Monday, September 05, 2005

Volunteering at the Reliant Center

I wish I was a talented writer so that I could do justice to the stories of those I met today.

At church this morning, Melissa, a mom of 6 young kids, said she was going to drive down to the Astrodome to volunteer. Two other moms (Tara & Debbie), a husband and wife (Vaughn & Claudia), a teenage girl(Kaylie), and I asked if we could go with her. We got there at 2:30 and were told that all volunteers were being turned away until 7:00 pm. Melissa parked anyway and we walked over to the Reliant Center, where we saw a check-in sign for volunteers. A man from Harris County Citizens' Corps said that they appreciated our help, but no more volunteers were needed. He said there were 3000 volunteers waiting upstairs at the Center to get down on the floor to help out. He said that if we chose to go in, it would be 3-4 hours until we would be assigned a job. Our group milled around, not sure what to do. I thought we had tried our best and should just go home and avoid making nuisances out of ourselves by trying to help where we were not needed.

As we talked, we heard someone call from the door, "Exxon-Mobil - over here!". Vaughn had worn his Exxon-Mobil community involvement shirt, and someone from Exxon-Mobil saw the shirt and assumed we were with them. We used the opportunity and went in. We got volunteer wristbands and Exxon-Mobil shirts. An Exxon-Mobil lady told us that we had to be 16 to go in. We all looked at each other like, OK, no problem, and just stared back at her. She kept accusing Debbie of being the mother of "several of these children". She refused to believe that Tara and I were over 16 (we are 28 and 24 and each have two children). I guess I should've just shown her my ID. She didn't stop us from volunteering, but she clearly thought we were lying about our ages.

The Exxon-Mobil volunteers were trying to help with a project to move the elderly, handicapped, and sick from the Astrodome to the more accessible Reliant Center. While we waited for approval to use a bus for the project, they gave us a tour of the operations at the Center. By the time the tour was done, approval had not come, so they told us to disperse ourselves and help wherever we could. There were plenty of volunteers manning the stations (food, clothing, baby supplies, registration, showers, restrooms), so we simply talked to the survivors.

At first I was too shy to approach anyone, so I followed Tara over to a woman. The woman wanted us to get her some food, so I went off to fill a plate while Tara talked to her. We had been given latex gloves. I put the gloves on while I dished up the woman's food. I brought the food back and we took the woman to a table.

I was no longer hesitant to talk. Tara stayed with the first woman and I went over to an elderly woman sitting on her cot & reading a newspaper. I asked her if she needed any food or supplies or if she would just like someone to read the newspaper to her, and she said she was fine and didn't need anything. I thought I'd just move on, but instead I waited. Soon her story came pouring out. She was separated from her sick husband and her brother. She didn't know where they were or if they had made it out. I sat with her on her cot and held her hand, put my arm around her shoulder, and listened to her talk until she was finished.

I went to another elderly woman and again asked if she needed anything and how she was doing. Again, at first she said she was fine, but soon she began to tell her story. Her name is Floy and she is 77 years old. It sounded like she had the ability to evacuate (financially), but she had thought this storm would be like others in the past - it would come through, cause a little damage, and everything would be fine. She was in a hotel during the actual storm and then went back to her house. Then the levees broke and the water began to rise. Once it reached the stairs to the 2nd floor of her home, she climbed out onto the roof and was eventually rescued by a helicopter. She didn't really mention violence or lawlessness, but rather the way that the New Orlenians helped each other out in every way they could. I was glad to hear her stories after seeing the terrible things on the news.

The only negative she mentioned was that the pushing and shoving to get on the buses to leave the Superdome was terrible. Families got separated very easily. She eventually made it to the Astrodome and ended up in the stadium seating. She made friends with the survivors around her and they took care of her - getting her food for her, etc. She was given the option to move over to the Reliant Center where she would have a cot, rather than having to stay in the stadium-style seating. She didn't want to leave because she had started to feel secure and comfortable with the people around her and with the situation she was in. She wasn't sure what she would find at the Reliant Center. She was glad she made the move because the conditions were better - less crowded, less noisy, and she was in an area specifically for elderly/single women, so she didn't have to be around so many rowdy kids.

Floy worries that all her pictures and scrapbooks will be gone. She worries about the memories tied up in those pictures. She told me about the trips she took with her husband, a New Orleans jazz pianist, to Singapore, Malaysia, & Indonesia. She told me about her collection of U.S. coins and paper money. She told me about a little suitcase full of crayons and coloring books that she keeps for the grandchildren. She understands that the pictures and coins and coloring books are not important compared to family, but they are little things she thinks about. She plans to go back to her home to see what she can salvage and then she'd like to relocate. Maybe to California. She has a grown daughter, grandchildren, and great grandchildren there. She loves the California weather.

She told me about the jobs she'd had over the years. Fifteen years in a retail store, 22 years filing letters into "pigeonholes" at the post office, and 10 years at Head Start. She still works 4.5 hours every day for Head Start. She sits in a rocking chair and rocks and feeds fussy babies when they cry. Her husband passed away several years ago, but she has kept herself busy and "alert" as she says. She's a very smart, well-read and well informed woman. She brought one of the coloring books she keeps for her grandchildren with her. Sometimes she colors in it to help pass the time. She says that coloring keeps the mind active. I think it also comforts her because it is something familiar, something from home. She writes in a journal every day.

