Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 16, 2005. It is reprinted here on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
By Rich Arenschieldt
A large African-American woman approaches me. She is 84 years old and concerned about her prescription, one that needs to be filled at the temporary hospital which The Harris County Hospital District has created to address the acute healthcare needs of 25,000 suddenly displaced residents of New Orleans, many of whom are elderly, infirm, and indigent.
She is one of almost 1,000 people I have interacted with on a day that gives new meaning to “Labor Day.”
By the time I see her, my typically impenetrable professional “armor” has disintegrated. My heart has been breaking repeatedly for the last 14 hours. I smell like I’ve been wading through the waters of New Orleans. I cannot ever recall being this weary. I look at this woman who has, by her countenance, survived a vast amount of sadness. Now she must endure one more cruelty.
She sits down. Directly behind her swells a mass of humanity, trapped in a chaotic, disorganized fury. All of them still stranded in an emotional storm that continues to ravage their minds as it did their families, homes, and neighborhoods.
I introduce myself and smile at her, naïvely believing that this assumed familiarity would provide her some momentary tranquility. I ask, “How are you?” not in a typical ‘everyday’ manner, but with a trained, purposeful intensity that humanizes our interaction and simultaneously depletes me.
Her tears well up. The levee is broken and, in the next moment, demolished when her emotions overflow. She tells me what happened as the floodwaters rose inside her home, one she shared with her daughter and two grandchildren, aged four and six.
Standing on a countertop and unable to swim, her daughter screamed for her to get the children out of the house while they could still leave. Gripping a grandchild in each hand, she left, wading into the water.
That was the last time this elderly woman saw her daughter.
Moments later, she lost her grip on one child and then, shortly thereafter, the other.
She watched both of them disappear, helpless and unable to intervene. Neither of the children knew how to swim.
Now, this childless grandmother sits in front of me. Hurricane Katrina has killed her entire family. She has no recollection of what occurred after that or how she came to arrive in Houston. At this moment she is utterly alone and completely uncertain about her future.
I stare in disbelief and ask, “Do you need to talk to someone?” She grasps my arm (as if still drowning) and says, “Thank you, I just did.” She shuffles off and is replaced by countless others who I am unable to see through my own breach of tears.
Sixteen hours after that day begins, it mercifully ends. At home (having no heroin handy) I engulf a large pizza. (A coworker admits to a similar coping mechanism, consuming an entire gallon of ice cream for her evening meal).
Retreating to my nice clean house, lying in my nice clean bed, I cannot pry the day’s human tsunami from my mind. Even after hours immersed in its sights, sounds and smells, I simply fail to comprehend what I have just experienced. It remains a mystery.
Having been in the midst of the maelstrom, I still ask: What is my personal response to this devastation? How should my community respond? Subsequent day’s events clarify the answers to those critical questions.
FEMA (Feeble Emergency Management Agency) clearly can’t find its own bureaucratic buttock with its own federally-funded finger. President Georgie Porgie is on vacation and 25,000 refugees are encamped three miles from my front door. What can I do? What can we do?
The answer is surprisingly simple: The same thing we’ve done for the last 20 years.
How did we help marginalized individuals ravaged by a different storm and then subsequently shunned by their government? We prioritized, organized and mobilized. A decade before any federal funding became available, we raised money one dollar at a time. We looked in on our friends, we walked their dogs, bought their gas, and gave them loaves of bread. We were (simultaneously) caregivers, case managers, counselors, transportation providers, and food banks.
We possess an unwanted wealth of knowledge about the devastation of entire communities. We coped with that loss largely through individual acts of kindness, absent any large-scale government intervention. Is it possible that the 80s-era model we perfected could apply to this situation?
At a gas station a few days later, I noticed a lady and her gaggle of kids in an old SUV (with Louisiana license plates). As her money disappeared into the tank, she was shaking her head and looking at her wallet.
I watched her for about 20 gallons and then, a few steps ahead of her, paid for her gas.
She looked at me, tears on the brink. Then, with a quick smile, I said, “Please no tears. We’ve both seen plenty of those this week.” We laughed and each drove away.
The near-term needs are simple: kind gestures, tanks of gas and loaves of bread.
Let’s do what we always have.