Five years ago this month, heroes seemed to emerge from the disaster these two brought to the gulf coast. Katrina and her sister, Rita, were nasty and unforgiving. The counselors, medical people, and construction workers brought their best to bear against the disruption to the lives of the Louisiana evacuees. Houma Louisiana, a small city of 35,000 people rallied to accept 1100 evacuees from New Orleans flooded districts and refugees from the surge flooded Bayou. The Terrebonne Parish treasury was drained by their unselfishness. Several remarkable stories telling of small kindnesses and monumental sacrifices emerged.
Remy, a semi-retired businessman, came by the Houma Civic Center to see if they could use his help the second day after Hurricane Katrina hit. He intended to volunteer where he could, not find himself the director for two months for the entire operation. He slept in the Center, his wife visiting to deliver clothes and to have lunch with him. It was his voice, a clear, strong, subtle Cajun drawl that drew people to him. At first, he was asked to help organize activities for the children or to pitch in with food service, or help to store hundreds of donated clothes and toys sent by America to the Red Cross. But soon he was asked to help decide where to store medicine and supplies, how to schedule medical checks, what schedules should volunteers use for maximum efficiency. Within a week, he had a large ring of 25- 30 keys, clipboards of schedules, a bullhorn, and the love and admiration of all the people in the shelter and those volunteers and Parish officials associated with the relief effort.
Remy told us the story of a 6-year-old little boy, rescued from his flooded 9th Ward home by boat. This little guy was terrified, so afraid of water he refused to bathe. Remy led and Mama took the boy to a “secret” shower, far away from the huge one set up for men and women outside in a temporary building, by the Red Cross. He showed mother and boy the door at the back hall of the facility, marked “STAR’S DRESSING ROOM”, complete with luxury bath and shower. The boy, relaxed and clean, ran to join his friends. One anxiety solved by bending some rules.
Eventually, it had to be done. Remy was the one who decided people must be encouraged to look and really see their neighborhoods and their homes. Folks fantasized about returning soon, home is home. Volunteers and guests alike realized the need to face the truth about their ruined homes and their futures.
The bus pulled up to Ursuline Street, what was left of it. Each bus had a clergy member, a medical person, a counselor, and ten citizens of Gentilly, an unrecognizable neighborhood of the 9th ward. One designated from each family was to be the witness, crushed by the reality and made to report to the others. Only two items could be rescued from what used to be a home. They picked through melted walls and heaps of rancid garbage, retrieving wet wedding albums and stained stuffed animals. Now the decisions could be made that had to be made. After the trip, family members gathered in very quiet groups throughout the Civic Center and nearby grounds. The lock of indecision had been painfully sprung, considering a new life now was no longer unimaginable.
Remy had quit smoking a month earlier. Stress is a good excuse to just have one or maybe two, but an even better excuse is ‘community’. All of the smokers gathered under the big overhang in front of the Center. Standing with them was perfect. Volunteers could have a conversation while lighting each other’s cigarettes. Remy smoked, chatting with the evacuees, all sharing news, complaints, weather, and cigarettes. Even non-smokers learned to socialize in this way; non-threatening, little eye contact, no interviews, just a ‘smoke break’ and listening. Helpers have to make some tiny sacrifices for the greater good.
And there was Miss Audrey! She was a quiet, potent Angel. Seventy-six, she was a lifelong resident of New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. Grateful that the Catholic Charities lady took her for a day to the mall, she remarked that she never saw stores that were all connected to one another. She added that she had never been to the French Market or to The Quarter, less than three miles from her home. Miss Audrey would guide her wheel chair among the cots asking to hold babies. A mother of six and grandmother of eight, she loved babies and made the baby run two or three times a day. The ladies all addressed each other as Momma. The children loved to sit on her lap in her fancy wheelchair and it was a break for the parent who straightened their area during the few minutes of respite.
Miss Audrey asked to go to Mass each Sunday so she could go to Communion and in her humble way thank God for those that survived the hurricane she said gave her a small chance to help others. As the congregation passed her wheelchair, she held out her arms to hug each baby. Every mother smiled and set their child in her lap. Each child giggled and Miss Audrey gave them a kiss. Color didn’t seem to matter to Momma’s and babies.
Rita was menacing in the Caribbean. As the next, unfair bash of storm approached the Louisiana coast, some of the volunteers decided to grab a cot and sleep among the residents. Volunteers passed around earplugs to all. The eyes showed the fear of a terrible anticipation. At two or three in the morning, the winds of Rita rattled the aluminum roof sheltering the victims. Crying, deep sighs, and wide-open eyes occupied the hours. The earplugs were no help with the rattling and pounding.
The next day a small bit of relief filtered through the rows of cots as the hurricane had passed. Late in the evening, new victims, displaced from the south, the Bayou, began to reach the Center. The people from South Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes--the Bayou Cajuns-- came looking for shelter. Wet, carrying soggy boxes with saved possessions and, of course, Cajun food and spices, the people stood in line checking into the shelter until past midnight. To’Mari, the little 14-year-old future Pediatrician, asked if any Junior High School kids would be arriving. When the first girl came to the checkpoint with her family, To’Mari stepped past the National Guardsman who gave her a stern look, and handed a 14-year-old Cajun girl a stuffed animal. All saw. The Guard stepped back. The girls hugged. Soon, working together, the sweeping and setting up new cots next to those already established was finished. Sixth Ward residents, fishermen from Cocodrie and Dulac in Lafourche Parish, and folks that were caught on news videos on their roof next to the broken levees slept restlessly, but with a common spirit. It was quiet. In my head was Aaron Neville singing his song Louisiana 1929. “Louisiana, Louisiana, they tryin’ to wash us away, they tryin’ to wash us away”. They didn’t wash away these heroes.
Norm Dasenbrook and Bob Walsh are counselors in private practice, consultants, and authors (www.counseling-privatepractice.com)