Thursday, September 10, 2015

Katrina remembrance, part 2

Much like Katrina relief in general, it has taken longer to get back to finishing this story than it should have.  The beginning is the previous post from last week,  Katrina remembrance, part 1.  So as I was saying . . .

The bus began to move as Charles followed the convoy under the overpass in a circular path around a temporary cul de sac created by trash, the refuse of emergency relief.  There were white plastic and paper bags, carry out boxes,  plastic water bottles, napkins and paper towels.  In the light of the bus headlights the white plastic and paper and the clear plastic bottles created an illusion of a heavy accumulation of snow, disturbed only by the tracks of our buses.  But it was only an appearance.  The illusion was shattered as the headlights flashed across the thousands of victims watching the buses circle and leave.  This was no pastoral snowfall.   This was New Orleans on Labor Day weekend after Katrina, and it was hot even at dawn.

The silence on the bus was heavy with unspoken testimonies.  In the dark of dawn underneath an interstate overpass each had boarded this unmarked bus for an unnamed destination occupied with unknown and unnamed strangers.  Many had clung to children, dragging them through the bus doors with the unbreakable grip of a fearful parent.  Their carry-on bags, holding everything they owned, easily fit under the seats.  Garbage bags are very flexible.  How horrific must the conditions be which they left behind to justify such a leap of faith . . . or desperation?

The silence lasted awhile, broken only by the sound of shifting bodies and plastic bags, quiet sighs and indistinguishable sounds that come from deep inside.  Shock best describes it.  But there was anger and sadness, fear and relief as well.  Charles pulled the bus into the truck stop/command center where we were given more bottled water and MRE's and free fuel.  The sun was up  and we were on our way out of New Orleans to Oneonta, Alabama.

We learned a few basic things pretty quickly.  It was going to be a hot day and a hot trip. Charles told us that our bus, as wonderful as it was, was overheating quickly, straining under the load we had placed on it. And the heat inside the bus, even in the early morning, was cooking the parts of New Orleans that had stuck to our riders, to the soles of their shoes, and to their bodies, as they waded and waited in the muck and the mud of Katrina for almost a week. It was a unique aroma.

We also learned what we already knew.  The southern half of Louisiana and Mississippi was torn up.  There was no electricity anywhere.  Perhaps it was our own shock, or lack of sleep, but we naively stopped at a few exits that taunted us with towering Hardee's or McDonald's signs only to quickly see that there was no one there.  But that was okay, because we had to stop anyway and let the bus engine cool for awhile.  Everyone got off the bus and walked, some smoked, some took off their shoes and rubbed their sore feet.  In the beginning the stops were quiet.  But with each stop things changed.  The indistinguishable sounds became voices and the voices spoke words, some just small talk, then more telling stories. Tommy was particularly good at getting some of the men to begin to talk, at first about nothing, but soon about everything.   Each time we reloaded the bus the atmosphere was different. Oh it was still hot and still stunk, but there was talking.  And then there was even some cautious laughing.  And then they were making good natured fun of these Alabama boys who had kidnapped them from New Orleans to take them back to Alabama, of all places.  Little Charles, who was about ten, came up and squeezed in beside me and the bananas and the water and began to tell me about his ride on the swinging cable under the helicopter. Then he just gave me a hard time for the rest of the trip.  Thank God for a bus that overheated and gave us more time to talk and to breathe.

Tommy, being a thoughtful man, realized that there was a critical issue that needed to be raised with our tour group.  This was a load of folks from the Big Easy.  They were headed to Blount County, Alabama.  Alcohol could not be purchased in Blount County, Alabama, at the time.  The revelation was met with disbelief.  I am sure many of them were longing for either a long cool or a short stout drink.  Consequently our remaining stops involved looking for the first establishment that sold liquor. We did not find a powered exit until somewhere south of Meridian.  The only open store was a cement block convenience store.  It had armed guards.  Friendly, but armed in a Mississippi sort of way at the door.  Their sales went way up that day.  And many of the plastic garbage bag carry-ons became a bit fuller and distorted by the shape of glass bottles.  But everyone seemed a little happier.

