Cast of Characters:
Katrina: hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 causing more than $100 billion in damage and taking almost 2,000 lives
Luc: evacuee at Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, Houma, Louisiana
Theresa: Luc’s deceased Godmother
Teresa: volunteer social worker
St. Therese: “Little Flower”
On September 11, 2005, I flew into Baton Rouge, Louisiana for my first Red Cross volunteer deployment as a mental health professional. Those of us who offered to go were given 48 hours notice prior to our departure and were warned that this location would present “hardships” to the volunteers. After having watched the television coverage of Katrina and what looked like a third world country, I was certain that no hardship I experienced could touch that of the people in the ravaged Gulf Coast.
I was assigned to the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center in Houma, Louisiana (slightly south-west of New Orleans), where 3 mental health volunteers (a social worker, a marriage & family therapist, and I) provided services to the fluctuating 800-1,200 Katrina victims who were housed there. We three were also responsible for the mental health of all the Red Cross workers in the staff shelter where we stayed (160 of us), along with the National Guard unit stationed at the Civic Center.
The evacuees at the Civic Center were primarily from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, those folks who didn’t have the money or transportation needed to evacuate. Many of them somehow got through the water that flooded the Lower 9th Ward when the levies broke, got onto the overpass, waited in the Superdome, then were brought to Houma. These were the poorest of the poor. They ranged in age from 1 month old to around 95 years old, with perhaps 20 Caucasian, 6 Asian, the rest African-American.
The Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, normally home to cultural and athletic events, graduations, trade shows, and concerts, now housed the evacuees
in an area of 37,000 square feet of open floor space (Hall A & Hall B, below right). It was a sea of cots, blankets, pillows, clothing and people with very little room to move around.
Although hard to imagine, when volunteering for two weeks for this many evacuees as one of three mental health professionals, you got to know the names of a lot of the people who were staying there. I circulated around Halls A & B all day, talking with people, getting them clothing, answering questions, hearing their stories and doing my best to keep them calm. It was common to hear “Miss Theresa” as I walked through, always polite, always scared. The hours spent and the subsequent emotional rollercoaster took their toll on even the most seasoned of volunteers.
One day, one of the women from the Southern Baptist Convention responsible for meals took me by the arm and brought me to the loading dock, put a heaping plate of food on top of the cases of canned corn and said firmly, “You need to eat something, and take a rest.” I sat on another pile of canned goods and thankfully ate, my mind blank. It wasn’t long before I heard a quiet “Miss Theresa.” I turned to see one of the evacuees standing near-by.
“There’s a man who sleeps next to me that I’m worried about. He cries an awful lot and last night was mumbling about not having a reason to live.”
I stood up. “Where is he? Take me to him.”
We walked through the arena to the far right corner, where a man was seated on the floor, looking down. I thanked the young man and introduced myself to Luc and asked if I could join him. His dark eyes met mine, intelligent and filled with pain, as he nodded his assent.
“Tell me how I can help.”
With that, Luc’s words poured out. In the mass exodus from New Orleans, Luc had been separated from his two brothers. He spent a few days in the Superdome, where the situation had steadily deteriorated with no electricity, suffocating heat, gangs running around in packs, women giving birth on the floor. Tears ran down Luc’s face as he described the primitive conditions, which he finally escaped by leaving.
From a list kept on a legal pad by an unknown official, he was told his brothers had gone to Texas. Luc took one of the same busses outside the Superdome that took Louisiana evacuees to Texas, only to be told that his brothers had been seen in the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center. So, he turned around and came back to Louisiana. The Civic Center, struggling to keep track of the comings and goings of all people who streamed through, had no record of his brothers having been here. Exhausted (only sleeping a few hours in the past few days), having failed to find his brothers – the only family he had left – and having lost all of his belongings, Luc was ready to give up. He was not only thinking about suicide, he already had a plan and the means to carry it out. It was simply a matter of doing it.
Concerned about Luc’s safety, I asked if he would consider spending the night in our “medical wing,” which was actually a narrow hallway outside the arena event area. It housed 2 rows of beds with people who were being monitored by volunteer medical people who staffed our makeshift infirmary and pharmacy. He agreed.
As we walked out, I noticed how tall and muscled Luc was, his gait almost panther-like. A handsome face, even with his two front teeth missing. A boxer? Construction worker? Tracker? Prisoner? I had no idea, only that he was a man in deep emotional pain who was all out of hope.
