It was August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina touched down on the Gulf Shore causing mass devastation and loss of lives. I was with a locker room full of gym friends that morning as we watched a live news channel and anxiously waited to hear how Louisiana and Mississippi survived Katrina’s landfall. It was an intense feeling of helplessness and anxiety as each of us wanted to rush to help. None of us had a clue where to begin or how to prioritize help where it was most needed. This is a story of my experience as a Hurricane Katrina disaster volunteer.
A Cry For Help
In the weeks following Katrina, the world watched as desperate people literally begged for help without an immediate and coordinated flow of relief and aide. Most of us have learned something from that event and fortunately it has changed how the world views and trains for natural disasters.
Bureaucracy and the Call to Volunteer
Appalled by the slow response and lack of coordinated effort, churches and small teams of volunteers all over the U.S. began descending upon Mississippi and Louisiana to help meet the urgent need for Hurricane Katrina disaster relief volunteers. Our church was one that committed to send groups of volunteers on a weekly basis over a period of months to help with recovery work. Volunteers were based at First Baptist of Slidell, an official Red Cross Feeding Station and a hub of recovery activity.
I was with a team of 13 volunteers, the second sent from my church, departing the week of September 19th, 2005. We journeyed by church bus, packed in with supplies and luggage like sardines. It was an 11-hour, almost 800 mile non-stop journey with all of us upbeat for the tasks at hand. We were eager to roll up our sleeves and give those unfortunate survivors our best efforts, hoping to accomplish miracles in the process.
We watched in amazement as the scenery around us changed in route from huge trees snapped off like toothpicks to near-total devastation.
Upon our late evening arrival in Slidell, we were greeted by scores of other very weary-looking, but none-the-less smiling volunteers. We were then shown to our spacious co-ed accommodations, a sea of cots completely filling a recently flooded church sanctuary.
I have no idea how many of us, mostly total strangers, who slept side by side on those tiny army cots. Later, when I heard volunteers were still finding snakes from Lake Pontchartrain’s breach of the gymnasium roof, I was grateful for that tiny cot.
Psychological Effect on Volunteers
There were watermarks over 3 feet high on the walls throughout the church. Wet insulation had been recently torn out and the walls treated to prevent the formation of mold.
All disaster work is intense. Disaster relief workers themselves are often running on empty both emotionally and physically as they reach out to help others. Faced with the enormity of the tasks at hand, it is hard to shut your mind off even to get a few hours of sleep. It is very humbling to feel equivalent to the size and strength of an ant compared to the magnitude of the need.
If you’ve ever studied ants at work, they are a visual lesson in the teamwork and personnel required to accomplish disaster relief work.
Like colonies of ants, volunteers can accomplish amazing things when they work together in a well-coordinated effort. Desire alone though, is simply not enough.
My mind refused to shut off, flashing images in my head of desperate, broken people who had lost everything. My desire to help was so intense, the task so enormous, who could possibly be selfish enough for the luxury of sleep? The workdays easily stretched to 16 hours, leaving us fatigued to the point of exhaustion. Still I could not sleep. There were too many tasks to be accomplished to sleep.
The “Colony” of Volunteers
We had little time to tour the devastation around us as our team was assigned a variety of tasks, subject to change at a moment’s notice to accommodate fluid priorities. (If you’re not flexible, disaster relief work is probably not for you.)
Men helped tear out walls and insulation, treating for mold afterward. Some helped feed the masses and give out food, water and cleaning supplies to the disaster victims.
Some helped unload and organize donations as they arrived in a continual flow of tractor/trailers from all across the U.S.
I happened to be the only nurse on our team, so my initial task was to render any necessary first aid to our team of volunteers. That too was a fluid assignment. St. Tammany Parish (Slidell) Health Department was out of commission and only the emergency room remained open at the local hospital.
There were names and faces of both volunteers and disaster victims we never had time to learn. Regrettably, there was contact information we never had time to exchange. Photos are my only reminders of the temporary bonds made as each of us was gripped by the power of the same disaster that brought us together.
Preview of Coming Attraction
Be sure to subscribe for the follow up story: “If You Build It They Will Come”
This is the story of how my initial assignment as team nurse evolved into something far bigger.
What has been your experience as a disaster volunteer? Have you ever been impacted as a survivor of a natural disaster? I’d love to hear your stories.
Pam Baker, RN
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