van, the two-year-old and four-year-old were patient and cheerful. Bouts of petulance were few and far between. They played with each other, and with some brightly-colored-small-wooden-cubes-connected-with-elastic-string doohickeys we'd bought at Cracker Barrel.
When we passed through Tuscaloosa, it was nearly 9:00 PM Sunday. I had hoped to eat ribs for supper at Dreamland, but the group was eager to get to Atlanta, and I figured Dreamland was already closed or would close before we could get there. So we kept going.
At Birmingham, they still wanted to keep going.
At Oxford, Alabama, around 30 miles short of the Georgia state line, sometime between 11:00 PM and midnight, the van was getting worrisomely low on gas and I was getting worrisomely low on alertness. We stopped to put gas in the van and coffee in the driver. The tank would hold over $100 worth of gas, but one of the two stations had no gas, and the other had a $50 limit. I thought about getting $50 worth of gas, then eating supper, then getting another $50 worth of gas. I was paying with a credit card at an automated pump, so I probably could have gotten away with the second gas purchase. But we could make it to Atlanta without the extra gas, and other folks probably needed it to get where they were going, so we decided against trying.
The group wanted to eat supper at Waffle House in Oxford. I was a little leery because everyone in the group but me was African-American, and every couple of years I’d been reading about some racial incident at a Waffle House, and we were in a small town in Alabama. But I said nothing.
The Waffle House staff were all white. They were kind and patient. They gave us a discount without me even asking. They would not take most of the tip I wanted to leave them. As we left, the waitress called out, "God bless y'all."
The next stop was in an IHOP parking lot 15 miles west of Atlanta, at around 2:00 AM Monday. One of the group had a sister who lived in the western Atlanta suburbs, who was meeting us at IHOP to pick up her sister and 18-year-old niece. We were there around five minutes to transfer the few bags belonging to the New Orleans sister and daughter into the Atlanta sister's van, and to get me another cup of coffee. In that five minutes, the New Orleans and Atlanta sisters were already bickering because the New Orleans sister insisted she would move into her own place ASAP, and the Atlanta sister thought she should see how things went before making plans.
The stop after that was the Greyhound bus terminal in downtown Atlanta, around 2:20 AM. I went in with the Detroit-bound woman to be sure the ticket her sister had arranged was there. It was. While waiting for my passenger to confirm the arrangements to become Greyhound's passenger, I spoke with a disheveled-looking man, around 35 or 40 years old, who said he had owned a horse farm outside Gulfport, Mississippi. The storm had killed all 250 of his horses, and blown away his house and both barns. He was insured. He planned to start over in Kentucky.
It was 2:50 AM when we pulled away from the Greyhound station and got back on I-20. Next and final stop, the home of a woman in the southeastern suburbs of Atlanta who had a sister and a niece in our group. She and her Atlanta friends and relatives were going to house the remaining nine folks on the van. (No further signs of the impending birth of number 10.)
The directions were a little confused, and after getting off I-20 at the right exit, we meandered around awhile—this was before everybody had a GPS—before stopping in a Walmart parking lot to get our bearings. In the parking lot, we read from the 21st chapter of Revelation:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the home of God is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.
We then quickly found the house. The aunt-sister and some other relatives came out to help unload. Everyone hugged and smiled, some cried. While the kids were carried inside, they kept sleeping.
I left the house around 3:45 AM, and headed back towards my home and church in the northwest suburbs. My pastor was thinking of driving in the convoy if it went on Monday, so I stopped to fill the tank. No gas limits in Atlanta. I drove by the Red Cross around 4:45 AM to see if anyone was there to tell me more about the convoy—my pastor lived nowhere near a Red Cross office, so I'd told him I'd get the details and call him. There was one car in the parking lot, but the door was locked and a sign said they'd open at 9:00 AM. I dropped off the van in the church parking lot, went home, read a chapter of the latest Harry Potter book while the coffee wore off, and went to sleep at 6:00 AM Monday.
Got up at 8:30 AM Monday, drove to the Red Cross to find out about the convoy. Huge line of people in the parking lot. Went in the back door, asked for the woman I'd spoken with on Friday. She wasn't there, and I was told to speak to the director of the office. The director said there was no convoy, and there had never been plans for any convoy. But the woman on Friday had told me details— coordinating with the governor's office, supplies will be provided—TWICE? The director said the woman from Friday was only an administrative assistant, who was new in the job and had no contact with the governor's office, and—in the middle of the biggest Red Cross crisis in years, maybe ever—had been given Monday off.
I left them my pastor's name and number, and said he could probably drive people around locally in our 15-passenger van. I found out later they never called him. I went home and—like most of the rest of America—went back to sleep.