Hurricane season has hit the Gulf Coast especially hard this year. In the aftermath of Katrina, hundreds of thousands of newly homeless people streamed into Texas, with some 13,000 finding refuge in San Antonio. It took enormous effort and good organization to transport, shelter, feed and generally care for that many displaced people, but our city rose to the occasion and won national recognition for it.
Among the thousands of professionals and volunteers who pitched in to help, many were women. Back in September, we spent time with four of them to bring you this close-up report. All four worked very hard, and all four made a big difference in the relief effort.
CHURCHILL BAPTIST CHURCH, SEPT. 8, 2005 —
The scene outside this suburban church shelter in north central San Antonio could not be more peaceful. Evacuees from Katrina-battered New Orleans are sitting at a picnic table, chatting. Others are relaxing on nearby benches or milling around, enjoying the balmy weather. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Having just survived one the worst ordeals of their lives, the newcomers have barely begun to regain some sense of normalcy in this quiet residential setting.
“We were asked by the state to put these smaller shelters together for evacuees with special needs,” explains Marla Rushing of the Baptist Child & Family Services (BCFS), the agency that oversees the Churchill shelter. “You can’t put these people with 10,000 others in those huge shelters. Look at all the wheelchairs! These people can’t walk half-amile to go to the bathroom.
“Let me show you the bathrooms,” she adds, beckoning her visitor to follow her. “It’s a strange thing to show, but it’s important.”
Indeed, the bathrooms in this church annex were clearly built to accommodate the handicapped, mothers with babies and others who may need extra space and special accommodations. About 100 people are housed here, with another 350 placed in other Baptist shelters around town. A sunny dining room is right next door to the large cot-covered main hall, and a small play corner has been set up for kids with colorful toys and books. While the atmosphere is hardly cheerful, there is excitement in the air about the upcoming wedding of a refugee couple who have decided to tie the knot. Somebody is donating a cake, and TV cameras will be coming. The bride and groom are at Churchill because of their 4-month-old child, explains Rushing. She couldn’t let a baby stay at Kelly.
Once it became clear that thousands of Katrina’s victims would be coming to San Antonio, Rushing and her team rushed to set up six special-need shelters practically overnight. Then they stationed themselves in the “intake building” at KellyUSA, where the masses of evacuees started arriving Friday, Sept. 2.
“It was organizational chaos over there last Friday,” says Rushing. “People lined up outside in the heat. They came in horrible condition; they were hungry, unwashed for days and extremely traumatized. Most of them just wanted a bed. The elderly just sat in a catatonic state. There were so many people coming in at once.”
As the thousands were processed, BCFS took in the handicapped, the sick, the newborns, the elderly and the mentally unstable.
“One mother brought a deaf and blind child with cerebral palsy who sat folded over in a chair, and she had two other children. We took them in,” says Rushing. “I talked to a paralyzed man in his 40s who had gotten to the Superdome (in New Orleans) by himself in his electrical cart. He couldn’t get food there; he spent two days outdoors waiting for a bus. He said to me, “My turn came last.’ There was a man with Parkinson’s disease. Another man was deaf, blind, mute and incontinent. His sister was his caretaker, and she said, “I would die here before I let you separate me from my brother.’ We took them in together. This went on for days.”
As she walks around the shelter, Rushing stops to shake hands with some, hug a few and even discuss gumbo recipes with a small group of women. The New Orleanians have problems with our food. For one thing, the beans here are not the real “red beans,” they say. Rushing promises to find the real thing. Then, a volunteer comes by to tell her she is taking a couple to a Cajun restaurant.
Though the Katrina devastation is the worst Rushing has seen in the United States, as the executive director of International Program Development for BCFS, she has unfortunately witnessed even greater horrors. In the aftermath of last December’s tsunami, she was sent to Sri Lanka to set up foster care for the many orphaned children in that country, and she also helped with a similar project in Moldova at the time of the Soviet Union’s break-up. In many Asian countries, foster care as an organized effort is largely nonexistent, she says. She is trained to deal with traumatized individuals, but the misery inflicted by Katrina has still been hard to take.
“I work with neglected and abused children on a regular basis, but this is huge. I have gone for 10 hours without a drink of water, I’ve been so busy. When I feel I am on my last leg, I call the people from my agency to talk. We watch out for each other. And each day, I spend some time in prayer,” she says.
While we are speaking, her phone is constantly ringing. There are so many details to take care of. Not only are new evacuees still coming in from Kelly, but the current ones have all kinds of needs. Some have lost their eyeglasses and need new ones, many need prescription drugs, some are desperately trying to find family members, and all must be registered with FEMA to get financial assistance. Among the volunteers
helping her are her husband “doing pharmacy runs,” and her brother, who came to visit for Labor Day only to get pressed into service right away.
“I have done this for years. I know that tomorrow will be a little better,” says Rushing with quiet conviction. “We’ll stay open for as long as we are needed.”
