Louisiana Heart & Soul – 2005

In less than a month in the waning days of a sultry Louisiana summer in 2005, the state was hit by two Category 3 hurricanes: Katrina on August 29th (2000 deaths and $100 billion in damages) and Rita on September 24th (120 deaths and $12 billion in damages). Rita’s storm surge worsened the affects of Katrina by inundating low-lying communities near the southwest coast of Louisiana. When I volunteered for a month after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, my second 2 week deployment was in a town directly in the path of Rita’s destruction.

This is a story from that time.

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The heat and humidity were almost unbearable in this small town that had been hit by both hurricanes. Katrina had made landfall 3 months ago and Rita 2 months, but the land was still littered with the debris of the storms that played havoc with Louisiana. Telephone poles were broken like match sticks, cars were on top of flattened buildings, tanker trucks lay on their sides next to overturned shrimping boats, and a school lay open to the elements. Seaweed and sand were piled where there had been streets, hundreds of yards from the water’s edge.

The silence was eerie – not even the birds had returned – as the three of us drove past the destruction to an area further inland. My fellow volunteers stopped to take pictures, but I stayed in the air-conditioned rental car for comfort. Besides, it seemed almost sacrilegious to take pictures of someone else’s loss and suffering. The scenes of such vast and complete destruction were better left in my imagination than in print.

We had a list of homeowners who had applied to the Red Cross for financial relief, and it was our job to visit these folks and activate credit cards with much-needed funds. Two of the volunteers represented financial aid, while I was along as a mental health professional to offer emotional comfort and support. Two of us tried our best to navigate for the driver – try finding addresses where streets were impassable and signs didn’t exist. A challenge, to say the least.

We had one more family to visit and our 12-hour day would be done. Today had been particularly difficult, as government relief had been either painfully slow or non-existent to these folks, and tempers were easily ruffled by the tiniest perceived slight. The conditions we visited reminded us, however, of how blessed we were to be able to return to a church that night and have hot food and a shower before sleeping on our cots.

We found the last family’s trailer and gingerly picked our way through the debris field that must have been their front yard. If we weren’t picking our way through boards with nails sticking up, we were side-stepping mini-ponds filled with water at least 6 inches deep. No matter how much we tried to avoid it, our shoes remained soaking wet and covered with mud.

trailer

Our knock was answered almost immediately by a young woman named Emeline holding a baby about 4 months old. The woman’s hair was damp from the heat, and the huge dark circles under her eyes gave some indication of her weariness, but her smile was welcoming. She warned us to be careful, as there were some holes in the living room floor where you could see to the muddy ground outside. Katrina had caused minor damage to the trailer, but Rita left holes in the roof and a foot of water inside. They still had no electricity or running water and were waiting to hear from FEMA in order to get a temporary trailer to set up beside this one. Their home was all they had, and there were no relatives close enough for them to stay with.

She introduced her husband, Jean-Pierre, who looked as determined and protective of his family as she looked weary. In fact, with his jet black hair and dark eyes, he reminded me of the pirate drawings in children’s books. Stereotypical, but true. He led us through the small trailer into the back bedroom, where mold covered the entire back wall up to the ceiling. The room used as the baby’s nursery was even worse – mold on all the walls – and I could feel my lungs struggling to breathe even though I had only been there less than 5 minutes. Jean-Pierre lifted new plywood from the nursery floor, showing us the torn up floor that opened to the outside. He told us not to worry – he had killed the four snakes that had made the trailer their home along with the foot of water.

Now I felt myself struggling for breath, but for an entirely different reason. Four snakes? In Belle’s nursery? Along with the mold covering the walls? And these nice folks still lived here, patiently waiting for aid.

If they were complaining about being forgotten, they didn’t do it with us. As the other two volunteers explained the now activated credit card that would provide them some immediate relief, I held Belle in my arms.  She slept soundly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. Even without running water, I could smell Johnson’s Baby Shampoo in her downy hair and Ivory soap on her clean clothing. That she was loved and well taken care of was evident.

When Emeline was handed the credit card, she couldn’t speak for the tears in her eyes. While saying he didn’t know how to thank us, Jean-Pierre suddenly got a twinkle in his eyes and asked us to stay where we were as he rushed to the back of the trailer. He returned carrying a small accordion, his smile huge.

“Maybe I can thank you with some Zydeco.”

He explained that Zydeco’s rural beginnings and the economic conditions in Louisiana at its inception heavily influenced the style of music. It was a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun influence, and African-American traditions.

