Friday, September 4, 2015

Katrina, 10 Years Later -- part I

Hurricane Katrina satellite view, 28 August 2005*
Hurricane Katrina satellite view, 28 August 2005*

The ten-year anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma have been much on my mind lately.

In August, 2005, our family had just moved to the Midwest.  I'd grown up in hurricane country and had lived most of my life in majority-minority cities.  I spent the days before Katrina's landfalls tracking the storm on weather websites and anxiously listening to the news.

I spent the days after Katrina hit, like so many people, getting more and more angry, desperately wanting to Do Something.

Hurricane Rita, satellite view, 5 September 2005*
Hurricane Rita, satellite view, 5 September 2005*

I spent Hurricane Rita in Montgomery, Alabama, stranded with hundreds of other disaster relief volunteers in a big box store converted to volunteer staff shelter.  We were incredibly frustrated at being stuck there instead of being out in the field, and given how impossible things already were for Katrina survivors, we were worried about how much worse they were getting.

When it was safe enough to travel -- still lots of wind and rain, but lower winds and fewer tornadoes -- I was assigned to go to a newly-opened service center in Jackson, Mississippi as a family services caseworker.  There, my volunteer colleagues and I worked with thousands of hurricane survivors every day -- for weeks.  Many of the people we saw had been displaced twice -- they'd lost everything and been forced to move to another part of the country, then they lost what replacements they'd been able to scramble and were forced to move again.

One of the things I remember most about that time is the incredible people I met and worked with, over and over and over.  The other volunteers.  The survivors.  The National Guard service members, local law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics.  The people who offered their workplace for our volunteer staff shelter, and tried to make it as homey as possible.

The way people pulled together to pull together.


It is vitally important to lift up recognition of the structurally racist nature of emergency planning and response by local and federal officials in the Gulf Coast region before, during, and after hurricane season 2005.   Yes, natural disasters generally affect people who are poor, people with disabilities, and people of color harder than they affect non-disabled middle-class white people.  But with Katrina especially, that disproportionate impact was so. much. greater.  It was, and still is, very hard not to see that as almost deliberate -- as the logical consequence of a long, long series of racist decisions and choices.

Black lives matter, dammit.  

Other people, especially people of color, have written about this much better than I can, and I encourage you to seek out what they have to say. Especially about the roots and the long-term effects of that racist decision-making. 


I know I have more to write about that time, but none of it is quite here yet.  In the meantime, while that's brewing, here are two excerpts from other things I've written in the past: 

At the five-year anniversary: 
Five years ago, we had just moved to the Midwest, and I was listening to the news coverage after Hurricane Katrina and getting angrier and angrier.

Well, that had happened after September 11th, too; and then, the Red Cross had desperately needed help, too.  So I'd taken my three community service days from work and answered phones at the SE PA Red Cross.  It wasn't glamorous, but it freed up trained people to go out in the field and deal with local disasters like house fires.  And it gave me something constructive to do.  Which was better than listening to people bitch all day at work about how we should, in fact, bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.

So when I was getting pissed off after Katrina, I called the local Red Cross in Michigan, thinking I'd answer phones again. 

They asked me to go to the Gulf Coast and do Family Services / Client Services.  Case management.

And I did.

And it was an amazing experience.

I didn't have time to write much about it, and when I got back home, I left almost immediately for a family funeral; but I did write some.  And I also wrote a little in my article for Friends Journal. 

Excerpt from my Friends Journal article, "The Peace Testimony and Armed Forces Emergency Services":
As a Friend, I first got involved with the Red Cross through Disaster Services just after September 11, 2001. Like so many of us, I had a deep need to do something – something to help, and something that expressed the Peace Testimony. What I did was answer phones, all day, every day. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was needed, and it freed up experienced, trained volunteers to go out in the field.

After Hurricane Katrina, I again found myself raging at the news, and again felt that need to do something. So I thought I’d go answer phones again. But because I have experience as a pastoral counselor and case manager and the need was so great, the local Chapter asked me to go to the Gulf Coast instead.

Five weeks after the disaster, at just one service center, in just one town, my fellow volunteers and I saw and spoke with thousands of people every day. None of us could “fix” anything for them. True, we could help them apply for financial assistance. True, we could try to connect them with services. But we couldn’t repair their lives.

Mostly, what we could do was just be there with them.

It turned out our simple presence meant much more than financial assistance to many people.
“You came from where? To be here with us?”
“But you’re not getting paid?!”
“What about your family?”
“Thank you for coming down here.”
“I haven’t told anybody what happened, and it’s been more than a month.”
“We thought nobody cared about us.”

I already knew what a difference it made for me to have someone simply be with me when I was going through hard times. In Mississippi, I learned yet again that bearing witness is sacred work.


Hurricane Wilma, satellite view, 19 October 2005*
Hurricane Wilma, satellite view, 19 October 2005*


Hurricane Katrina, 28 August 2005.  By Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Rita, 5 September 2005.  By Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Wilma, 19 October 2005.  By NOAA Satellite and Information Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Alice I said...

(Was going to comment on your Fb post, but I can no longer find it.)

Thank you for this. I've seen you allude to Katrina and how it affected you, but didn't know what your involvement was. Yes, witnessing is sacred work. Deeply. People -- especially in crisis -- need to know they are seen, they are heard. Thank you for the reminder.

And thank you for being one who sees.

Morgan said...

You're welcome -- and thank you.

(And thanks for commenting here!)