KELLYUSA, SEPT. 9, 2005
Seeingthe situation at Kelly, one realizes just how right Rushing was when she spoke of vastness and crowds. The huge halls of Building 171 have been turned into packed dormitories, and there are people everywhere. It’s easy to get lost at first since all corridors look the same. What immediately attracts our attention, though, is a wall covered with hand-printed messages. “Judy Bell, call Elvettra Gibbs,” says one message. “Watson William, call Sharon,” says another. The phone numbers of Elvettra and Sharon are also given. There are dozens upon dozens of these messages tacked to the walls by people looking for relatives and friends. Either Elvettra and Sharon believe that their loved ones may be somewhere in the same cavernous building, or they hope that somebody will spot the notices and call with some information.
We make our way to a modest suite of offices, where volunteer Sherri Montez is almost single-handedly running a travel and transportation service for evacuees who wish to leave San Antonio. Inside, it’s as busy as can be. Evacuee Nicole Lombard wants to join her sister and the sister’s two children to go to Houston, but there is a problem with her bus ticket. For some reason, the ticket was issued in her mother’s name, and she needs a new one.
“I am just going to give you cash to buy another ticket,” Montez tells Lombard, while three or four other parties are clamoring for her attention. A young woman wants to leave for Dallas to find her mother, and a couple is anxious to be reunited with their 10-year-old son in Florida. “He needs his medications, and I am always the one who takes care of that,” explains the mother, Rebecca Lystra. Then there is the blind lady with a leg wound who has been placed in a hotel but now wants to move back to Kelly.
“See, everybody is calling us,” says Montez, somewhat overwhelmed by the needs. Everybody is patient, however. Everybody seems to appreciate her efforts and those of another volunteer, Donna Haggard, in an adjacent office. But just in case, a friendly policeman keeps an eye on everything.
Eager to help, Montez originally called both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to volunteer her services, but both agencies said, no, thank you. So she simply showed up at Kelly the day the masses arrived, looking for what she could do.
“I started by driving people to the bus station or airport if they had their own funds to purchase tickets for wherever they wanted to go,” she tells us during a few quieter moments. “But I realized I needed help. I went to the volunteer desk and found Shannon Cantrell, who works for Governor Perry’s office. She called the governor’s office and got us an ATM machine so people could access their money. But we also had people with no funds. They had relatives in other cities ready to take them in, though, so we started e-mailing friends asking them to donate their frequent-flyer miles.”
Things just grew from there. Word of her activities spread, bringing more help in unexpected ways. She was walking in the hallways one day when a man stopped her to ask a question. His name was Bo Haggard, and it turned out he wanted to donate 30 Southwest Airline tickets. Montez couldn’t believe her luck. Soon, Bo’s mother Donna got involved, too, joining Montez in the “travel office.”
As if on cue, Donna comes in to announce that they have just received another donation of $600. Both women’s eyes tear up with joy. The money means more people will be able to leave for better destinations. And there is also a gift of $5,000 from two men whose names they barely know.
“One of them came by yesterday and saw what we were doing,” says Montez, still crying. “He asked us who we were with and we said “nobody.'” Now, she is laughing. “So far we have processed 300 people this week, one ticket at a time. I do want people to get to their families.”
A film production coordinator and a single mom of two teenagers, Montez has been working such long hours that she no longer knows what day of the week it is. We offer to take her to lunch but she declines. She can’t possibly leave the office. Then she tells us about an evacuee mom with four kids for whom she made flight arrangements. Seeing how hard “the travel agent” worked, one of the children, a little girl, brought her Gatorade and cookies. Touched, Montez took the entire family to her house that night and the next morning drove them to the airport herself.
(When we caught up with Montez two weeks later, she had surrendered her travel office to FEMA, but was still working from home on reuniting evacuee families.)
KELLYUSA, SEPT. 16, 2005
By now, the shelters have started to empty, but Building 171 is still buzzing with activity. And in a corner of a vast room, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District is still running its immunization clinic, though for fewer patients.
One of them is 26-year-old New Orleanian Latasha Polk, who has just arrived here from Dallas with her five sisters. She is due to receive shots for hepatitis A and tetanus. “I didn’t like Dallas,” she confides while waiting her turn. “People are prejudiced in Dallas. People I know said that San Antonians are nice, so we came here.” Before being evacuated, she spent days in the Superdome, an experience she describes as “horrible, horrible.”
Polk is squeamish about the shots and winces as the nurse pricks her arm, but then it’s done and she is off with her family. She is hoping to find a job here, perhaps in a cafeteria or a bakery.
Next in line, Kendell Davis, 19, takes it all in stride. Besides the hepatitis A and tetanus, he also needs a vaccination for chickenpox. Although he is staying in an aunt’s house crowded with 25 other relatives, he, too, likes the welcome his family has received here. What amazes him the most is that his cousins, who “always skipped school” at home, now love to go to their San Antonio high school.