Meanwhile, back in Oneonta, folks had gotten busy.  Early in the morning Terri had launched out to find where we were going to house fifty or so guests from New Orleans.  She called the local Red Cross with whom she had worked before.  The Red Cross worker said that it was strange that she had called, because Johnny had just came by and said that his church in Oneonta (actually The Church at Oneonta was the name of it) had just decided to convert a huge part of their facility to create a shelter for Katrina victims if Red Cross became aware of any who needed shelter.  It could house about fifty.  Terri chased Johnny down and booked the beds for our bus load.  I cannot tell what all happened in Oneonta while we slowly made our over-heated bus tour of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that long Saturday.  But I can give testimony to the results.

Charles pulled up to Lester Memorial UMC parking lot late Saturday afternoon.  Standing in the parking lot to greet us were twenty or thirty Oneonta folk, from all different churches, at least half African American.  About ninety percent of our busload were African American.  About two percent of Oneonta is African American.  So the folks who had been working all day to prepare for our arrival decided to make our guests as comfortable as possible, even paying attention to the racial make-up of the greeting party. The were a couple of law enforcement officers there too, welcoming us as we arrived, with smiles on their faces and outstretched hands.  Hands that welcomed rather than carrying out the advisories that storm victim's clothes and belongings should be immediately confiscated and quarantined, and that humans should be directed to public showers before doing anything else. Many folks who had worked all day to get things ready voluntarily left before the bus arrived so that the crowd would not overwhelm the storm victims. They all understood that there had been too much overwhelming in these folks lives already.  We walked into the fellowship hall.  It had become a mall, outfitted with everything our visitors might need.  A department store of new clothes, shopped for and purchased by volunteers according to the extremely rough list of sizes and needs made by T.J., Tommy and me on the bus ride home.  There were doctors, nurses and pharmacists.  There were computers set up with internet. There wee Red Cross and social workers.  And there was food and drinks and folks to serve it. Not alcoholic, but drinks with church ice.  Church ice is the best.  Real dinner would be served later.

We gathered our guests in the contemporary worship chairs and formally welcomed them to Oneonta. I told them of the advisory that their clothes should be gathered and destroyed, trying to be sensitive to what they had been through.  Once again they laughed at me, asking how quickly could they undress.  Volunteers took individuals or families to their homes, or to hotels, and gave them a place to shower, dress in their new clothes, and rest for awhile.  Then it was back to Lester for a dinner.  A great dinner, even by New Orleans standards. Afterwards goodbyes were said and good, clean beds were found for all.

And that was just the beginning of the adventure that came from New Orleans to Oneonta, Alabama, on Labor Day weekend, 2005.  In the next few weeks and months volunteers provided transportation for many of our guests to relatives homes' in other parts of the countries, helped wade through the FEMA paperwork, helped find employment, found houses and apartments and furniture, cooked and served meals, continued to work at the shelter at "The Church,"  and did whatever needed to be done.

And our friends from New Orleans became part of Oneonta forever, no matter how long they actually stayed.

There is so much more to the story.  Most of it I don't even know.  But twenty four hours after we got back from the first trip we made a second trip to New Orleans to pick up another bus load of guests.  It was a crazy Labor Day trip with my son Benjamin and Charles, and the U. S. Army and the Louisiana National Guard,  and hundreds of sport fishermen on a volunteer rescue mission, a time I'll never forget., but the story is too long.  You can ask me about that sometime. And it ended pretty much the same as the first story.

After the Gulf Coast came to Oneonta, Oneonta went to the Gulf Coast to work in clean up and repair.  The groups I went with were from Lester Memorial.  We cleaned out mud and muck, hauled out furniture and appliances, tore out walls and floors, sprayed hundreds of gallons of mold killer on bare frames of houses and more on ourselves, sheet-rocked and floored and painted and got lost and became at home on the floors and in the halls of two or three churches from Ocean Springs to New Orleans.  And laughed and cried.  We kept going back for three or four years.  We didn't finish.

And the job still isn't finished. 

Whether it be in New Orleans or anywhere else in the world where God's children are hurting or in need as a result of the storms of life.

So get on the bus Gus.  There are always folks who need a ride.

Real Time Analytics