With a flourish, Jean-Pierre tapped his foot on the plywood, fingered the accordion and broke into a song that sounded like jazz, blues, gospel and R&B, with maybe some funk and hip-hop thrown in. Though unfamiliar, the tune was catchy and you just couldn’t sit still. Emeline took Belle so I could tap my feet in time with the music that Jean-Pierre so seamlessly wove into something unlike anything I ever heard before. By the third song of our impromptu concert, I was standing swaying to the music, hoping I didn’t fall through the weakened floor onto the muddy ground below.

Here – in Southwestern Louisiana, seated in a trailer filled with mold, holes in the floor, no running water or electricity, and humidity like a steam bath – I pushed away thoughts of snakes and asthma and lost myself to the music. There was nothing else but this man who wanted to thank us somehow; a man who, looking around at his home, had nothing. But looking around at his loving wife and daughter, had everything. There was hope here.

The smiles in that room were blinding.  At that moment, there was no place in the world I would rather be.

If these were the people of Louisiana, I wasn’t worried. They would survive. And even beyond that, they would thrive in the coming years of difficult recovery. Because they had heart and soul. And they had love…

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Tuesday Travels — Hurricane Katrina: Houma, Louisiana

Katrina

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”
Theresa: me

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. Houma Terrebonne Civic Center

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.

St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese of Lisieux

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.

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Tuesday Travels — Houma, Louisiana

Katrina

“For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,

ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.”
Mt 25:31-46

In September 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I spent 2 weeks in Louisiana volunteering as a mental health professional with the American Red Cross, followed by another 2 weeks in December. I was assigned to the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, one of 3 counselors to provide services to the 1,000 Katrina victims who were housed there, along with offering emotional support to the other Red Cross workers, the Southern Baptist Convention folks who provided meals, the Civic Center workers, and the visiting National Guard.

The people were primarily from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, the poorest of the poor, without the means to evacuate the city when mandated to do so. I met so many wonderful people: resilient, strong of faith, kind-hearted – people who had nothing, yet who had everything, and were filled with gratitude. Their words echo still:

• A young man, his leg amputated after waiting 5 days for his rescue: “They made me leave my dog, Yogi, but I left him enough food for a week. I never should have left him.

• A young woman who nursed her invalid father-in-law, who had served at Iwo Jima, long after his son had left the marriage: “Miss Theresa – always remember to look up, toward the Lord. He will make all things right.”

• The Southern Baptist cooks: “Miss Theresa – sit down and eat; you look exhausted.”

• An articulate man in his 30s, dressed in ill-fitting, donated clothing: “Miss Theresa – are they going to shoot us?” [referring to the National Guard, ever-present with their weapons]

• A man on the brink of suicide, with nothing to live for: “That was my godmother’s name – Theresa – maybe she’s been watching over me and will help me to find my brothers.” [They were found in Alabama.]

• An elderly, barefoot woman in a walker, while I fitted her with shoes: “Get up; you shouldn’t be on the floor. They don’t have to fit that good. ” [It is a privilege; her calloused and twisted feet told the story of her life.]

• A veteran of Somalia and the First Gulf War: “I don’t need a peacekeeper, Miss Theresa. I just need the National Guard to apologize [for an unfounded accusation]. I’m a human being, just like them.”

• An uprooted shrimper, who lost his boat and only means of support: “When you go North, be a voice for us poor in New Orleans; we are still valuable and good people.” [I kept my promise to you, Eddie. Even now.]

When my deployment was finished, I made the rounds to say good-bye to my new friends, the people from whom I had learned so much. When I reached Booker T and Betty Lou, a couple in their 80s, displaced with their 7 children and some of their 43 grandchildren, they were packing, hoping to head to Texas to start a new life. Betty Lou grabbed hold of me, closed her eyes, and sang a Negro spiritual, hugging me tightly and brushing at my shoulders.

One gnarled black hand, where every crevice had been earned, gently grasping one younger, smoother white one, both baptized with our tears. Booker T took both of my hands in his and sang hymns of praise, thanking God for sending me to him in the depths of his despair, when he most needed a friend, in answer to his prayers.

I think Booker T got it wrong. Standing in the midst of 1,000 people, as Booker T and Betty Lou held me in their arms (wings?), my prayers had been answered, and I felt at home.

Circles of Grace – sacred ground – a community of the heart. Home.

A drawing given to me by Eddie, an evacuee who stayed at the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center where I volunteered.

A drawing given to me by Eddie, an evacuee who stayed at the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center where I volunteered.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,

ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.”
Mt 25:31-46

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