By noon, 25 patients have passed through the makeshift clinic. “All adults get hepatitis A and tetanus shots,” explains immunization program manager Brenda Lemke. “We also have to give hep A shots to kids because Louisiana does not require it for school children and Texas does. Fortunately, we have access to the Louisiana vaccination registry so we can check and update a child’s record.”
For Lemke, the relief effort started on Friday before Labor Day when her boss, Dr. Fernando Guerra, called her into his office to inform her that planes full of storm-displaced people were headed for San Antonio, and “we needed to be there at Kelly to vaccinate them upon arrival.” It was 8:30 a.m. The first planes were expected at 10.
“We had to move fast,” says Lemke, “and we worked in shifts 24 hours a day for three days. People came through medical triage, and then they came to us. What struck me is that so many were without shoes, feet swollen, with cuts and bruises. Many were plucked from the water. We had to give them tetanus shots promptly. They were so tired that they would sit down to get their shots and fall asleep.”
By Monday night, Lemke’s staff had given 10,500 immunization doses, not only in Building 171 but in shelters around town. Today, the count stands at 14,700. (Each person receives more than one immunization.) The vaccines are provided by the Centers for Disease Control and paid for by the federal government.
For people who have lost everything, the shots can mean more than protection from disease. One woman told Lemke how happy she was to have her new immunization record because it represented “a piece of identity.” Not surprisingly, this work is also more than a routine job for the clinic staff.
“For our staff and for me it’s been a life-changing experience,” says the 30- something Lemke, who has a master’s degree in health care administration. “It makes you appreciate your home. I went home at 1 a.m. that first night, and I couldn’t shake the thought that these people had no home. I can shower and recoup but they can’t. That really hit me.”
With the flu season coming up, Lemke and her workers are planning to return in full force in a couple of weeks to vaccinate everybody again.
“I have a new appreciation for my staff and for what we do,” she says thoughtfully. “We do clinics on a regular basis, but this time we got a real sense of helping people, and we needed to be strong for them. It puts a different light on the importance of public health.”
LACKLAND AFB, SEPT. 20, 2005
On this sunny September day, everything at the base is humming along as usual. There is no trace of the intense activity that went on just a couple of weeks earlier when Lackland airmen received thousands of Katrina’s victims flown here from New Orleans. Col. Mary Kay Hertog, the commander of the 37th Training Wing, was the person in charge of that remarkable operation.
Hours before Lemke was summoned by her boss on Sept. 2, Hertog had been awakened at 3 a.m. by a call from her command post. “My day started then and it kept going for several days,” she says.
Eighty-nine aircraft, both military and civilian, were eventually pressed into service, often landing at Kelly Field (still owned by the Air Force) every 10 minutes and creating previously unseen traffic jams. Over a 55 hour period, Lackland received 9,788 displaced people.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the airfield that busy, and we have the busiest airfield in the Air Force,” says Hertog. “We had 50 aircraft on the ground at one point. Evacuees didn’t even know where they were. Some thought they were going to other locations. Some were dazed, some were angry because of what happened to them, but others were happy to be here.”
Hertog’s team set up a little tent city around the airfield for people to rest while they were waiting for buses to take them to shelters. Needless to say, emotions ran high, but the commander could understand that. Just two years ago, she had had a similar experience when Hurricane Isabel hit the Atlantic coast. “We know what you have been through, and we are going to help you,” she told the bewildered evacuees. She also shooed away intrusive photographers. They were only doing their job, but her concern for the tired, unhappy evacuees prevailed. Who wants to be photographed under those circumstances?
Among the general misery, however, there were some happy moments. For New Orleans-born Lackland trainee Tylar Pittman that moment came when she was told that her dad, Timothy, had been found among the evacuees. The two had a reunion that warmed everyone’s heart.
A tall blonde with a commanding presence, the colonel often smiles while remembering the good work of her troops. “Everything worked like clockwork. I was very pleased with how my team interfaced with the city,” she says.
Besides pilots and airmen to help offload the passengers, Lackland provided air traffic control, hands-on help at the shelters, meals and equipment and sanitation trucks to clean the planes. It even opened its fitness facility so the refugees could take showers.
Hertog has since established an Air Force Crisis Action Center on base to serve as an interface between the military and civilian authorities “whenever there is a crisis,” and she is finding herself in demand as adviser to other AF bases. Among the bits of learned wisdom she is passing along: Expect pets; put chaplains on planes; be ready to serve people who don’t speak English (foreign tourists were among the evacuees from the Big Easy); treat people with dignity and respect.
A 27-year veteran of the Air Force, Hertog recognizes that the military is probably best suited to offer assistance in major crises. “We are the right people to ask. This is what we have been trained to do,” she says. “But we have never done anything of this magnitude before. And now it looks like we’ll have to do it all over again for Rita.”
(A few days later, Hurricane Rita slammed into East Texas and Louisiana, giving rise to a new, though smaller, relief effort. As September drew to a close, more than 4,000 evacuees from Katrina and Rita were still staying in local shelters.)
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams