Friday, September 30, 2005

I Wish I Was In New Orleans

Painting by
John Haymsen
0433~Royal-Street-New-OrleansYesterday I spent all day in an expedited training in preparation to go south to do disaster assistance work with the Red Cross in the hurricane areas. The standard Disaster Assistance training takes days, and normally volunteers require some local experience responding to disaster incidents, before they can be sent off to a national disaster site. But as the trainers told us, this is the worst natural disaster to have ever hit the U.S., stretching over more than 90,000 square miles, and many of the olf protocols and practices have been streamlined in order to get aid to the survivors as quickly as possible.

I still have to get my doctor to sign off on a health status form to assure them I won't keel over dead while I'm down there. We will probably deploy within 2 weeks, but likely much sooner, to either Baton Rouge, Biloxi, or Jackson (not certain about Texas). I don't know where I will be going once I get to the staging area I'll be assigned, nor what I will be doing exactly. I asked to do bulk distribution, that is, travelling around the damaged areas in an ERV to deliver meals and/or supplies and check on the survivors' needs (my first choice), or I may do feeding, sheltering, or casework. They told us we could request specialties, but need to be flexible, as we will probably do a little of everything as needed, and will be put wherever they need us.

Regardless of what happens, I doubt I will have access to a computer, or that I will have the time to post anything if I do. People who were there during the worst of it spoke at the training session to tell us what they experienced, and as has come out the last few days, the reports of dangers and shootings and criminal behavior were very much overblown. But they worked 20 hour shifts, and slept in sleeping bags on the shelter floors, and the temps were 95 degrees with 80% humidity and bugs from hell, and people are traumatized and angry and in need of much patience and understanding. The weather and the bugs, they told us, will probably be the same till mid to late October. We may stay in hotels--there is more of that now--and electricity and water are available more widely, or we may be put in shelters. The shifts will probably be closer to 8 to 12 hours than 20. It's much better now than it was a few weeks ago. Traveling down will require going light, so I'll pretend I'm going backpacking. Toilet paper, insect repellent, sunscreen, and every expectation of living in dirty clothes for much of the time...sounds like the woods to me, except that I will have my cell phone with me at all times, as they recommended.

Don't think that just because a few weeks have passed that things are almost wrapped up. On hearing about me going down, some have said, "Oh, I thought they stopped sending people down there." They haven't, obviously. They need volunteers badly. The Red Cross chapter I will be part of, Southeastern PA or SEPA, is the 2nd largest in the country, and they have only gotten 90 people down there since Katrina hit, for 2-3 week stints. That's just 2 waves of volunteers. They expect to need people at this level through December, and the holiday season may be a time of even greater need. In Philly alone they have been working with over 700 families displaced by the storms, and over 600 of those came up here on their own without government or NGO aid. Just this morning the NYTimes reported that FEMA has only been able to house 109 families from Louisiana, which means hundreds of thousands remain homeless and in shelters and hotels.

Anyway, that's the situation so far. I have my employers to thank for allowing me to take this time off when it comes, and for paying me for it while I'm gone; otherwise I would never be able to afford to do it. It's a gift that's been offered to me, so I want to make it a gift to the people of the hurricane. I know many, possibly most people, are unable to afford the time away from work or their families, and this kind of work is not for everyone. But if you can possibly do it, if you are physically and emotionally and financially able to do it, please consider volunteering. The need is desperate.
More updates as the time gets closer.

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