On Tuesday, October 11, the sun is streaming into my room at 7:00 am and I wake up in an unfamiliar setting. I peer outside and it looks like several pine trees in the back yard have fallen and been taken away. Things look very different in the light of day, and as we depart, we see that the entire neighborhood has blue tarps on the roofs. The blue tarps cover roof damage--some had trees fall on the houses, some had shingles blow off, some had holes torn in the roofs. It looks like not a single house went unscathed. We see the piles and piles of tree debris up and down the block, and now start to notice other things--a toilet cistern, a sofa covered with mildew, sheetrock, insulation, and more and more trees. John told us that many of these pine trees were 100 feet tall and bigger, and now they are no more than a tangle of branches and logs set out on the curb.
Out along the highway, what was once dense pine woods now looks like a scraggly forest of Charlie Brown Christmas trees. About every fourth or fifth tree along the highway is uprooted or snapped in half like a twig. The ones that remain upright have gnarled branches stripped and shredded of leaves or boughs. The trees look worn out and forlorn.
We are relieved to find that McDonald's and Burger King have reopened so we can get a quick bite to eat before starting our day. Fast food restaurants are like cockroaches--when the last vestiges of civilization have fallen away, they will find a way to proliferate. There is a long line of cars at the drive-thru, so we go inside and plot our strategy for the day. Jill needs a cassette for her video camera, so we make a quick stop at Target as well. There are two young police officers languidly sitting at a table by the door. They are wearing black pants and t-shirts with white letters that say "POLICE" on them, along with black baseball caps with white block letters that say "POLICE".
The Target looks exactly like the one in Mountain View that we shop in, except there are very few shoppers. I glance at the children's underwear section to see if they have it in stock (we're here factfinding, after all). A lone package of Dora the Explorer Girls' Briefs hang on the display, but otherwise, there's not much there. There are, however, rows and rows of untouched Christmas decorations.
At the check-out line, one of the police officers is behind us. Jill has on a black hat with white letters that say "PAMP". "Excuse me, Ma'am. What's PAMP?" the officer asks.
"We're from the Parents' Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, in California so it stands for Palo Alto-Menlo Park," she responds. "We're here to deliver some supplies from California."
He looks at us quizzically, as though "PAMP" doesn't quite register with "FEMA", "POLICE", "FBI", and "DEA"--the normal law-and-order bearers of these type of hats. A few months ago, we ordered these hats for our volunteer team as a clever way to publicize our new website , and based it on all of those others. We never imagined that we would be fulfilling this role in any capacity. We're a mom's club, for crying out loud. We're supposed to be having playgroups and worrying about potty training, not crossing the country and bringing children underwear. Somehow, though, the hat makes us look a little more like helpers.
"Where are you from?" I ask the officer.
"Texas, Ma'am," he drawls. "I'm just here to help out." Things are orderly and calm, so I suppose he's doing his job and protecting Target from potential looters or perhaps the occasional riot in the underwear aisle.
"Do I really look like a 'ma'am'?" Jill asks me as we exit. I tell her that in the South, Julia, her 5 year old, would be called "ma'am".
We head out and make it to the Lacombe Head Start, the first stop for unloading. We are greeted by Joan, the Center Director and Cathy, the District PTA President. Jill tries to call Carlos, and finds that he is "in Louisiana". Cathy speaks to him, and finds out that he is somewhere around Baton Rouge, so he'll be a couple of hours late, given the traffic in Baton Rouge at this time of day. We are joined by Joanne, a member of the Head Start board, and by Ginny, who is the Pre-K Liaison from the St. Tammany School Board. Jill has been in contact with Ginny for weeks, so she greets us like we are old friends. She tells us, "I want to nominate y'all to take over FEMA." I'll let Jill have that job; I'm holding out for the Supreme Court.
We take a tour of the facility, which was not damaged by the storm. It's cheerful and clean, and there are many, many young children playing in the rooms and in the yard. The kids look happy and well-cared for, and the teachers seem patient and kind. This could be any pre-school classroom in California or Ohio or New York. The difference is that these children have survived one of the worst natural disasters in history.
We go to an infant/toddler room and one little girl, about a year old, cries to be picked up. Joan says that this center did not have infants and toddlers before, but they were asked to accommodate them after the storm. She doesn't have enough cribs, she says, so the babies are doubling up at nap time. We've brought 6 or 7 cribs and bedding on our truck, and several of our members have sent cribs via on-line purchases. She is very grateful, since having babies sleep in these conditions threatens their licensing guidelines. "I don't have choice," she says, "They told me we have to take these kids, but they don't give us the proper equipment. What can I do?"
