We got home from Louisiana late Saturday night amidst a downpour, the likes of which, I have never seen. I'm not sure what that is... irony? a reminder of where we just were? I don't know but it struck me as odd.
I met so many incredible people while working in St Bernard's Parish. The first person I met was Pastor Randy Millet. Randy lived in St Bernard's all his life. He lost everything, as did everyone else who lives in the Parish. He lost his house, his church, his community, he lost an aunt and uncle, whose bodies he found. And yet through it all he cannot be kept away from the people and the parish that he loves so much. Randy is the man running the relief center where we were working. As people came to the center, many of them returning from their homes for the first time since Katrina hit, Randy would greet them and through tear stained eyes he would give them a smile and a hug. In Randy Millet, the people of St Bernard's, find hope and strength. As we were preparing to leave on Friday Randy pulled me aside and thanked me for our work and compassion. I told him I wished we could do more. And then get this....he asked me what he could do for me.
As we hugged, Randy said, "Go home and tell our story, people need to know what is going on down here. Please tell our story."
I met a woman named Tina. She is now housing eleven members of her family who lost their homes in her temporary two bedroom apartment. Her family ranges in age from a grand-niece who is two months old to her mom who, I'm guessing is seventy-something. I carried some water to her car for her. She said "Thank you baaaby," as only a woman from New Orleans could.
I helped her mom June, get into the car. June told me how proud she was of Tina. All I could do was agree with her. June looked at me and thanked me for being there. If anyone has right to be bitter or angry it was Tina and June. They weren't. They were sad and heartbroken over their loss but they were the most gracious and grateful people I have ever met.
I met a man named Gene. Gene and his dog Humbug decided not to evacuate and brave the storm from their home. Gene, a proud 76 year old man, with a healthly swath of white hair told us his story. On the day Katrina hit, Gene told us he fell asleep on his couch for about an hour. He woke up and put his feet down on the carpet and thought little Humbug had had an accident. Then he realized his entire living room was under three inches of water. He told us, with a big smile, he knew Humbug wasn't a big enough dog to make that big a mess. The water in his home rose quickly. Gene and Humbug retreated to his attic then to his rooftop where he survived on Ensure for the next 8 days. Gene told us he got tired of waiting. So he attached Humbug's leash and they swam for it.
I said "you did what?"
Gene replied, "Oh it wasn't a big deal, I was a great swimmer in college. We just swam from rooftop to treetop to a floating piece of fence and just kept doing that until someone rescued us."
Gene told us how he was being treated like a celebrity, his senator even called to wish him well. Again with a big sly smile he told us how he kind of liked all the attention he was getting.
I met a man named Sam. This one started off a little rough. We loaded up the suburban with food, water and safety gear. We set off into the neighborhoods and were offering our supplies to the folks who were either working on their homes, meeting insurance adjusters or just trying to retrieve anything that might have survived the hurricane. We wanted to take pictures to show everyone back home just had bad things were. But, we also wanted to be sensitive to the people whose lives had been turned upside down. There was a crew from the power company working on a house. Two of the crew, or so we thought, were leaning against a vehicle taking a break. The house behind the crewmen had a sailboat resting on its roof. We slowed down to take a picture. It turns out that one of the crewmen was Sam and it was on his house where the boat had come to rest.
He said, "that will be a $1.50."
And we all kind of chuckled.
He said, "no really, you're gonna get that for free, that'll be a buck-fifty."
Realizing he wasn't joking, Todd, one of the guys in the back seat of the suburban, leaned out his window and offered him something to eat and drink. We stopped and talked for 1/2 an hour or so in front of his house. We talked about the damage to his house and his neighbor's houses. We talked about what he did before Katrina hit. We told him where the relief center was set up and ask him to please come there and take a rest and get a hot meal. He said "okay...maybe" and we parted ways.
Sam came by the relief center 3 or 4 times in the next two days. During one of those visits, Karen, one of our team, apologized to Sam for taking the photo of his house. She told him how she wanted to be able to show everyone back home the extent of the devastation. She told him how she hoped the pictures might encourage others to come down and help.
Sam replied, "if that's what it takes I'll put my house on the internet, I'll invite people into my living room so they can see first-hand how bad things are."
There are many, many more stories to tell. There are many, many more people who need someone to listen to them and to offer them a cold bottle of water. It's the volunteer relief workers who are doing these things and who will be needed to keep doing these things, and to help with the clean-up and to help with the rebuilding. If you are thinking about volunteering please check out one of these sites.
To help out in the Gulf Region:
American Red Cross
To help out in your local area:
America's Second Harvest