Sunday, October 23, 2005

Thinking of Home.

September 30

My first full day at Hirsch was interesting to say the least. Part of my team is feeling sick and I am hoping that I have avoided the illness. Somehow I managed to avoid the one at Southern that sent a number of staff to the hospital or home. Some of the team I am working with is super funny - I just keep laughing and laughing. I keep going back and forth on whether or not I am ready to leave - some moments I really want to go home - I am exhausted and cranky and moody, other times I am wanting to stay here and keep working and meeting people. It's odd to think about going home - I am not quite sure what it will be like. Relaxing or stressful? How will I react? I want to keep the mind frame I have developed while I have been here - so much of what I worry about when I am home is things that are just trivial and not at all worth worrying about.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Stop! No - Don't End!

September 29

Sometimes I want this experience to be over and other times I don't want it to end. Today was frustrating, sad and I laughed the hardest that I have laughed during my whole trip. I have mixed feelings about my new assignment at Hirsch - it is SO huge- maybe 1,200 people - and today it was VERY chaotic. I sort of liked the cosines of Southern and the way it was possible to be in touch with everything that was going on. This shelter is different, there are clothing rooms for men, women and children, a baby food room, a baby supplies room, toiletries room and a shoe hallway. The floor of the arena is mapped out with the streets of New Orleans in tape and people have pretty cozy bed setups - including some people with two air mattresses or actual mattress sets. But grated they are VERY close to each other.

It is weird to not know any of these clients and to fell as if i had gotten comfortable and familiar with the others but not to know these people at all. Just in the few days we were at Southern things had become predictable and normal in some ways. You knew who would smile at you and chat with you. Who might be cranky. Which kids would listen and mind and who would not. Familiar. Now back to the unfamiliar.

So much of this experience has been about that - stretching and moving beyond the unfamiliar- trying new things and meeting new people. Opening myself up to new experiences. I am so blessed to have had this opportunity to grow and change. To meet people and see things that I hadn't before.

Powerful and Amazing.

September 28

Teenagers, children, babies and adults. My heart aches for them all. The sweetness of these people and the pain they have been through. Surviving and trying to thrive. Such difficult circumstance. Poverty, stress, racism just to name three.

We closed the shelter today. It was happy and sad. I didn't anticipate completely the way this would touch my heart. The way each client would climb in and take hold. The faces of them all etched in my memory. Today I helped to put wrist bands on our residents- almost 200 of them that were left. We didn't realize there were still that many. To make sure everyone was on a bus and that we had enough busses we had them line up with their families and get a wristband. My helper and I wrote the names of each one and made sure everyone had a wristband on. There was something about this process that really touched me. Literally and figuratively. I put a wristband on each and every person leaving the shelter - my fingers on their skin. Human to human. Young and old. Yet again this experience reminding me that these people have gone through so much. They are completely deserving of happiness and were completely undeserving of having this terrible situation happen to them. We are all one. This could have as easily been me or anyone else in this situation. And also reminding me how many factors - poverty above all - have kept them in these shelters. Painful to think of.

This day also had it's stressful times (how many busses?!?) but they seem trivial in comparison to the goodbyes. Aside from the clients I will miss the Shreveport Police and the National Guard. Had more conversations with them as the days went on and it was nice to see them more as people not just enforcers. People willing to give up things like their time and to help like we are. Kind people who go out of their way. So much of this was so powerful and amazing.

Another day...

September 27

Tired again. On hold forever to change my plane ticket. The day was better emotionally for me but very stressful for our clients. So much different information about when they will be going back to the Cajundome. They really want to return "home." Also people are decompensating more. Becoming increasingly mentally ill - or really it is just becoming more evident. This is a challenge but one that I feel I can somewhat easily deal with. Two of our supervisors out processed today. This was sad for me. They were both a pleasure to work with. I learned so much from B - I really appreciated her patient attitude and the way she dealt with clients. I wish I had that much patience! I continued to play with kids in the shelter, met new people and became more attached to the old ones!

Filled up Emotionally.

September 26

By the end of the day I am filled up emotionally. I start out the day find but after hours of having to say no or having to deal with angry people I just want to cry, decompress with someone and relax. The challenging part is that I few like few people can understand aside from other Red Cross workers and maybe my friends who do mental health. This makes it more difficult to call home and talk to people who are "regular" friends. Some daily things seem so trivial in comparison to things that are going on here. Although I haven't specifically been focused on mental health issues the whole time just hearing stories and talking to people can be pretty overwhelming.

