In which my truck catches on fire: Katrina/Rita adventures

(In transfer progress from 05… remember those old things called ‘notebooks’? AND imported from emails to friends and fam- oh, and my Grampy’s newspaper in Destin, so ignore the lack of space between punctuation marks. Can’t figure out why it does that!)

Alternate title for this post- Amazing Race: Disaster Edition

I think I am in my own personal reality show.

I am safe.
I am helping.
I am in Longview TX, which is just across the border from Shreveport, LA.
I have been assigned to a small team of 6 people, which is part of a larger team of 30. We are staying at a Katrina shelter that rolled into a Rita shelter, housing people from New Orleans and Lake Charles, LA to Port Arthur and Beaumont, TX.

It’s been a zoo from the beginning.

I stepped off the plane in Houston with nothing but my Red Cross ID and an 800-number, which I was supposed to call for directions about where to go next. I called the 800-number, and it was out of order. I tried not to panic, but I was nervous and stranded in the middle of the Houston airport wondering if I had been Punked by the Red Cross, or just part of a new NBC spin-off: Amazing Race, Disaster Edition. Who gets on a plane trusting that their next meal and shelter will come from an 800-number?

Me. I do.

I walked up to the information desk and the lady who saw my badge said, “Oh, Are you with the Red Cross?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling relieved “I tried to call—”
“Thank God,” she said. Then she turned to a group of people huddled and panicky near the desk and said, “Talk to her. She is with the Red Cross.”

The group walked toward me saying things like, “We didn’t know what to do. We called the number, but it’s out of order. We’re so glad you’re here. What should we do?”

Lucky for us, I remembered that my branch had given me an alternate number in case of an emergency, and I believed this was an emergency, so I called them. They told me to get the group into taxis and head for the local chapter, which was next to the command center in Houston.

We fit the entire group into 3 minivan taxis and arrived at the local chapter just before 5 to check-in. The chapter workers told us that Headquarters was down the street and that we needed to in-process there first. We hopped back in the mini van, traveled about half-a-mile down the interstate and jumped out at headquarters.

On the door was a sign that said: Closed. Please return to the local chapter for lodging and come back tomorrow at 9am to in-process.

Naturally the taxi was already gone. We had no choice but to lug our suitcases, pillows and sleeping bags in a single-file line down the interstate toward the chapter office. We had not even entered the disaster area yet, and we already looked like evacuees.

The chapter had been transformed into a make-shift shelter for the weekend. They were expecting about 50 of us. We were 200.

We stacked chairs, moved tables, arranged dividers and grabbed cots for the night and groups began dispersing for dinner. We were within walking distance of a handful of great restaurants, including a Taco Cabana. But I had come alone, and things were beginning to feel like freshman orientation at a very grumpy college. Every group I met said, “Well. It was nice to meet you. We’re going to get something to eat now, so we’ll see you later.”

That first night I ate about 55 granola bars alone on the curb watching everyone come and go with their little groups.

We slept cot-to-cot in a large meeting room and listened to caller after caller on the local radio station begging for help, food, supplies, electricity and water. You can’t imagine how helpless and frustrating it was to be right there, but unable to help anyone.

On the second night, they tried to put some of us up in hotels throughout the city to relieve the overwhelmed chapter, not to mention that on Monday, people would show up for work in what had become hour temporary home.

I rubbed my hands together and felt all warm inside because I’d heard about this type of thing: the Hilton and Marriott and the Holiday Inn Express.   My group ended up outside the Aloha Inn. There were bars on the windows and doors. The receptionist sat behind a sheet of shatterproof Plexiglas and spoke to us through a hole. The walls were stained, the beds were a mess. After a few minutes of sitting and waiting and calling and waiting, our driver said we’d be better off at the shelter and relayed to Headquarters to forever cross the Aloha Inn off the sheltering list. Thank God.

We waited in lines for 2 days and went through different tests and trainings while groups were created, and then we sat in rooms waiting to be deployed by National. I sat next to an artist who kept sketching me…

The morning after the Aloha Inn incident, when I was especially sleep-deprived from all the snoring and shelter-mania the night before, when I was at my most panicky and regretful moment wondering why in the world I had thought any of this was a good idea, I turned around and ran right into an old friend from Fort Wayne—in Houston!

