By Francisco Philibert
Just a few weeks ago, I signed up as a volunteer for the American Red Cross. I had no idea just how quickly I would be ushered into the world of emergency relief work. I live in Houston, and my joining the Red Cross coincided with the arrival of category 4 Hurricane Ida to the New Orleans area, about five hours by car from us, exactly 16 years after the devastation caused by Katrina. Ida hit Louisiana with even greater force than Katrina.
More than 600 Texas Red Cross volunteers and staff were deployed to help with the recovery after Ida. That meant I was promptly put to work in Houston even though I was just a newbie. I was asked to visit the National Alliance of Christian Churches’ (NACC) shelter to video any evacuees wishing to share their experience with us. The shelter was being operated in collaboration with the Red Cross. One of the early things I learned about the Red Cross is its reliance on community partners to provide relief assistance. In addition to NACC, other partners in our area include The Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention. 90% of the Red Cross’ workforce consists of volunteers, which allows the Red Cross to devote 90% of all collections to relief assistance.
I arrived at the shelter not really knowing what to expect. Once inside the shelter, I saw a registration table by the door and behind it were dozens of cots labeled FEMA. The dormitory part that I saw was clean and air-conditioned. The dining area, though without air conditioning, had plenty of round tables like those you see at a banquet. There was also a delicious aroma wafting from a kitchen out of sight. I had not expected the smell of good food being prepared in a shelter but it was very comforting.
I went back to the dormitory where there were a number of children scurrying about while some adults laid on their cots playing with their phones. I thought about what it would feel like to be in those people’s shoes and had to sleep on one of those cots, no sheets, no blankets, and white light blasting every corner of the room. I began to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened to them.
I found a two women who were willing to speak with me–Jezmia Holmes and Jerryana Thompson. (See a video of Jerryana talking about her experiences here.) They were traveling together and were in charge of nine children of all ages. They had no money and little resources. They had spent the previous evening sleeping in their car, all 11 people.
The women I interviewed had been children at the time of Katrina and remembered having to evacuate back then. But their adults shielded them from the uncertainty of finding food and shelter. Well, not entirely. One of the women remembered seeing the bodies of three people. “You can’t block that out,” she said to me.
Now, as adults, both women told me they understood what their parents had gone through as they in turn took care of the nine children. Tears welled in their eyes. They told me they tried to stay strong for the kids but sometimes it was more than they could handle. They arrived in the Houston area from New Orleans two days before Ida hit the coast. I talked to them five days after their arrival in Houston. By then they had used up most of what little money they had, primarily for gasoline. They had no food, a few clothes and that’s it. Without the shelter, they’d be living on the street.
I asked how long it would be before they could go back. One said November. The other said she had no idea. They told me back home was like a ghost town. “They looted all the food,” one of the women said. “And we have no water and no electricity. How are you supposed to live like that?”
Even when utilities were restored, the women would still face other challenges like finding work and repairing their homes. “I talked to my landlady,” one of the women said. “The roof has been damaged.” She told me that the landlady was trying to get it repaired. With hundreds of damaged homes, I suspected it would be a while.
Talking to the women put me in touch with the sobering reality of what happens when a city is ravaged by a hurricane and people have to evacuate. Many of these people have nowhere to go. Many have very limited resources. It’s not like they can just go wherever out of the way and camp at a hotel indefinitely. For these people a shelter is the only home they can hope to find. And they may have to be there for weeks on end. Reconstruction of a damaged city is a complex affair hampered, in this case, by flooding and blocked roads. Some of the affected people had just a few days warning in which to uproot their lives. Many found themselves without a home, without food, clothes, medical care and living in a converted space like a warehouse or gym repurposed as a shelter.
Looking at the Red Cross emergency app, I saw shelters in operation not just in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas but also up in the Northwest because of the wildfires there. And in the North as well where flooding was ravaging that part of the country.
Even after evacuees are able to return they will often find their homes and belongings lost or damaged. Many will have no means with which to recover and will have to wait for some kind of assistance. Some of the people I met were still trying to bounce back from Hurricane Laura a year earlier.
I left the shelter feeling lucky and grateful that I was not an evacuee myself. The experience, however, made me think about what will happen the next time Houston is visited by a hurricane. And there will be a next time. And so I came to help, as I hope someone will come to help me if I ever find myself living in a shelter.