Today I met a man who had lived in his attic for 2 days in New Orleans before he was rescued by a boat. He has much more going on in his life as well with his health especially but he was determined not to let the experience get him down. The day was also frustrating dealing with supply issues - or rather ways to distribute things to kids. Everyone began to argue and want more and more but also wouldn't take care of the things they got. A total mess and upsetting in general to me. But I am trying to put this all in perspective.

A long day...

September 25

Everyone was on edge today. CRANKY! EMOTIONAL! I cried twice. Bureaucracy is frustrating from supervisors on different paths of thinking to figuring out when people will be able to return home. Today was also a day of connecting with people - really caring about their needs and experiences. I spent so much time wishing that they didn't have to suffer. Enjoying the diversity of the clients but saddened bye it too. Having a chance to use my mental health skills with adults who have major mental illness. All of the kids were full of energy and things were challenging to keep under control when playing. It was a day of chicken bones, evil twins, laundry fighting and tired feet.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Rita is Coming.

September 24

We avoided a hurricane in Shreveport but sure experienced a big storm! This morning I went with my coworker to Walmart for supplies incase we got stuck in the shelter for a night (or more) and the generator was on as the power was out. The automatic doors there were not so automatic. There were no more flashlinghts and water was going fast. It was pouring down rain and it was super windy. My coworker had to get gas in the car and when she got back in she was SOAKED - wet hair, wet clothes, barely able to see out of her glasses!

The kids were getting antsy today. They couldn't go outside at all due to the bad weather and they so wanted to play. So I worked with some other volunteers to set up a playroom for the kids. It was somewhat of a challenge as many of our supplies had accidentally been diverted to a different shelter but someone had done some shopping and we had books, puzzles, a few games, crayons, markers and paper and were good to go. A couple of parents and teens volunteered to help and this made all the difference in the world. Thank God for those two moms!

The fact that Rita is moving through seemed to be increasing the anxiety for some. I am guessing that especially for the kids the memory of Katrina was sparked intensely by hearing about Rita. Also some of these clients have family that may be near where Rita is hitting hardest. A very difficult situation.

Although we came prepared we didn't have to sleep at the gym as Rita wasn't a hurricane when she got to us. We headed home (i.e. the hotel) to sleep in our beds after an exhausting day.


September 23

I think the shelter is holding about 360 people now and it is a definitely amazing experience to be a part of. I spent the day dealing with many issues from crowd control, organizing supplies, getting clients blankest, playing with kids, pushing wheelchairs, setting up TV's and talking with clients. I heard stories from and about many people. Families who tried to drive out of New Orleans and but got stuck, stories about the flood water burning the skin of people who were trying to stay out of harm's way in their attic, wading through waist high water in New Orleans and people doing things they really knew they wouldn't do in a typical situation.

Tension is running high amongst the clients. It is really hard for people to have to leave the place they were feeling at home in when they have already had to leave their real homes. It is interesting to see the very few Caucasian and Hispanic people mixed in with a majority of African Americans. Much different racially than the mix in Seattle. But kids are playing and families are talking and doing laundry. All this and we are sitting here in a gym waiting for a hurricane to hit. We may have to spend the night in the shelter because of Rita.

Dinner was one of the highlights of the day today people were very frustrated about others cutting in line and being disrespectful. Hearing that beginning tomorrow meals were going to be organized by the National Guard and the Police due to the chaos that ensued this evening. It is amazing to have the national guard in the shelter. There presence is beginning to feel normal to me which in some ways is sad. One child told me that he didn't like that the military have such big guns with them - he said it made him worry they were going to start shooting. I assured him they wouldn't and that they were here for the protection of all of us - not to hurt us. I wonder how many of the kids worry about that?

Setting Up...

September 22

Setting up a shelter for 350 is amazing work. I did wake up at 6:30 this morning and spent most of the day doing nothing (except working on Clapotis). Then when about three or four PM hit there was action! We went over to Southern University and helped to set up the shelter - basically from scratch.
We helped to put cots together in a large gymnasium. Supposedly there were about 260 cots there with bedding. Most of the cots were awful - metal poles and canvas about six inches off the ground - just like the one in the picture but ours were blue. Imagine sleeping on that for even one night! They were also a great challenge to put together! However there were lots of enthusiastic volunteers there to help and we set that place up in just a few hours!

