Eight years later: a look at Nebraskans' efforts after Hurricane Katrina

Three Red Cross volunteers share their experiences in the days that followed storm

 

An American Red Cross member bears witness to a pair of fishing boats washed onto land near Gulfport, Mississippi.

“There were houses with windows gone. Some had two

or three side walls down, roofs gone. The stink from the storm surge was just terrible, 102 degrees with 100 percent humidity. It’d just make you nauseous.”

Harrison, Nebraska resident Alan Smith has volunteered for the American Red Cross for more than two decades. When he, and hundreds of other Nebraskans got the call in late August, 2005, they jumped into action.

“At the Superdome, the storm ripped the top off. The first night we were down there, we sent three trucks down there,” said Smith. “All we had was the low moon, and the wind was blowing what was left of the roof around. We were the only ones on that highway. I still remember driving by and seeing

that.”

Smith was part of a nationwide response to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Dozens of organizations, various levels of government and thousands of volunteers came together in hopes of saving ‘The Big Easy’ and the surrounding area.

Dena Howard, an American Red Cross staffer, organized one of the most extensive shelters to date in Omaha, Nebraska, and did so with very little hands-on

training. Less than two months prior, she, along with other volunteers, were in the nation’s capitol to go through academic training, in preparation of opening call centers in regions across the United

States.

After just one day, she found herself on the phone, assisting those affected by Hurricane Dennis.

“It was amazing because the clients were really feeling that they were getting the help they

needed,” said Howard.

Soon after, Howard and her team headed back to Omaha, which would soon be one of the destinations of some of the most rapidly-formed American Red Cross Shelters to-date.

On August 27, 2005, word of this monstrous storm in the Gulf began to reach the ears of volunteers

in Nebraska.

“We were hearing Category 3, Category 4 and that it could hit anywhere from Texas to Mississippi,”

said Howard. “That’s when I got the call to bring the call center up because we were already getting calls.”

The storm continued to churn in the Gulf of Mexico, and forecasters soon realized that it would shift in the direction of Mississippi and Louisiana, prompting thoughts of the worst situation imaginable: a slow-moving, powerful hurricane hitting the city of New Orleans.


“On August 29, the phones got very quiet,” recalled Howard. “That’s when Katrina hit.”

Once the storm had lessened, call centers across the nation were overwhelmed, pushing the Red Cross to extend hours, bring in more volunteers and begin the planning for what came next: a massive evacuation of New Orleans, a city of 350,000 people, and the surrounding area.

Hundreds upon thousands of people found themselves retreating to upper levels of their homes, as they sought to escape still-rising waters caused by a combination of a deadly ten-plus foot storm surge and breaches at 53 of the levees that protect the city, which sits ten feet below sea level.

These people prayed, scrambled for safety and awaited either rescue or death; none could be certain which may come first.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross was in the midst of collecting what resources were not already being diverted to the Gulf in order to open shelters across the nation.

“I told them (officials) we could take about 500 people, said Howard. “That number seems low because we did not have cots and materials. All resources were being pushed south, so we didn’t have the means to handle more than that.”

As Howard and her team worked endlessly to prepare the shelter for the evacuees headed their way, two other Nebraskans were headed to Ground Zero - the Gulf Coast.

Smith, who still vividly recalls the eerie scene of the battered Superdome, was deployed

to the city of Slidell, which sits northeast of New Orleans on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. His

task? Deliver supplies to New Orleans throughout a labyrinth of water, uprooted trees and destruction.

“It’s a little town, but it got hit the worst,” said Smith. “They’d load up containers of food, and I would take food back to Slidell.”

Smith remembers the tremendous amount of water that was in Slidell when he arrived,

something he says was a constant trouble for workers.

“There were buildings that were three-quarters of the way underwater. There were houses flooded up to the ceiling and then there were others that weren’t damaged at all.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation of the city so recovery efforts could proceed unhampered. It was at this time that hundreds of evacuees were sent to Omaha, to the shelter managed by Howard.

“They came in various states of dress and undress,” remembered Howard. “Some of these people had been in the same clothes for a week. Others were telling me they had been in the second floors of their apartments or homes and that they had done everything they could to survive. Many of them carried their belongings in trash bags. Each had their own stories, and they

wanted to talk, to share their stories.”

Many survivors in the Gulf were put on airplanes and sent across the United States, most of the time without any knowledge of where their destination was, in an effort to rid the area of those who could impede recovery and rescue efforts of authorities.

While Smith and Howard worked to shelter survivors and transport desperately-needed supplies, North Platte resident and American Red Cross Disaster Team Member Chuck Scripter was already in Picayune, Mississippi beginning his work as a disaster assessment specialist.

“They were looking for any time of help they could get at the time, so I and another woman from near New York City went over and co-managed the Picayune shelter located there in their junior high school,” Scripter said.

Picayune suffered major damage during the storm, but it was not nearly as dire as many cities in the surrounding area. For this reason, many survivors relocated from the New Orleans area to Picayune, in hopes of attaining more security in their lives.

According to reports after the storm, most of the damage in Picayune was caused by winds, resulting in countless roofs, windows and fences being damaged during Katrina. Trees and power lines were also majorly damaged, something Scripter saw firsthand.

“There was nothing in town, nothing whatsoever,” said Scripter. “There wasn’t a lot of water there, but it was dark. No lights, no nothing. I just remember it being dark, with the fire and police trying to direct traffic with no street signs. Only a local could do that.”

While Picayune received extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina, it was not as severe as in other nearby cities. This has caused it to become the permanent home for many who relocated from the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and were seeking a safer homesite with easy commuting to those areas. The bulk of the damage in Picayune was caused by winds from the hurricane. This resulted in widespread roof, window and fence damage. The wind also caused hundreds, if not thousands, of downed trees and power outages for up to several months.

In the days after Katrina made landfall, the shelter in Picayune saw heavy traffic, as people sought out family members and safety outside of New Orleans. Scripter and those who worked alongside him felt a profound impact from the stories they heard.

“A captain of a ship lost his entire crew in the turmoil, and his wife had come to Picayune because she had family there,” recalled Scripter. “He lost his help, everything in the Gulf. Now he couldn’t even find his wife. When he checked the house he found it empty.”

Through the help of volunteers, the man was eventually reunited with his wife, but stories such as this were told by thousands of affected individuals trying to come to grips with the sheer destruction left in the wake of the storm. Some of those hit hardest were those who just couldn’t comprehend the world around them: children.

“The kids, especially the young ones, didn’t have a clue what was going on. One day, they were at home, then there was a big storm, and then there was nothing there,” said Smith. “There were a lot of cases where parents had been separated or they’d lost one or the other during the storm. Those kids just lost any connection with anything.”

Smith took it upon himself to do what he can for the struggling youth he came across in his work.

“Every morning, I’d go to where they stored the stuffed animals, and I’d pick up 25-30 of them and take them with me and I’d give them to the kids,” said Smith. “Just giving a stuffed animal to a little kid was my biggest thrill. Those kids took care of those toys like they wanted their parents to take care of them.”

For weeks after the storm crippled much of the area, these volunteers spent countless hours working to breathe life into communities that had the wind knocked out of them. Slowly, they saw hope return to the faces of the people. Neighbors came together to help one another, as they all worked to rebuild both their homes and lives.

“In the three weeks I was there, people were friendly and helpful because there’s nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but help each other,” recalled Smith.

“As the power came back on, people went from being helpful to being back in a hurried mode. All of that happened within just three weeks.”

 

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