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Katrina Memories

Pat at StubbornFacts has a nice post on Katrina. He was there. Took some good pictures, one of which is above.
Shortly after the storm, I found myself touring several shelters in the Baton Rouge area. I visited first hand with people who had fled their homes with little or nothing. The people rescued from rooftops by helicopter usually lacked even a shirt on their back when they arrived at the shelter. The picture just above shows the entire worldly possessions left to one small family.

One woman's legs were swollen to huge size by the ordeal of trekking through chest-deep mucky water trying to get to the Superdome. Her husband would be dead now had it not been for samaritans who took the description of the pills he needed and broke into a shuttered pharmacy to get more for him.

Another woman was in tears, of joy, because her 14-year-old son had just been located in Houston. She hadn't seen or heard from him since the storm, and didn't know if he was alive or dead. My friend held the woman's 2-month-old in her arms as she frantically put everything she now owned into 4 little boxes and some plastic grocery bags before they took her to the airport to be flown to Houston to join the boy.
Readers of my old blog may recall with amused and I hope tolerant condescension my own mission to Katrina. I thought I'd drive on down, kidnap a family, move them to Chapel Hill and take care of them for however many months. That was a doomed if fascinating jaunt. The people I met in shelters were (understandably) dubious. I'm not sure what I'd have thought seeing me zip on up and offer to bust people out.

In one church shelter they warned me that the refugees needed to be vetted before they could be placed. (They gave me a defunct 800 number to call.) I explained that I was willing to take the risk, that I was looking for family people and I didn't think some mommy with three kids was going to be much of a threat.

They told me I needed to be vetted, too. Apparently on the theory that I had driven down to Alabama to make off with a poor black family, what with us having none of our own in North Carolina. And again a defunct 800 number.

This particular church had a media facility. Half a dozen of the people asked me to get the projection TV turned on, but the technical stuff baffled me. So I asked the church folk for instruction and was told not to let the people in the shelter become too demanding.

The people running the shelters I visited were overwhelmed, undertrained, or, in some cases, scared to death of the people for whom they were caring.

Finally I found one guy in an Alabama shelter who had his act together. I walked in and said "Dude, I have an SUV outside and an Amex card in my grubby fist, what do you need?" I think it was the third shelter I'd made the same offer, but this guy had his shit together. He had a list. It was like he'd been expecting me to show up. So off I toddled to Wal-Mart which, although surrounded by ruin, was busy marking down prices. (No, I'm not kidding.) In one of the more surreal episodes of a life replete with oddness I spent an hour dragging two shopping carts through Wal-Mart loading up plus-size clothing (the shelter had nothing over XL), foodstuffs, personal hygiene items, ice, kid's toys, make-up in African-American shades, and whatever other crap came to my mind. (Strangely inexpensive, but then, that's Wal-Mart.)

As I left, the people running the shelter confiscated the TV-DVD and the movies I'd bought to keep the kids occupied. It troubled me then, still does today. I'm a father, so I know something about keeping kids occupied and had tremendous sympathy for the exhausted parents in the shelter. I asked them why they were confiscating the TV and was told that "these people" would just steal it. Steal it from the open middle of a huge shelter? Steal it while kids were watching SpongeBob and Nemo? The toys I bought were kept away from the children because, "they each have a toy."

A toy? My kids have roughly eight billion toys, and they hadn't just lost their homes.

But it wasn't my place to argue: they were running the place and I was a dilettante commuting back and forth for a couple of days from the Birmingham Hilton. (And the Birmingham Hilton bar.)

I came away thinking this country needed something more than the Red Cross to cope with disasters. Volunteers are good people, but they aren't professionals. And as well-meaning as the church people I met were, and as devoted as the Red Cross people were, the result was still a confused mess. A mountain of diapers, a lot of volunteers sitting around drinking sweet tea, scared white people and resigned black people. And no one taking care of the kids.

CORRECTION: Just occurred to the shelter was in Mississippi, not Alabama. Like there's a difference.

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“Katrina Memories”

  1. Anonymous Kevin Says:

    As I read this Spike Lees, "When the Levees Broke" was playing on HBO. It's a very uncomfortable feeling watching this because Katrina exposed a lot of ugly truths about this country. Not feeling too proud to be an American right now, which I guess is the point.

  2. Blogger Patrick Martin Says:

    I didn't know about your Katrina journey, M. Thanks for sharing it, and more importantly thanks for doing it. I made the Wal-mart trip, too, with a well-know actor who was keeping a very low profile and was much more interested in helping rather than getting publicity. We did a good 3 or 4 shopping carts worth, and were given the same plus-size requests.

    There was a lot of lack of common sense among both the professionals and the amateurs running shelters, which I may post about soon, though others have already made that point. In fairness, there really are good reasons of crowd control to limit what's handed out in the way of luxuries. Cramped quarters can lead to short tempers, and the last thing a shelter needs is arguments and fights over who's got more or what movie to watch or what have you. The rule is not entirely based on "those people" all being crooks. But I agree with you that they should trust the good side of human nature more in such circumstances rather than fear the bad side.

    Again, thanks for coming down and helping us during our dark time.

  3. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    I have not seen it yet, though I intend to. My biz partner did a documentary on a sidebar story, the Katrina people who were displaced from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. It won't get quite the distribution that Spike's film has.

    Well, it got me out of the house, and if you have young kids you know just how nice that can be.

    I don't mean to be harsh toward the people working the shelters. Some of these people were seventy year old grandmas suddenly asked to organize a catastrophe. The fact is they were showing up, doing their best, being good decent people.

    But it was instructive seeing the contrast between what the Red Cross could accomplish and what Wal-Mart managed to do. I hate shopping at Wal-Mart, (I'm a Target guy) but they do have their act down tight don't they? They had everything I needed and honest to God the whole mess cost about 40% of what I guesstimated it would. (End of Wal-Mart commercial.)

  4. Anonymous Dana Says:

    You nailed it, excellent observations on what really goes on in the "helping" community. Both professional and non-professional.

    Until we shitcan the entire notion that their is some innate difference between "us", the people who are trying to help and "them", the people we want to help, we'll remain a screwed up, mismanaged mess.

    Cheery news for those who are more interested in being "charitable" than in actually seeing results and...GOD FORBID, having to deal with "those sort of people" as equals.

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