At the beginning of the evening the plans were that we were setting up a long term shelter for people who were evacuating from Rita but then three hours later the plans changed. Now the Cajundome in Lafayette had to evacuate it's evacuees and some of them would be coming to our shelter (they had so many people in Cajundome they had to be spread among many different smaller shelters).

I didn't stay the whole night but did stay for part of the arrival. It was amazing to see people coming in. Families and single people. So many children. All had to go through a metal detector and the line to get in stretched down the sidewalk form the door. So many people. Now we just wait for the storm.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


September 21 -

Today was a frustrating day emotionally. It is hard to be here ready and willing to do something but waiting for the organizational structure to take over so we can actually be deployed to a location to start working. That and hurricane Rita is brewing - they are unsure where she is coming so they are hesitant to send us South. The stress of just waiting got to me and made me want to connect with friends back home and in other places - but some of these conversations were challenging ones.

So like I said today was one more day of waiting and travel. It seemed like mostly we drove - went to headquarters (took about an hour to drive 8 miles in Baton Rouge) and then finally got deployed to Shreveport, LA - this city that I had not heard of before is in North Western Louisiana. It is a smaller city with a much smaller Red Cross office and tomorrow they will likely have four different shelters operating. However it seems as if things are changing by the minute so there is not definite plan to where I will be working. Rita now seems to be a category 5 with winds of 165 MPH. People in Louisiana and Texas are being evacuated and moved North. Busses were stationed at a rest stop we drove by on the way to Shreveport - AT LEAST 50 of them - all waiting and empty to move in and help people get to safety. A very odd site. People who have already been displaced are going to have to move again. Traumatic for all involved.

Tonight I went to dinner and to Barnes & Noble with two coworkers. We had a good time. Earlier we had flipped a coin to decide who would be going where - I "lost" but who knows what difference that even makes. I do know that I will likely be staying in Shreveport but that is about all I know - that and the fact that I get to seep in a bed while I am here - yippee! :)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Knitting Clapotis in a Staff Shelter

September 20-

My day began with waking up early and getting some breakfast with my roommate. We had yummy Southern food and I even ate the grits. After that we waited and waited for a taxi to take us to the Greyhound terminal. Finally we got there and then waited some more for the bus. It was EXTREMELY hot outside and all the seats were taken inside. Plus there were four of us with a ton of luggage. We took turns waiting by the luggage, going inside to get cool air and standing in the shade to prevent heatstroke. The bus was not on time. We had a chance to chat with some locals and it was interesting as we were totally in the minority racially. (This was the case throughout 95% of my time in LA). I kept worrying because we seemed to be the only Red Cross workers waiting for that bus despite the fact that the three men I met the night before should have been there too. Finally the bus arrived and I slept my way to Baton Rouge.

Getting our luggage once there was an adventure. It took a long time but I am not certain how long. People were getting hot and impatient and begun grabbing stuff out from underneath the bus. This did not make the greyhound staff happy. Finally the luggage was collected and we added another Red Crosser to our group. We hooked up with another guy who was trying to get to Baton Rouge Headquarters as well and phoned for three taxis. We waited, and waited, and waited. Waited for almost two hours. OUTSIDE. IN THE SUN. In almost ONE HUNDRED DEGREE weather. (Thank god my mother made me get that sun hat!) The taxis did not come. At least we were enjoying one another's company and there was a place to get cold drinks and take turns sitting in the AC again.

Then we saw a bus pull up - a fancy bus. A bus with TV's and AC and comfy seats. Best of all someone was getting off - only one person. One of our group members, Kate, headed over to the driver to talk to him about giving us a ride. I swear this woman can work wonders because next thing you know we are riding in style. Six of us in AC on an empty bus. Turns out this bus was a FEMA bus that was being used to transport evacuees. The driver was awesome and used his GPS (how cool) device to transport us right to RC headquarters. He wouldn't accept any payment at all except for thanks and a hug.

