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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July 9th 2004

I jumped out of bed and stumbled to the shower twenty minutes late, as always. I got dressed to Katie Couric like I did every morning, hopped on one foot to get my shoe on and shoved half a bagel in my mouth with the other hand. I opened the blinds and cracked the sliding-glass door. I threw my hair into a ponytail and wrapped the rubber band around tightly, flicked the TV off, grabbed my purse and hurried downstairs into the bright July morning.

Which route should I take? I had only moved into these apartments five days ago and was still figuring out this side of town. I decided on the shorter route since I was running late. I don’t like driving on the expressway; I would rather drive through the city. But I was resistant to being resistant.

I turned onto the highway, flipped through the radio remembering it was Friday and smiled. Fridays were always easy, and Saturday I would drive to Indianapolis to visit my fam. Plus I was wearing my brand-new Gap jeans. I rolled the window down, flicked my turn signal on and eased into the right lane. What a perfect day, perfect weather, perfect moment.

Half a mile behind me was Michael Gray, mid-seizure, with two kids in the back seat speeding recklessly toward the exit ramp.
I slowed to turn.
He rounded the corner.
I braked.
He accelerated.
I breathed in happily.
He slammed into me—into my moment, into my entire life.

My seatbelt locked; my head jolted forward and bounced off the steering wheel. I skid to the left and adrenaline took over as I realized I’d been hit. I clenched the steering wheel and tried to regain control, but the wheel was locked. “Nononononono!” I screamed as my car lurched toward the semi in the left-hand lane. I yanked the steering wheel. It wouldn’t move. I tried not to panic. But I was going to hit the truck. The steering wheel wouldn’t move. “Help me help me help me help me!” I cried helplessly as my car slammed into the semi.

I was instantly pinned between the steering wheel and the window, and pinned against the rear tires of the truck as the truck continued to move forward. I could see the wheel coming toward my window. It occurred to me that I might not make it; that I would probably die, right there. I hadn’t even talk to a single person that morning. My mom would be sitting on the patio drinking coffee. My best friend was probably just waking up.

It would be hours before they even knew.

I began to whimper as the sound of crunching metal suffocated my own voice. The monstrous black tire crashed through the window devouring my leg and hip through the door.

This was it.

I lay there helplessly, alone and screaming, as my head slammed into the sharp folds of metal from the roof crashing down on top of me. Like fabric caught in a sewing machine, the semi dragged my car through the intersection, wrapping my car around its tire.

Brakes squealed. The truck began to slide sideways, popping and hissing. My car spun around and jolted forward. I closed my eyes as trees and cars flew in and out of my line of vision. The engine revved, the car stopped, everything shut down. Suddenly things were quiet.

I was conscious and frozen and bewildered flat on my back in the front seat. I was afraid to breathe. I opened my eyes.

People began to come from every direction, crying, panicking, shaking. “Oh, God!” they yelled, running toward the car.

The first person scrambled around the front and stood at my window. He dropped his hands to his knees and doubled over, staring at the ground for a moment. He looked up, wiped his mouth and yelled to somewhere I couldn’t see, “This one’s alive,” he yelled. “Shit. Shit! She’s alive, somebody call an ambulance!”

Six other cars had been hit. The highway was closed.

A string of people ran towards the window asking a million questions: What hurts? Is there someone we can call? Stay calm, now. Stay calm. What’s your name? How old are you? I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. Can you feel your legs, honey? Just stay still. Don’t move. Do you see her head? Shit! Stay calm, honey. You’re doing a good job. Give us some phone numbers, and we’ll start calling your family. Don’t move now. Just stay calm. You’re going to be okay. Do you remember what happened? That guy came out of nowhere. Shit! Did you see it? She’s a lucky one. Just don’t move, honey. They’re almost here.

The man who first came to the window grabbed my phone and started making calls, but he couldn’t finish his sentences. The only word he could say was F.

My head began to swell. My left hip and leg were stuck beneath the door. My knees were turned outward, pinned down by the steering wheel while my ankles were still in place on the floor. My right arm was swollen. My ribs ached. My hips, where the seatbelt came across, were numb. The most blinding, unrelenting, sharp, throbbing pain, however, was in my head. I could feel every single spot where my head hit into the roof, and slowly, the pain began to spread throughout my body. I closed my eyes. I could hear them yelling, “Stay awake, honey! Just stay awake. Can you look at us? Can you tell me what day it is?”

I was awakened by a scary noise and opened my eyes, trying to move, forgetting where I was and what had happened. The jaws of life, they told me.

“It’s okay,” the officer said. “We’re gonna get you out of here. Don’t be scared; they’re just cutting the car. We’re going to pull you out through the back, okay?”
I nodded.
“I just need to get some personal information from you,” he said.

