As Wednesday, August 31, 2005 dawned, one thing was becoming clear. The Gulf Coast was disintegrating. New Orleans was in total despair. The levees had broken and thousands upon thousands were stuck on rooftops or were looking for refuge in places like the Superdome or Convention Center. The Mississippi Gulf Coast had been flattened. The news media was airing stories of death, loss, and brokenness. I’ll never forget the interview with the man in Mississippi who told the story of how his wife had been ripped from his hands as she was washed away by the tidal wave. He was wandering around in tears, beyond hope, clueless as to what to do next. Watching those images that morning served as a powerful motivation to get to my family, my home, and people in need. Each moment in Montgomery was another moment that my parents possibly didn’t have water or means to take care of themselves. Each moment here was another moment that someone else went without. We had to hurry.
I’ve seen things like this before, but it never really impacted me that much. I thought, "how terrible," and then I flipped the channel. Not today. Not ever again, I told myself. The government response was lacking and people were starting to notice. We were beginning to see the dead bodies floating in the flood waters. Gangs and looters were beginning to take over New Orleans. Shots were being fired at rescue helicopters trying to take people out of hospitals. The criminal element was trying to assert itself and officers from the NOPD were running away. It was apocalytic to say the least. For a great synopsis of what happened that week, check out Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge. Fascinating reading, to be sure.
I went to the Red Cross staging area to set up our team for our journey. Volunteers were coming in like crazy. They had taken over an old KMart and were using it as their headquarters. It was only a few blocks from my house. They had set up stations for everything you could think of: medical personnel, shelters, volunteers, supplies. It was very impressive. I met a really nice lady from Arizona who came in on Saturday or Sunday. She was a believer. She took down my information and began to process us. Instead of going to Picayune, they were going to send us to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to work in a shelter. I’d have my credentials, and after I set up the team, I could go on to Picayune. She agreed to send Red Cross trainers to our church on Thursday night so eveyone could get a crash course on shelter administration. This was very unorthodox, but they were desperate for volunteers and they would be flexible to get us on the road. They were watching the news too and were doing whatever they could to help. The Red Cross got a lot of criticism in those days, but all that we worked with were incredible. They were just regular Americans who were trying to help. Most were volunteers. They had the news on and were seeing what the rest of us were seeing and were moving as fast as they could. Katrina overwhelmed EVERYBODY because the affected zone was 90,000 square miles. No one had ever seen anything like it.
By Wednesday afternoon the word of our trip had spread. Others from our church were stepping up. We started hearing from other folks in other churches as well. Our team was approaching 30 people. Drew was doing an incredible job getting transportation. He secured a large delivery truck from Bonnie Plant Farms and a 15 passenger van to take folks. We had people donating trailers and their pick up trucks. A guy in our church loaned me his new Dodge truck to drive down there because my old truck wouldn’t have made it. People started bringing supplies in boxes and paper bags to the church and we turned our old pastor’s office into a supply room. Things were happening as everyone wanted to do something, anything to help. It was amazing.
I called my aunt in Little Rock, Arkansas to see if she had heard anything from my family or if she knew about Mamaw, her and my father’s mother. She said she hadn’t heard anything. Mamaw was in a nursing home in Slidell, LA, on the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain, 20 miles from both New Orleans and Picayune. It got hit really hard, with massive flooding as the lake overtook the city. We heard rumors that all the nursing homes in that area had evacuated to Monroe, LA. I asked my aunt to try and find out and I told her I was going. I’d find Mamaw if I had to drive all over the South looking for her. She deserved that much. Stories were coming out of senior citizens dying on the bus trips because of the heat, or being placed on cots in school gyms all over Louisiana and Texas. She had a really bad hip and could barely walk. She was always in a lot of pain, and even though she suffered from dementia, she only smiled, praised God, and never complained. Unbelievable. I had to find her.
The rest of the day was filled with phone calls, lots of work, and running, running, running. A team of 30 was coming together quickly. That night at church, we spent a great deal of time in prayer and conversation about what happened. There were lots of folks in worship that night as everyone wanted to help and connect. It was an amazing time and I really sensed that God was bringing us together to really be the church and truly rescue people. After the service, we had a meeting with several of the guys going. I was pretty overwhelmed. I was leading the entire effort, while I knew that I would be leaving the team on the coast to work with the Red Cross. A transition was needed. I would lead the advance team down on early Friday morning with the big truck of supplies and 7 other folks in several pick up trucks. Later that evening, a caravan of around 25 would come down from Montgomery. Drew would lead the second team. After we all got set up, I would turn over leadership of the group to Drew and Charlie, another elder who was a Lt. Colonel in the army and Vietnam Vet. That was a good plan. I sat back and breathed for the first time in 3 or 4 days, it seemed like. It was not all on me and I trusted the men who were stepping up. It would become their thing and I would be free to get to my family. Praise God.
I went home that night and watched more news. My wife had been in tears during the day. People were dying without water or food in the heat. Babies were passing away. The elderly were being piled up against the walls. The questions of "why" and "how did this happen" started arising. Many people don’t realize that so many of those who stayed had no way out. They either had no transportation or they had no where to go. It was the end of the month and many were waiting to be paid. Many had never been out of New Orleans. Still, 80% of the city did evacuate. It was the responsibility of many to get the rest out, but never had an American city been totally destroyed. No one was prepared ahead of time the way they should have been.
I went to bed in turmoil with many questions swirling through my brain. How were my parents? My hometown? My Mamaw? My friends? How were things going to be when we got there? Friday could not come soon enough. I remember my Dad asking me in one of our last conversations on the phone why God allowed the tree to go through his house when his neighbor had been spared. He was scared, in horrible pain with his back, and had no idea what he was going to do. I said I didn’t know, but after watching the events of the last couple of days, I felt like my Dad received a great mercy in the fact that only a tree went through the back of the house. It could have been much worse. He could have been like those poor souls spending the night on the I-10 overpass in New Orleans while dead bodies, snakes, and debris floated underneath them.
Tomorrow: Katrina Remembrances Pt. 4: Final Preparations and Some Good News