Katrina memories

This is a little late for the Katrina anniversary, but I just found the letter I wrote to some of the people who donated to the Ethical Culture relief effort last summer. This multi-Society effort sent a truckload of school supplies and donations to an elementary school in Mobile, Alabama. The area near Mobile was hard-hit, and the school took in many children whose own schools and homes had been destroyed. About three weeks after Katrina, then, I accompanied the Leader of the Riverdale-Yonkers Ethical Society, Curt Collier, and two of their employees in driving the truck from New York to Alabama. In two days. Here’s some of my description of the trip:

“Before my mini-travelogue, a couple thoughts about giving. I hope I’ve learned the lesson that charity isn’t an opportunity to get rid of things you don’t want, but rather a chance to make a connection with other real people who want to help and who need things. Most of the donations we received were perfect—just what was needed, in respectful condition, carefully packed. But we also received donations I was disgusted to touch and would have been deeply ashamed to pass on. What were these people thinking? Then I thought about things I had thrown into Salvation Army boxes or other places in the past. I made a promise that I would never again donate something I wouldn’t offer to a friend, or treat volunteers as servants or trash collectors.

“We picked up generous donations from many Ethical Societies, from New York and New Jersey to Baltimore, North Carolina, and a school in Virginia. It was wonderful to see old friends if even for a few minutes, and although the truck blew a tire in NC, otherwise the trip was blissfully uneventful. I had a hell of a time finding vegan food on the road, but I survived; next time I’ll pack more food.

“We drove straight through, arriving in Alabama around 5am, when we were given a place to crash for a few hours by a very kind woman at a motel, as all the rooms in the area were full of evacuees and relief workers. We were due at the school at 9:30am, and as we went through Mobile, we started to see signs of the hurricane—mostly brown-leaved or snapped-off trees and neat piles of branches at the edge of nearly every yard. Many of the signs and billboards along the highway were shredded, bare, or twisted.

“As we neared the school, I heard a noise I knew from children’s theater—hundreds of cheering, screaming kids. The entire population of the school—kids in their white-and-navy uniforms, PTA in their matching T-shirts, teachers and staff, were all arranged in a giant half-circle in the parking lot, yelling and applauding and cheering. There was a big banner in front welcoming us and local news vans. It was overwhelming and exciting, but I felt uncomfortable with the cheering and all those people waiting for us in the hot sun. We had one truck of supplies and a few thousand dollars of donations, in that sea of destruction and need. It made me realize how important it was that we went down in person, though, instead of just mailing off boxes. We were people caring about other people, not anonymous “donors” giving to “victims.” The principal and the other staff were terrific, despite the stress they were under. Everyone was very moved that we had come all that way. They know down South that they’ll soon be off the front pages and forgotten, and they’re very skeptical about the big relief agencies. They told us about one boy, from New Orleans, whose family had lost everything and who was distraught. They discovered that what he used to do when he was upset was ride his bike until he felt calmer, so they went out and found him a bike. Would that have been considered a real need by an outside agency? How long would it have taken? I was happy for the kid, and impressed by the compassion and dedication of the staff.

“We stayed for an hour or so, talking with people and unloading the truck and giving interviews, and then we had to get back on the road. Before we headed back north, we took a side trip to the coastal town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, 40 miles west, to check on friends of Curt’s family. The town is 40 miles from Gulfport and over 100 miles from New Orleans. As we neared the water, the damage increased block by block—houses missing roof shingles, then houses with blue tarps covering roof holes, then a brick church with its whole front wall blown out, pews sitting drying in the sun. Curt’s friend lived a couple blocks from the beach, and he was there, healthy and okay, and the houses on the block looked okay from the outside, but every one had a huge pile of water-soaked furniture and belongings out front, and most were abandoned. Curt’s friend said they had been without power for 8 days.

“We drove the final few blocks to the edge of the water, the road getting narrower as the debris and garbage built up on either side; these piles hadn’t been put out by residents but instead had been plowed off the roads like snow. The scene by the water was surreal. You saw it on TV but it’s different when it’s all around and as far as you can see along the ocean road: big houses collapsed like they were punched by a giant fist; a pristine roof, dormers intact, clean, sitting on the ground, the house beneath it gone like in those cartoons of chopping down a tree where the tree gets shorter without falling over. Many, many lots with just foundations and a staircase, or a chimney. Some houses seem to have been built on stilts, but it’s just that their first floors have been gutted and swept away. One house is ripped to a tattered shell, except for a perfectly preserved kitchen cabinet still hanging on the one remaining bit of wall, probably with unbroken plates inside. Spray-painted signs are here and there—some of those search-and-rescue runes you recognize from TV but don’t know if they mean “All clear” or “Body needing removal.” A couple messages of hope. Mostly warnings that looters will be shot. It smells like a construction site and a little bit of dead fish. People here and there are sitting or standing in the ruins, but not many. Lumps of clothes are strewn in the streets. There’s pulverized wood and wallboard and brick and trash covering every square inch, but there’s actually less garbage than I thought there’d be, and I figure they’ve begun clearing. Then on our way out I look down the side streets a block or two from the beach and see where the beach houses landed, on top of other houses.

“We stop at a restaurant in the middle of town. The carpet’s been ripped out and the booths are in a pile out back. We ask the waitress how high the water was and she says “Only about 6 inches. . . . in here. Outside it reached the bottom of the windows,” which are about 4 feet off the ground.

“Then we start back. No more blown tires, not even much traffic. We have a portable DVD player—“Sideways” is indeed a good movie, but everything else we have is pretty stupid, so I talk with Peter in sign language, which is harder in a car, but I learn some new signs–he really doesn’t like bad drivers.

“Thanks again, from me and hundreds of cheering kids—