Red Cross Headquarters in Baton Rouge is AMAZING - it is in an old WalMart and has everything you need to check in or "in process" and run disaster operations. There are different areas for each thing - Medical, Spiritual, Mental Health, Sheltering, Feeding, Communications, Rental Cars, Cell Phones, Snacks etc. - each area is designated by a huge sign hanging above it from the ceiling or on the wall behind the area. I had a picture ID made, got a staff card (the thing you use to pay for meals, gas etc) and went to a general orientation as well as a Mental Health orientation. At the general orientation they kept stressing that we needed to drink water as it is extremely hot. Mental health orientation was somewhat unexciting as we found that they did not yet know where we would be going. Told us to come back tomorrow at 8AM and sent us off to the staff shelter.

I've been told that this is the "deluxe" shelter. It has showers, AC, cots and food. There are many nice people staying her and hosting us. We had some dinner at the Outback Steakhouse and there were interesting conversations and laughter shared between the four of us. I met one counselor from NY, another from Renton, WA and a third from Ithaca, NY. I didn't realize it that night but Mr. Ithaca was to become an instant Red Cross Friend (Something about this situation makes you bond quickly with others.) I took a shower and tried to sleep on the cot from hell. Somehow it seemed as if there was no place for my arms to go and I wished I could just remove them for the night. I was thankful I had ear plugs and a sleeping mask (Heidi you rock!) So that I could block out the light from the gigantic clock (we were in a gymnasium) and the snoring from the loudest snorer ever who happened to be at the cot next to me. I slept but not soundly. Wondered what the next day would hold.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Expect the Unexpected

I am not sure of the best way to tell the story of my time in Louisiana so I have decided to go back day by day to the journal I wrote and share my thoughts with you...

Monday Sept 19th-
My mother waits for me as I go through security. Of course I get in line behind a woman who is telling me repeatedly about how she has not flown for the last seventeen years - and her daughter just got married yesterday - of course she is on my plane. I manage to dodge her and slip into a different screening line.

From the airport in Seattle I phoned the DR phone number I was given hoping to find that I would have a place to go to when I arrive in Lafayette. The call finally goes through I enter my information and "We're sorry that number is not valid" is the response I get. Panic sets in. I phone repeatedly. You may ask why - this is because if I do not get instructions from this number I will arrive in Lafayette with NOWHERE to go. No place to sleep. Nothing. I try again and again. The number is still incorrect. I to keep the panic to a minimum while eating my Dish Delish sandwich in the fancy remodeled SeaTac airport.

I board the plane and while onboard continue my calling. My friend Tasha is trying to email Red Cross for me, I have phoned the Seattle Chapter only to get a recording that says not to leave a message there but I do anyway. My phone rings! The Seattle chapter calls and tells me that sometimes the phone is being reset and I should try again later. I feel a bit better. They also ask me who I am and just how did I get to be deployed (lovely that national and local coordinate together). Plane ride is uneventful - I did get some knitting done and I swear I was sitting next to two strippers who were traveling to Houston.

In Houston I eat a somewhat disgusting dinner of Uno's pizza. Why are all the restaurants closed at 7 PM here??? I do have success with the phone number - it directs me to the "Cajundome" when I arrive in Lafayette. I have no idea what the Cajundome is. Once at the airport in Lafayette I meet three men who are also going to the Cajundome. Thank god my luggage arrives - all 61 lbs of it!

While walking out to take the shuttle to the Cajundome I meet three women who are Red Cross volunteers and are heading to a hotel. A HOTEL! They suggest that I come with them. Now I am not a dummy - three other female traveling companions and a hotel OR three strange men and a place called the Cajundome that sounds like it has cots. I choose - the HOTEL. We arrive at the hotel and find they have two rooms left. I get my own bed with a wonderful roomie from CA. I charged the ipod and make some phone calls. Enjoy the AC as it is HOT here!

At the front desk we spoke with a man who told us there are seventy nurses staying in this hotel working to take care of people at a local hospital . He tells us that this is the third hotel he has been in since Katrina. He says things are better than they had been when Katrina first hit "At least they aren't walking over bodies anymore." Oh My. I don't know what to expect.

My roommate and I have a good chat before sleeping. We find out that we need to get up early so that we can go to the greyhound terminal to take a bus to Baton Rouge where the Red Cross headquarters are located. Sleep feels good.