Floy is separated from her family (a second adult daughter, adult grandchildren, and young great-grandchildren) but is hoping to see them soon. I sat and listened to her talk for over an hour. She just wanted someone to listen and hear her story. I still had my latex gloves on as I listened. They got sweaty and I took them off. I was embarrassed that I was wearing them in the first place. How humiliating for these people to come here and people have to wear gloves to even touch them. I understand that we need to protect ourselves, but it seemed like I was saying they were filthy and unclean by wearing the gloves.

After I talked to Floy, I saw Debbie, Kaylie, and Tara over at the food area. I wasn't too hungry, but they suggested I sit down and eat with some of the survivors (they call them residents, actually). I saw a thin young man who looked distracted and a little distraught and Tara and I sat down at his table. He really seemed out of it, and I wondered if he was "all there" mentally. He soon grew teary eyed. I moved over and put my arm around him. Tara asked him something and he said he had no one. He said he was completely alone. As we tried to comfort him, he broke down in tears. He wasn't sure how long he'd been at the Reliant Center, but he thought it had been a day and a half. He had no idea where anyone in his family was. We found out that his name is Derek, he is 34 years old, and he was missing his mother, his aunt, several cousins, and his two children (13 and 12). He had never been at the Superdome and had hitchhiked his way to Houston. He had a cell phone with him but the battery was dead and all his relatives' phone numbers were in the phone. Tara and I had working cell phones, but Derek had no numbers to call. He ate his food, but he didn't look at it. His eyes were wild, constantly darting around the building, searching for a familiar face. Suddenly he realized he had his cousin's phone number in his wallet. He used my phone to call his cousin Roger, who lives in Virginia. Roger had heard from Derek's mother and aunt. The mother was in Dallas and the aunt was in Houston. Roger gave Derek his aunt's phone number and he was able to call her. He got a hold of her right away.

He tried without much luck to find out what building they were in. Many of the survivors aren't even sure of the name of the building they are housed in. At one point when Derek's cousin couldn't even answer his question if there were stadium seats in their building, he said "can I get someone with a little more sense on the line?" He had hardened up a little as soon as he found out his family was alive and in Houston. You could tell that he was starting to pull himself together and his personality was coming out. We eventually were able to figure out that his aunt and her family were in the Reliant Arena. Derek was in the Reliant Center. Based on Derek's prior absent-minded behavior, we weren't sure if he'd be able to find the Arena, so we walked him over. As soon as he had been able to call his family, he had changed though. He was much more calm and sure of himself - back to the tough-guy attitude that I'm sure was his usual demeanor. On the walk over Tara and I told him that we each had two kids ourselves, and he told us we didn't look old enough to have kids at all. We didn't tell him, but neither did he! As we got closer to the Arena he saw his cousin. He put on his tough-guy attitude and acted as if he didn't care if he saw her or not. Once we got inside the Arena he called his aunt. He told us that once he found his auntie he would be all right. We eventually were able to find his aunt and uncle and he was reunited with them. He sure was anxious, making sure to keep his eye on them as they and he tried to navigate a maze of barriers to reach each other. He still had the tough-guy attitude and there were no joyful hugs, but Tara and I knew that inside he was crying out with joy at being reunited with them. I was shocked that Derek had been in Houston a day and a half and no one had done the simple things we had done to help him find his family. Possibly he had been putting on a tough-guy act and had only broken down when we first found him - I'm not sure.

Tara and I headed back to the Reliant Center to find our group. We found Debbie holding a tiny little baby, one of a set of twins. She handed the baby off to Tara. The little guy had been premature at birth and was now only 1 month old. Tara tried to feed him a bottle, but he kept getting more and more upset. I finally realized that nothing was coming out of the bottle. The baby's grandma got him a new one and then he was much happier. This was a family of a grandma (who looked like a young mother herself), a 21-year-old mother (had her first baby at age 12), and her 6 children - ages 8, 5, 3, 1, and the 1-month-old twins. Tara and I held the babies while mom went to shower and grandma went to eat with one of the other children. Two teenaged girls who had been volunteering for several days had taken the family under their wings and helped them find food, clothes, & baby supplies. The girls told us the family's story. The mother and grandmother had waded through the floodwaters, each carrying a newborn and a toddler. The 5-year-old and 8-year-old had to fend for themselves and swim/tread water. They eventually made it to a bridge that was out of the water. They were stuck there for two days with no formula for the babies. They eventually resorted to feeding the tiny babies applesauce because they had no other options. A man even died on the bridge and nothing could be done. His body was pushed to the side. The grandma finally realized where they were and remembered that she knew a family with babies that lived in the area. She swam to their house, broke out a window, and got formula and bottles for the babies. The babies didn't sleep the entire two days - they just cried. Eventually they somehow made it out of the city.

I didn't help hundreds of people, and I didn't even work hard or provide physical services, but I hope I helped in some small way the few I talked to.


Sharon said...

Wow!! That last story broke my heart! The fact that families were so easily seperated reminded me of a dream I had with in the last month...I vaguely remember some emergency situation and there was such a crowd trying to get to buses. I don't remember much, but I believe I had Rebecca in a sling, dh was somewhere near by trying to keep Leah calm and not run all over the place (or maybe he was holding her) Steven stuck real close to us and I think he was holding onto a shirt or belt loop in his dad's pants, but Braden was distracted and not listening (his usual lately) and eventually was seperated from us. It was like watching a movie and the real me was talkign to the 'screen' and telling myself and dh that we should have tied a rope to each other to stay together. It was heart wrenching to say the least. So, now I will be having rope in my 72hr kit stuff jsut for this kind of thing ;-) Not that I think anything might happen anytime soon, just being prepared to not be seperated.

homemommy22 said...

Wow, Katie! Thank you for sharing your experience with those who can't physically help out due to distance. It was amazing.