As Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Louisiana coast and northern-eastern Texas gulf regions almost to the day, three years after the devastation of Katrina, my heart goes out to those who have already suffered more than anyone should have to endure.
After the levees broke in the aftermath of Katrina and rescue efforts finally began, Denver was one of many cities that opened our doors to these poor souls who had lost everything. We quickly converted some dormitories, on the old Lowry Air Force turned community college, into temporary housing for those who were being plucked off of rooftops with no place to go.
I volunteered for the Red Cross when we began to accept these "refugees" from New Orleans and I will never forget those days and nights and the people I met. Many of those at the shelter told harrowing stories of despair and courage and of watching the water rise and having nowhere to go.
There were many empty and vacant faces, in those first days, that were enough to break ones heart and then I would meet a couple of true NO free spirits who, even after losing everything and having no idea what they were going to do next, wanted to find a place where they could cook up a big pot of jambalaya to feed us, the volunteers. In the cool of the September evenings people thrust together by circumstances would gather outside and try to make some sense of their surroundings.
I listened to their stories, tried my best to help satisfy immediate needs but most often all I could do was provide a shoulder upon which to cry or maybe give an elderly woman or man a reassuring hug. None of it was enough, and I would go home feeling the enormity of the road these people had ahead of them. Many had never been outside the city limits of NO and now here they were in a converted army barracks, turned community college dorm, now shelter, in a city they probably could not have located on a map. Some were trying to find family members who had become separated from them during the rescue effort, others had family who were willing to take them in - but they had no way to get there from Denver, which seemed a million miles away from a cousin, brother, sister or friend in Baton Rouge or Jackson.
In the days that followed, a location was set up where all the agencies providing aid could be in one place and individuals from the shelter were shuttled to and from, and where those we began to discover had ended up in Denver on their own, also could come to begin the job of putting lives back together.
To imagine what they were faced with consider what was a familiar story:
Spending a day or more on a rooftop awaiting help or finally managing to wade through the flood waters and arriving at the Superdome left to experience heaven only knows what kind of conditions, then being lined up and put on buses, taken to the airport told to board a plane to an unknown destination, arriving at Denver International Airport, put back on buses and finally reaching a converted barracks, dormitory-style shelter. Once here of course you need to be checked in, name, address etc., etc., to be assigned a room. Then, once the initial shock wears off, you are shuttled to a location and left to negotiate a maze of relief organizations and governmental agencies staffed by volunteers and professionals who talk too fast, have funny accents and are difficult to understand. While each person or family was met by a volunteer who helped guide them through the process, many were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the effort.
To be honest, I found it difficult to remember which agency offered what services and what the specific requirements were for any given program. At times there were services and goods being donated, but the information was not communicated to all the relief workers. So I cannot imagine the confusion they must have been experiencing. But, amazingly and to their credit, in my work as a case-worker for the Red Cross I did not have a single person get angry, rude or demanding - and believe me, most of us would not have exhibited such resigned patience.
But it was the individuals I talked to that will make those days some of the most meaningful in my life. The couple from Alabama who explained how to dress out a racoon or possum and gave me the recipe for stew, while the young account exec from the bank who was setting up a debit card for them listened and missed a few keystrokes in the process. The very young, alcohol or drug-addicted lesbian couple who pretended to be cousins out of fear or apprehension. I remember holding the youngest one in my arms while she cried with great racking sobs and begged to go home, while her partner tried to explain to her that they had no home to go to and no money to get there even if they could, then after turning around to get them something to eat, discovering that they had disappeared - and I wonder to this day if they made it back to NO.
There were many cases from the middle class who were also dealing with loss and trying to get things straightened out, but the faces I still see are those of the disenfranchised and forgotten, and they taught me more in those few weeks than I could possibly have given to them. As Barack Obama so eloquently said the other night, it is difficult to pull oneself up by ones bootstraps if one doesn't have boots. What bothers me the most as Gustav approaches, is I wonder how many have never recovered from Katrina and now are faced with the same catasrophic sense of displacement. And with all the money wasted through incompetence, waste, and fraud, I have this overwhelming sense of sadness that we never really ceased to abandon the people that live at the margins in this wonderful city of contrasts we know as New Orleans.