Today is the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which brings back some horrific memories for many of us along the Gulf Coast. And now we are facing another hurricane which may or may not strike New Orleans, depending on which computer model you follow.
As we play the “wait and see” game here, I give thanks for two things: while it is still growing in strength since hitting the warm Gulf waters, Isaac doesn’t seem to be nearly as massive a system as Katrina was, and the infrastructure in New Orleans has been greatly improved in the years since Katrina.
Close to 2,000 people died in that storm with billions of dollars in damage accrued. Many of those in Louisiana and Mississippi who fled Katrina’s wrath came east to Alabama. Many of those came through our little town.
We all said, “It could have been us. A little more to the east, and it could have been us.” The local churches, civic organizations, police departments and city and county governments banded together to help meet the needs of those arriving. Often they had little more than the clothes on their backs and a few other items they had grabbed and thrown in their vehicles.
Cots were set up in the recreation center. Local hotels offered rooms. Property owners provided temporary housing. Homeowners shared spare bedrooms. “Church ladies” prepared meals to serve hundreds of hungry evacuees. Vouchers were given to provide travelers with full tanks of gas.
Citizens from across the county brought clothing, toiletry items, blankets and pillows, diapers and infant formula, non-perishable food and bottled water to one of the city’s largest churches, using their “King’s Building,” a former home improvement store, as a clearinghouse with volunteers manning the operation. Temporary and even permanent employment was found for some of those coming to us from the hurricane-ravaged areas.
It was a big operation for a town of less than 8,000 people in a largely rural county, and it had its glitches. For the most part, it worked very, very well.
The media picked up on what was happening in our small town and our wonderful Father Fred, a local Episcopalian priest and former police officer who helped spearhead many of the relief efforts, was interviewed by CNN.
Calls began to come in from all over the nation—from all over the world—from people who wanted to help. Some wanted to come to our county from as far away as Canada to serve as volunteers. Others offered housing or asked where to send donations. In the face of all the tragedy, we were reminded of the generosity found in so many hearts.
In the first days after the storm, I had the opportunity to interview several evacuees who were being fed and provided beds at Beeland Park Rec Center.
Many of them were members of a large extended family traveling by caravan from Louisiana. Keeping the youngsters occupied hadn’t always been easy, one of the mothers told me.
After all, cherished toys, games and dolls had to largely be left behind in order to allow space for the most important items—clothing, food, medicine. But that’s hard for a small child who’s been uprooted so suddenly from all that is familiar to them to understand.
When I left Beeland Park that day, I remember feeling such an overwhelming need to do something to help. It was one of those “between paychecks” times and, frankly, I didn’t have a lot of money to spare.
I recalled what the young woman had said about trying to keep the children occupied in quiet activities while they traveled. At a local discount store, I found coloring and activity books and boxes of crayons and bought several of each. She had also mentioned some of the adults finding themselves at loose ends, with a need to take their minds off their current situation. So I picked up some search-a-word books and mechanical pencils, too.
When I got back to the rec center, the families were preparing to set off once more. I found the young mother I had interviewed and handed her the bags. She peeked inside and then gave me one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen followed by a big hug.
Words really weren’t necessary in that moment.
It wasn’t a lot, maybe $30 worth of items. But sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference in someone else’s life in a time of crisis.
It could have been us, you know. A little to the east, and it could have been us.