I shook but automatically spewed out personal information to the officer at the window: my name, date of birth, address. I didn’t recognize the voice coming out of my mouth, but I thought it sounded smart. The officer kept telling me how well I was doing. He was proud of me for staying calm, but my teeth chattered as the officer cut my seatbelt. My arms and legs shook as they sawed through the roof and slid a backboard beneath me. I closed my eyes again and felt my body rocking back and forth.

“What hurts the most?” the EMS worker asked.
I opened my eyes. I was in an ambulance. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think my hip. Or maybe my head. Or my leg. I don’t know.” I reached around to squeeze my hip.
“Don’t move your leg!” he said, putting a hand on my ankle.
“Something just doesn’t feel right,” I said, “like my leg is hanging. I think it’s out of socket or something.”

He felt around my hip and grabbed a pair of scissors. He cut my jeans—my brand new jeans—from the ankle to the hip. He did the same thing to the other side. He cut both sides of my underwear. He cuts my socks off and my shoes, too.
I tried not to be embarrassed.

My hip was tingling, and I could feel his hands fumbling around. Finally, he found the spot and pushed. Pain tore through my body.
“It was dislocated,” he said. He layered ice packs on my head and around my body. “Try your best to hold still,” he said.
I nodded and fell asleep.

For 12 hours, I was strapped to a backboard in the emergency room. My co-workers came and went, even the one who didn’t like me. My best friend’s parents came and went. But my best friend came and stayed.

“I thought I was going to die.” I said quietly.”
“I know, I know,” Sprinky cried, laying her arm and face across me in the hospital bed. “It’s okay. I can’t even…I don’t even…I don’t know what I would do.”

Seconds later, a nurse brought the phone to my bed. “It’s your mom,” the nurse said, “we were able to get a hold of her. She just wants to hear your voice.”
“Mom?” I said, voice cracking.
“Hi sweetie,” she said, “I’m on my way.”
I tried to tell her that I was okay, but I couldn’t speak. I just cried.
“I know. The nurse says you’re doing great. I’m coming as fast as I can.”

I was rolled from room to room for X-rays, CAT scans and MRIs. No breaks, they said. But it might be too soon to tell with all the swelling. I spent the entire first day covered in ice, in a neck brace and strapped to a backboard. Chunks of my hair had been pulled out by Velcro and tape. You’re free to go, they said. My mom took me home to Indianapolis that night.

After a month of re-scanning, no solid breaks appeared in either leg, so the doctors gave me crutches and sent me to physical therapy. I returned to Fort Wayne, transferred physical therapy to a new doctor and arranged to stay with Bec for a few weeks until I could walk up the stairs.

I stayed for one night, woke up the next morning, took a shower, and began to put my hair up, just like I had done weeks earlier. I was alone for the first time in a month, looked at my reflection pulling the rubber band tight and froze in a flashback.

The entire accident began to play out in my mind, and I called my mom in a total panic.

“Mom,” I said, “I almost died! You have to come get me. I don’t want to live here anymore! It’s too unsafe. I’m just gonna quit my job and live with you guys forever.”

My mom was appropriately sympathetic. She did not tell me to calm down, did not say I was being unreasonable. Of course I could home, she said. She’d leave in an hour.

I spent another week curled up on the couch, recovering, this time, mentally and emotionally. I cherished the extra time spent with family and was ready to try again after a week. I no longer wanted to quit my job and definitely no longer wanted to live with my brothers.

My friends were prepared this time and welcomed me cautiously, protectively, with open arms and no sudden movements. They were patient and loving and understanding even in my whiniest moments. They took me to the scene of the accident. They showed me the newspaper clippings.

I returned to work after six weeks and called somebody each morning because I had decided that no one should die without having spoken to someone that day. I left voice mails to key people announcing that I’d made it safely to work.

In December I went in for my last MRI and no bones were broken. At the initial impact, we discovered, my seat broke and fell backwards causing me to lie flat as the semi ran over the car. The seat cradled me, protecting me from the brunt of the damage, though there were deep bruises.

I finished physical therapy in February.

There are days when I flip out, like yesterday, when I replay every single excruciating minute, sobbing and shaking, comparing every minute to where I was at that day, for example: It’s 9:15, I would have been leaving the house. 9:18, I would have been getting ready to turn…etc. The intersection gives me panic attacks. Also, when my knees hurt, I cry. I can’t explain it, but I think my body has a direct emotional line to my brain that’s faster than my rational one, and when my knees or hip ache, my brain automatically equates it. I am inconsolable.

But today, I am grateful. I had planned to take the day off work, you know, to maybe cry or go shopping. Maybe even go to the pool and eat cookies all day. But then I decided to go to work because I am physically able to, and that is a gift. Plus I didn’t really want to be alone, if you want the whole story.

I am just glad to be here.

Follow up 1(2006)  The guy who hit me

Follow up 2 (March 2007)  The settlement

Follow up 3 (July 2007)  More settlement

Follow up 4 (2008)  Pics