Friday, August 31, 2007

Katrina Two Years Later: Mobile

So, it is the two year anniversary since Hurricane Katrina revealed how unprepared we were, at all levels of government, to care for our citizens after a catastrophic disaster. I have responded to many national disasters. Each one is different and each has a different effect on me.

I have been to floods in Kentucky in which the folks were so angry there was fear of riots. That was the first time I noticed FEMA workers were being viewed as a problem instead of any answer. That was a change.

I responded to Sept. 11th and served six blocks from Ground Zero during the Christmas break of 2001-02. That left me tired and sad, even anxious. I did not come home angry at “us”.

Katrina was different, way different. Cathi could tell it was getting to me when she talked to me on the phone. I had never been surrounded with non-stop sadness, loss, incompetence and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. On the other hand, I also had never seen so many different people come together regularly in informal worship and support. Still, the over-riding feeling was one of being poisoned.

My boss and I had talked about developing criteria for when I could leave my classroom to respond to a disaster. We never made the criteria because neither one of us wanted to convert numbers of dead into days off of work. However when Katrina hit my boss simply said that whatever criteria we would have made would have acknowledged that the worst disaster in American history required a response. So, with the blessing of Dr. Daniel our department chair and with the University of Saint Francis I was off to provide disaster mental health services to folks dealing with Hurricane Katrina.

I flew into Montgomery Alabama only to be transferred to Mobile Alabama. The hotel we stayed at was in Gulf Shores, however, the shelter I would work at was in Citronelle Alabama. The hotel was an hour and a half south of Mobile, the shelter an hour north of Mobile. Because of all the problems with roads, traffic and gas shortages it was up to a three hour drive from the shelter to the hotel. I stayed at the hotel twice, it was not worth the drive.

I was aware of the massive destruction that occurred in New Orleans, in Louisiana, Gulf Port, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the gulf coast of Alabama. I was not prepared for the wallop Mobile took.

I arrived in the middle of the night and then continued on to Gulf Shores. When I returned in the morning I saw a city that had most of its electrical power restored. Traffic lights mostly worked. However, the city was still under martial law, National Guard was everywhere. There were major gas shortages. I waited at three gas stations to get gas, the first two ran out before it was my turn to fill up.

Mobile is an impressive city. The Mobile Bay Visitor/Convention Center is this massive, modern glass building facing the gulf harbor. The Mobile Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is beautiful and is surrounded by an antebellum section of town. I meet with staff members of the Mobile Archdiocese to see if I could conect them with our Education department. The goal was to guide our students in their desire to contribute to folks effected by Katrina. The highway from the city to the gulf shore spans the harbor. Then there is the USS Alabama. This is a massive battleship that served in the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. It is now a museum and it was closed because that steel fortress was damaged by Katrina. It had an 8 degree list to port, weapons and planes were destroyed. It would require at least $4 million to repair it.

The city was full of folks from all over the Gulf coast looking for assistance, for a place to stay, for medical care and for lost friends and family.

The harbor was the site of cruise ships that were being converted into floating housing for the displaced. People looked tired, dazed. We were hundreds of miles from the center of the disaster and yet the impact permeated all aspects of life in Mobile.

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