Billie Silvey
Giving Yourself:
One Person's Experience with Hurricane Katrina
By Elizabeth R. Smith

Since my arrival nearly three months ago in Alabama and Mississippi
to help with the American Red Cross’ work with the Hurricane
Katrina disaster, I have been frustrated and surprised.

It was only two days after the horrific onslaught of Hurricane Katrina
that I was settling into a new school year as a journalism professor at
Pepperdine University. I listened to and read the early news reports of
the hurricane’s destruction with a detached interest, curious about
how I could work the topic into that evening’s class lecture—
after all, my students would spend the semester learning how to cover
breaking news and write about natural disasters. Only two days after
Hurricane Katrina hit, the world and I had no idea of the horror that
would quickly follow. Then the phone rang.

A recent acquaintance, the chapter executive for the American Red
Cross in Ventura County, Calif., sounded slightly frantic on the other
end of the phone and quickly explained that he needed people skilled
in dealing with the media to travel to the Gulf States and help with Red
Cross public affairs efforts. My heart soared.

Since my early days as newspaper reporter and editor, I have
dreamed about working with a non-profit organization on the front
lines of the events that shape the world. I have always wanted to help,
and I was ready to go. In three days, I was packed and outfitted with
hand sanitizer, mud boots, and mosquito repellent--a copy of the Red
Cross public affairs handbook tucked under my arm.

Soon after I began my work with the Red Cross Public Affairs team,
housed in an old Kmart building, I realized the fallout from Katrina had
been unlike any the Red Cross has ever handled. The uncertainty
about how to deal with a disaster of this magnitude meant there were
no rules, only uncharted territory that everyone is still trying to discern.

We all know the story. The widespread destruction wiped out
complete towns, many of which were already economically hanging by
a thread. The rural and remote nature of many of the affected areas
made providing relief a challenge and, sometimes, dangerous. The
thousands of people who needed assistance were overwhelming, and it
seems that the lines of people waiting for aid and the phone calls from
those who were stranded never waned.

I figured my mission with public affairs would be to help the media get
the right information about Red Cross assistance and assist with
general Katrina relief. I was right, and I was wrong.

Much of my days were spent talking with individual hurricane survivors
who are waiting for help but had received none. “Where are you
guys?� they would ask. I could only tell them we were on the way.

When I worked in the field helping newspaper and television reporters
get the information needed for that day’s story and collecting
interviews of survivors for stories published on the Red Cross’
website, my work became much more. It was impossible to interview
people who swam from their homes to safety, lost family members and
watched their communities fall apart, and not get involved on a more
human level. My work became less about telling the story and more
about helping the story. As I would collect interviews, I would hand
out water and Red Cross aid checks; as I spoke with the media, I held
the hands of those who were lost among their own.

I am frustrated by the fact that, however much assistance was
distributed, it never seemed to be enough. By early September, the
American Red Cross had nearly 1,000 shelters in Mississippi,
Alabama and Florida, and still people called about not having
anywhere to turn for help.

I continue to be disheartened and saddened by the uncertain nature of
the long-term plans for assistance when volunteers leave and news
teams move on to other stories.

And yet, even in the early days when it seemed relief would never
come to the broken Gulf States, an ever-present sense of hope exists
and continues to exist.

I am surprised, even overwhelmed by the 4,000 volunteers I saw pass
through Montgomery and Biloxi headquarters, headed off to help in
shelters and with food distribution units. Many volunteers slept for
more than three weeks on army cots in shelters, tired but jovial from
their days work clearing debris and helping survivors. I am surprised
by the kind spirits of the volunteers and staff who seem as excited to
meet each other as they are to be a part of the Red Cross.

I met Chris Silva, a young journalist from Washington, D.C., who took
time off work because he wanted to “just help out.� While
staying in a staff shelter in Montgomery, awaiting his deployment to
Gulfport, Miss., he helped resuscitate an older volunteer who had
passed out in the staff shelter in Montgomery during the night from
respiratory problems. Chris spent the whole night with the older man
and has kept in contact with him since.

I am reminded of Ellen Scarborough, an 80-year-old former
newspaper editor from Charlotte, N.C., who has volunteered with the
Red Cross since 1991 and has helped out with more than 38 disasters.
Ellen arrived in Montgomery the day before Hurricane Katrina hit the
Gulf Coast, and she ran the public affairs desk alone for five days.

I am in awe of the positive attitudes of so many survivors I have met in
and around Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Miss. Despite their dire
circumstances, they still took the time to inquire about my “foreign
accent� and offer a joke or two about being from Los Angeles.
Each survivor I met, and there were thousands, had an amazing story
they were desperate to share.

I could have never imagined the vast supply of food, clothing and
medication that I have seen pass through various shelters.

But the frustration persists, and the calls for help do not end.

By mid-September, I had returned to my safe home and comfortable
life. However, there is more to do. Hurricanes and floods following
Katrina have shown the world that it is not man’s job to say when
is enough. Yet, I pray that I never lose the sense of frustration and
surprise that grew simultaneously in my heart and head, and I pray that
I will never forget.

Elizabeth Smith is a freelance editor, adjunct professor of
journalism, active member of the Culver Palms Church of Christ
and friend.  Those who know of her heart for people in need and
the energy she throws into efforts to help were not surprised to
hear that she was bound for the Gulf States immediately after the
hurricane hit.
December 2005
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