I had more than a little anxiety when I began this adventure. I received an urgent email from NBCC (National Board for Certified Counselors) saying the American Red Cross was waiving the usual disaster training for mental health volunteers because the need was so urgent. After watching the TV coverage of Katrina and seeing people who had lost everything, I knew I had to be there. But since I had never done any disaster work before, I didn't know how it operated or what it would require. All I knew was that I had a skill that could help. So I faxed in the forms from the NBCC website and waited for a response. It came quickly in the form of a voicemail message saying I was to call a travel agency number, give them my Disaster Relief code for Baton Rouge, and they would book my flight. I booked a round trip, nonstop flight from Chicago to Baton Rouge, leaving 9/10 and returning 9/24.
Join me for more after the jump.
The flight was quick and easy, and I felt more relaxed when I got to Baton Rouge. I called ARC HQ and spoke to a sweet woman named Tagreet who told me to take a taxi directly to my shelter since the HQ would be closed by the time I got there. I was told the shelter was only 12 miles from the airport. Later, this became a running joke with members of my team, since every time we asked how far something was the answer was "it's not far--about 12 miles." The taxi driver and I had time for a long chat, since the shelter was a great deal more than 12 miles away! In fact, it was 12 miles from the airport to the city, and my shelter was in Denham Springs, which was a suburb NE of Baton Rouge. The driver told me that he had 2 other families staying at his house and his daughter had taken in 3 families. This was my first glimpse into how the people of Louisiana were pulling together to support each other. It was only the first of hundreds of stories I was to hear in the coming days.
Shelter for ARC staff was in the Hebron Baptist Church. Later I found out there were other staff shelters in local churches, with varying facilities. Our shelter had a capacity of 200. We had a big floor with cots to sleep in, scratchy wool blankets, clean towels, a women's bathroom with 3 sinks, 3 toilets, and 2 showers (I assume it was the same on the men's side), home cooked meals nearly every night made by the local Stepford Wives, a whole wall of boxes of MREs, our laundry taken and brought back the same day by the aforementioned Stepford Wives, sandwiches in the refrigerator to take with us for lunch, piles and rows of assorted snack foods always out on the tables in the dining area and in the kitchen, tons of bottles of water, strong and plentiful coffee in the morning, and caring shelter directors. I slept fitfully that first night--overtired, and kept awake by constant snoring, coughing, suitcase zippers, and creaking cots. Lights out at 10pm and lights on at 6am. Not hours for a night person!
The next morning at Baton Rouge HQ was an experience. They had just commandeered an old Wal-Mart the previous week and turned it into HQ in 2 days. It was big, vast, crowded, and confusing. Lots of frustration, waiting on lines and having some difficulty figuring out how to "in-process." Mental health orientation took 1 hour and 20 minutes. Could have been much briefer, but Ron enjoyed talking about his own experiences and perspectives. He enjoyed that a lot. He said one thing in particular that stuck with me and my teammates: "You come first, then staff, then clients." The reason for this is that if we do not put ourselves first, we cannot help anyone. My team took that very much to heart and were always mindful of self-care... especially after we discovered the 2-for-1 Bloody Marys at Don's Seafood Restaurant! Best Bloody Marys any of us had ever had.
So, back to orientation. Margaret, our supervisor, was dubbed "Patton" by my teammate Joan because she was stocky, had a raspy voice, and didn't hear it when you answered "no." She also had a good sense of humor, and is as Irish as they come--probably in her 60s, with a bleached blonde bob, square face, and eyes that said "If you're going to complain, I'm not interested." I had one major complaint for her, but that came later.
Ron and Margaret split our mental health group of 7 into 2 teams. One team of 3 went to the Cajun Dome, which was quite a distance away in Lafayette and had about 5,000 residents and a none-to-favorable rep at that point, so our team was much relieved to hear we weren't going there. The 4 of us were assigned to an evacuee shelter in Erwinville, home to about 250 men, women, and children. We were told Erwinville was "about 12 miles" west of the city. It turned out to be 35 miles from our shelter, but who's counting. My team couldn't have been better. There was Joan, who is a social worker in private practice who focuses on the mind-body connection, spiritual counseling, and children; Kathy, who is a college counselor and the youngest, and Anne, who is a college professor with a lot of experience working with trauma. The 4 of us were complementary and we found as time went on we just intuitively understood where we fit in terms of the team and serving the shelter residents.
We also found that we shared a profound lack of a sense of direction. Some of that could be blamed on the fact that we were given no decent maps, that the MapQuest maps and directions we were given are often confusing and/or plain wrong, and that we couldn't find a good map at a gas station. As a result, whenever we got into our car together, we got lost. This gave us lots of time to get to know each other. It always took us 2 hours to get anywhere, and the traffic was horrendous because Baton Rouge's population doubled with the influx of evacuees from Katrina. But through it all, we laughed till we cried when Joan's wry sense of humor kicked into high gear (which was just about always), we learned to respect one another's unique abilities, we developed an affection for one another's foibles and the mistakes or forgetfulness that often presented when we were tired or stressed--which was all the time. But we kept each other sane, focused, and relatively calm. Many volunteers were not so fortunate and not so calm. Some volunteers also came for the wrong reasons (to save the evacuees or avoid dealing with their own recent traumas).
We all disliked the Red Cross vests--or "aprons" as we called them. They were cut too wide for slim women and were huge on all of us... not to mention hot. I thought they looked like fast-food restaurant uniforms and had the urge now and then to say "You want fries with that?"
Our team did good work at Erwinville and by the time we left a week later, most residents were stable and the atmosphere was much improved. When we got there we found some depression, a lot of confusion and disorientation, many still in shock and disbelief about their situation, a few who needed meds, and children who were being neglected by their parents and were angry and acting out. But even with all those problems, there were very few who were deeply despairing and very few adults who were acting out in ways that were harmful to the community. For the most part, they had pulled together to support each other and although none of them had much of anything left in terms of material possessions, they had reordered their priorities and put caring for each other at the top of the list. This was mirrored by the entire state of Louisiana. Donations of clothing, food, toiletries, baby needs, and equipment of every kind were flowing in like a deep unending river. Our shelter had more than we could use and it just kept coming. People were taking other people into their homes and into their hearts. Members of the community came to our shelter to bring things, take the kids for a "day out," or to give comfort in whatever way they could. People gave when they had next to nothing themselves. One Catholic woman came in on behalf of her church to bring rosary beads just in case there were any Catholic residents who wanted them. There was no proselytizing involved, just the impulse to share. Of course, there are always those who would take advantage of the chaos and neediness of such a situation, and they were around, too. But those were isolated incidents, annoying and sometimes harmful, but not typical or pervasive.
And we heard so many stories. There was Harriet, who lost her home and had to leave her disabled sister behind. She had not been able to find out where she was and didn't know whether she was dead or alive. There was Alice, a former schoolteacher who wore her hair in curlers all day under a hair net, had lost several members of her family in the flood, but was determined to start a new life at age 68. There was Duane, a wiry Cajun in his 50s who had escaped Katrina by putting a motor on his bicycle and heading out down the highway--reaching Baton Rouge (normally an hour's drive from NOLA) in 8 hours on one gallon of gas. He would speed past motorists stuck in traffic on the highway and then stop under shelter when it rained and wave to those same motorists as they passed him.
... To be continued