Luc was assigned to a bed at the far end of the hall and given something to help him sleep. As he settled in for the night, having promised that he would not take any action of self-harm, Luc looked up at me, his eyelids already drooping from the medication.
“My Godmother’s name was Theresa. I think she must be looking out for me, by sending you here.” I smiled. “Will you be here in the morning when I wake up?” he asked quietly, so fragile a feeling in so strong a body.
“Yes, Luc, I promise,” already trying to figure out the logistics in my head.
Early the next morning found me seated on a stool next to Luc’s bed in the medical hallway, its 10 beds slowly coming to life. I heard a woman’s soft Southern drawl from behind me.
“Look up, Miss Theresa. You look so sad. Always remember to look up; God is there.” Tamika, staying with her father-in-law whose high blood pressure was almost under control, smiled and pointed up. Support from someone I was supposed to help, coming from the most unlikely of places. I smiled and nodded at her reminder that all would be well with Luc, if I only had faith.
Later that day, I told Brother Seraphim, one of the Franciscans who provided pastoral care at the Civic Center, about Luc’s despair and hopelessness and asked him for his prayers. Hands joined with Luc and me, Brother Seraphim prayed that St. Therese, the Little Flower, help Luc to find his brothers. Head bowed, thinking of St. Therese, Luc’s godmother Theresa and myself, I couldn’t help but feel goosebumps – or “God bumps,” as I call them, trusting in the knowledge that our prayers would be answered.
Throughout that day and evening, Luc’s mood improved as he interacted with others in the medical hall. He even found a ride to a near-by Wal Mart that re-opened. Sleep, prayer, support and good food all brought him comfort and hope.
When saying my good-nights, the medical hall was always last in my routine before I left for the evening. When I came to Luc, he was smiling, one hand behind his back. “I have something for you,” he said shyly. In his hand, he held a small box labeled, New: Red Velvet Mini Cake. “You can’t come to Louisiana and not try our Red Velvet Cake. My Godmother always made it for me; it’s my favorite.”
I smiled as I accepted Luc’s gift, unable to speak for the tears in my eyes. This man, with nothing but the clothes on his back, in the midst of his despair and loneliness, thought of someone else and found a way to say thank you. He touched my heart with a gift straight from his heart.
A man with nothing, yet who had everything.
The next morning, I was met at the back entrance by a volunteer social worker from Illinois named Teresa (what else?), jumping up and down with excitement. Having heard about Luc yesterday, she contacted some friends at a central office with computer capability and asked them to track down any information on Lucs’ brothers. Overnight, they located them in another shelter. Lucs’ brothers were alive and well in Alabama!
Teresa and I waited impatiently outside the men’s shower room for Luc to finish. Word spread rapidly through the small staff, and we couldn’t wait to tell Luc the good news. When he came out, we were smiling ear-to-ear as we told him we had a surprise. We walked into the infirmary, which was one of only three places in the entire building that had a semi-private phone. In the last few days, phone service had improved, and the medical staff was able to call in medication orders, supplies, etc. That line to the outside world was a lifesaver.
Teresa led Luc to the phone and told him to call the number written on the paper and identify himself. Dazed, Luc sat down and followed her directions. The entire infirmary staff – doctor, nurse, pharmacist, techs, Brother Seraphim, Teresa, the other 2 mental health volunteers and myself -stood silent and unobtrusive as we watched Luc speak softly into the phone. We couldn’t hear him, but his expressions told the story. Dazed – polite – patient – confused – a hesitant smile – a big smile – disbelief – sobs that shook his big shoulders – and at last, tears of joy. Luc sat, head in his hand, phone pressed against his ear, crying and talking to each of his brothers.
The only other sound in the infirmary was the rest of us quietly crying and blowing our noses.
In the midst of widespread death, destruction and crime, in the midst of hopelessness, helplessness and loss, came love and community and joy. Strangers who became extended family, interconnected in that moment in a way that could neither have been imagined nor predicted nor explained.
Katrina, Luc, Brother Seraphim, St. Therese, Godmother Theresa, Teresa and another Theresa; from Pennsylvania and Illinois to Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.
Circles of Grace.
Thank you, God, for this privilege. Thank you, Luc, for the gifts of you and my Red Velvet Cake; I still have the box that it came in.
I wish you blessings, good health, happiness, love and family all the days of your life. I hope one day – somewhere, somehow – to meet again.
Sacred Ground. Holiness and Angels Unaware.