Saturday, September 1, 2007

Katrina Two Years Later: Citronelle

By the early afternoon of my first full day in Alabama I was on the road to Citronelle. Destruction was everywhere, trees and power lines down, roofs gone, soldiers everywhere. Still, this was nothing compared to just an hour west of us.

This was a disaster that was as big as England. Airports were turned into hospitals, highways became shelters and cities were evacuated. I had friends who worked the New Orleans and Houston airports and who worked at the Astor Dome shelter. The shelter I was assigned to was tiny. There were 65 people staying at a shelter at the Citronelle United Methodist Church. I was one of four staff members. That meant we worked every day and around the clock.

Our shelter was tiny because the residents required the special attention and smaller quarters. Some of the folks were extremely reactive to the stress and were without medications, all had severe loss issues. For many this was their third shelter in two weeks. Our residents stayed up all night, they would have loved to sleep but sleep did not come easily to them.

Some of our folks had a difficult time modulating their anger and safety and stress reduction was a constant challenge. Many experienced death in the last two weeks. Almost all had lost contact with family and friends.

On my third night at the shelter I made the long drive back to Gulf Shores. It took five hours. During that time all I listened to on the radio were folks stating their names, where they were staying and who they were looking for. It was five hours of people desperate for answers, desperate to find their spouses, children, parents, clinging on to hope. I have responded to many disasters, I was use to people desperate for answers and yet this was different. This did not feel real, it was hard for me to imagine this was happening to my America.

Every day we called in our list of requested supplies and everyday the supplies failed to arrive. Other shelters reported having the same problem. Our shelter did not have showers. We had to go to the community park showers. Normally this would not qualify as a shelter but for Katrina we were just grateful for the space and hospitality the church showed us. We ordered a mobile shower unit. This is a special truck with showers, running waters and the staff to run it. The unit left Mobile and never arrived.

Lucky for us our shelter manager was from Florida. He responded to four hurricanes the previous year. When he called up firefighter in Florida and told them our problems they jumped at a chance to return the favor. They deputized themselves, gather six trucks of supplies (food, clothing, personal hygiene items, water, batteries, diapers, and baby clothes) and drove non-stop to Citronelle. They arrived at 5:00 A.M. and all of the residents joyfully helped us unload the precious cargo.

This was a tiny town. Many of the shelter residents were from New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and Biloxi. Many of the town folks responded by volunteering supplies, time and money. Some town folks were suspicious of the new residents, afraid they were being inundated with criminals.

Public Health Nurses served us everyday. All of the residents had cut feet and hands, some had burns. These were folks who escaped through making holes in their attic roofs, who walked through water that was up to their chins. These were folks who sat on Highway Ten for two days and when they stood up their flesh stuck to the hot pavement. These were people who wanted sleep but feared the images that came with that sleep.

I was an emergency replacement. The previous mental health worker had never worked a national disaster before. He lasted 24 hours and then requested to be sent home. This was not a disaster for rookies.

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