I threw my arms around her and hugged her like she was my long lost soulmate, and then I started crying out of sheer joy for seeing a familiar face and total exhaustion of all the confusion here. I wish I was kidding, because I’m totally embarrassed thinking back on it.  But I couldn’t make myself stop hugging her, and she didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she could tell I was fragile, or maybe she had just had a more reasonable amount of sleep having stayed at the Hilton or something.  Either way, things looked up after that.

On Sunday I was assigned to a team of my very own—which meant friends—and finally, on Monday, we were deployed.

We were sent to a shelter in Longview, TX.

Present time: Right now we are sleeping in the medical supply closet (56 degrees inside- I only brought tank tops) of a shelter during the nights and working at a command post during the day. We have registered thousands of people for aid and handed out financial assistance debit cards for people living in the zip-codes which have already been assessed as disaster areas. We have given out over a million dollars and have registered about 2,000 people since Monday.

In the evenings I have been serving dinner with the Southern Baptists at the shelter and doing odd jobs before bed. We have water and electricity, but there is only one shower in the whole shelter (300 people) and it is mainly used by the evacuees. Twice I have been able to shower in the middle of the night and once in the bathroom stall with some wet wipes, if you want to know.

One of the most heartbreaking things is watching the kids get on and off the bus every day at the shelter and doing homework on an air matress next to their 5 immediate family members and 300 other evacuees.   Kids are so resilient, it makes me want to cry.

Tomorrow we will be closing down this shelter (evacuees will be transferred), and we’ll have finished our assignment in Longview by Saturday or Sunday.I have no idea where we will be assigned next or where we will sleep tomorrow when the shelter closes. We’ll probably have to call that blasted 800-number again…I have put my name in for disaster assessment and bulk distribution in Beaumont and southern Texas, but who knows what’s next.I have met a lot of really great and interesting people and I am excited that this is only the beginning.For your enjoyment, I have created a top ten list:

1. Water from a can isn’t that bad

2. If you are NOT in Hawaii, always question hotels with names like “Aloha Inn” especially in downtown Houston

3. Parrish means county

4. The shelter phrase of the evacuee when surprised: “Well blow me down and call me Rita and Katrina!” Translation: “Your kidding!”

5. Motissa, monback, monova mean: “More tea sir?” “c’mowwwn back” “c’mowwwwn over”

6. Medical closets can be a cozy place to sleep

7. Except when the temperature is set to 57 degrees for the meds, and your suitcase is full of shorts and tank tops

8. Women snore louder than men do

9. Not all southern baptists are from the south–some of them are from Montana

10. A book bag, sleeping bag, pillow, air mattress, and ME do not all fit into an airport bathroom stall, and, as everyone knows, you will be clubbed over the head and dragged off to jail for leaving ANYTHING unattended at the airport–so going to the bathroom was like solving a new Mensa puzzle

**Present time, only weeks later. We are at a distribution center in Austin:

Let me just skip straight to the punchlines, there are several, in bold. Skip to whichever piques your interest: While on the way to Austin from Baytown, we had to pick up several trucks from the Alamodome to take to the distribution center in Austin, fill with supplies, and deliver supplies to a bunch of East Texas/West Louisiana towns. Oh, and also move the distribution center from Austin to Lufkin. That’s all. As we pulled into the Alamodome, the shelter was on lock down. No one was allowed in or out, because a group of prostitutes had stolen the staff shelter t-shirts and were inside soliciting business.

The keys to our trucks were inside.

We got them 36 hours later.

We made it to Austin, loaded supplies for several days and took off for Beaumont. While I was driving a 24′ diesel truck from Austin to tent city in Beaumont, our truck caught on fire. People kept honking at me, and I thought Austin drivers were just the meanest until a guy pulled up next to us, motioned to roll down our window and yelled: Y’all need to pull over! Your truck’s on fire!. I pulled over, jumped out and ran into a field. There were actual 6-foot flames curling out from underneath the cab up and around our doors. Our team leader, who was my passenger, grabbed the extinguisher, rolled under the truck and began spraying around while I yelled, “George! Save yourself” He put the fire out, and we completed the trip.  Completed the trip, I tell you.  We are the Red Cross, and we WILL deliver your supplies, peeps, come flood or flames :)


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