On September 1, 2005, I arrived in Montgomery, Alabama with a large group of American Red Cross Disaster Services volunteers. Assigned to work in shelters, we were told to expect the worst. In order to prepare, we gathered and loaded up supplies, such as water and Heater Meals (like military rations, but in nicer packaging).
The following morning, on September 2nd , we headed to Gulfport, Mississippi. As we approached our destination, the destruction became more noticeable off the interstate. Some areas were leveled, while others were untouched. Then, we passed by a line of cars almost two miles long off of one of the exits for a gas station. We felt relieved that we had about three-quarters of a tank left and that we would arrive before 8:00pm curfew.
Later that morning, we arrived at the American Red Cross Mississippi Gulf Coast Chapter Temporary Operations Headquarters. I was assigned as the Assistant Shelter Manager at Harrison Central Elementary School in Gulfport. Finally, we met the current shelter managers, two sisters. They were kind and helpful, even though they were tired from running the shelter for a week, and they had lost everything themselves. We slept on the floor for the first five days until cots were delivered. Luckily, we had running water and a make-shift shower.
I was impressed by the resilience of the 164 residents, who had formed a cooking crew amongst themselves, and were serving three meals a day, thanks to a generator that had been donated. I was also amazed by the resident who had devised the make-shift shower out of plastic crates and soda cans (with holes poked through them) for a shower head. Another resident, a thin woman with a distinct Mississippi drawl, was a loyal helper, always willing to clean the bathrooms daily. And yet another man, who lost his bakery, managed to gather all the supplies, to bake me a delicious cake on my birthday, September 10th – it made me feel as if I was home.
As eager volunteers, we worked as a team to run the shelter. Lights out was 10:00pm, but the ninety-degree heat was unbearable. My shift was usually 8pm-2am, so I would handle the unusual happenings, such as diabetic or breathing emergencies, which I resolved with the nurse. After a few days passed, some residents were reunited with their family members, while others left the shelter for a new life in other states, or waited anxiously to return to their homes. I, too, departed from the shelter after serving there for two weeks, and it closed a few days later.
During my last two weeks, I was assigned to the Partner Services Operations Desk at the Headquarters building in Biloxi. As a Government Liaison, I collaborated twelve hours a day with local, state, and federal government partners, and other voluntary agencies, to meet the needs of an estimated 950,000 affected people in Mississippi. My responsibility was to take phone calls, respond to visits from officials at various locations, and resolve issues. I handled real concerns, such as emptying overflowing dumpsters, supplying Red Cross kitchens with water, and securing National Guard presence for crowd-control at our financial assistance sites. Initially, we had hundreds of pending requests…by the time I left, the requests had been reduced to half a dozen! Yes, we had made progress…
On September 29th, I boarded a plane back to Leesburg, Virginia. Thanks to all the people in Mississippi, and the many volunteers from near and far, we responded to the need and helped in a small way. I still miss those days when the shelter finally became air-conditioned, when the shelter residents said “thank you,” and I shared dinner after a long day at the Headquarters with other volunteers called to help. Soon we would all be returning to our homes, families, and comfortable beds, unlike the people who endured the loss brought on by such a fierce storm.