Joan takes the crying baby and swings her onto her hip and carries her as we continue on the tour. It's clear that she loves these kids and treats them like they were her own. She tells us that her house was flooded, so the bottom floor is unliveable, so she and her husband live on the top floor. "It's depressing to go home," she says. "It's so filthy and I hate to even walk through the bottom floor. I guess it could be worse...at least we can live in the top part of our house."
Joan tells us that her husband is in construction, and had worked in New Orleans prior to the storm. He left his tool box there, and after the storm, he went back to retrieve it. "You know men and their tools," she laughed. He had to dig it out of two feet of muck, but he found it and brought it home. "He had a lot invested in those tools," she said. "He was so proud that he found them." Small victories are the ones that matter most, it seems. Using his own tools makes him feel more "normal" she tells us. Someone adds, "It's those moments of 'normal' that feel so good. It's what we live for."
Since it looks like Carlos won't be here for a while, the PTA representatives offer to take us for a ride and tour of a nearby elementary school, Chatha-Ima, that is on the list of "sister schools" of our Bridge of Caring program. The school sustained minimal damage and looked very much like any school that you would find in California (except for the brick walls!). About 90% of the children were wearing uniforms of dark green polo shirts and khaki pants or skirts. The ones not in uniform were primarily students who came to St. Tammany from New Orleans and surrounding areas and were "new students", according to the Vice Principal. The school allowed the children to come without uniforms because uniforms were scarce and there was little money to buy clothes. The PTA members told us that uniforms, socks and underwear were a fundamental need right now, particularly for the children from surrounding areas who were temporarily calling this area "home."
We hurried back to the Head Start building, and called Carlos again. He was on the interstate nearby, but unsure of how to find us. One of the local moms got on the phone with him and gave him instructions. By the time he finally arrived, a crowd of about 20-30 moms had gathered and were waiting to unload the truck. Several of them had infants, one of whom was only 3 weeks old. These women were primarily the mothers of the children inside the facility and had been told that a truck was coming with some baby supplies that they could have. Some of these women had lost everything in the hurricane and ensuing flood; others whose homes were left standing had taken in numerous relatives and friends left homeless, and were living with 10-20 people in a modest house. They were eager to bring things home for their families and others and were very appreciative of our efforts and of the fact that we had come so far to meet them.
After what seemed like an hour of trying to figure out how to get the truck into the parking lot, the women, along with the school custodian and another man, started unloading the truck, hoisting heaving boxes, strollers, cribs, baby gear, and all kinds of baby items. The PTA moms helped, too, and Jill and I carried our fair share of boxes. Jill designated several areas for backpacks, clothes, gear, etc. I told Carlos and Michelle, who were on the truck, to stop when they reached a row of wooden pallets that John from Relocation Project had put up to mark the end of the Head Start donations and the beginning of the Shelter donations. It seemed like the boxes had no end, and Michelle asked if I was sure that ALL of this was for Lacombe. They seemed astonished that we brought such a big truck--a 48 foot trailer full to the ceiling with donations from our community to theirs.
At one point, I was pulled aside to talk with Joanne, a Board Member from the Head Start District Program. She told me, "It may seem as though people here are doing okay, that things are somewhat back to normal, but it's not. This community has suffered in ways that I can't even begin to describe. Our big fear is that once the media attention dies down -- and it has already-- is that people will just forget about us. If that happens, and help stops coming, this community will die." She gave me a gift of a box of greeting cards that she had made using the drawings made by children in the Head Start Program. I told her that our group was having a fundraiser soon and that we could sell them for her if she wanted. She promised to send me a case.
A group of PTA representatives sidetracks me, to thank us for coming down. They seem overwhelmed by what we have brought. One of them has lost her home and jokes that she is now living in a "gated community"--a few trailers surrounded by a chainlink fence. Later, after she leaves, another of the moms tells me, "She'd never ask for herself, but she really did lose everything in the storm. Would it be ok if we took a backpack for her?" I told her to please take one for the other mom and let her know that we insisted that she have it. Our members worked so hard to fill these backpacks with useful items, it would be a shame for her not to have one.
When I return to the front of the building, one of the Head Start employees pulls me aside and says quietly, "Miss Jill is upset." I ask why, and she says, "People were starting to grab boxes and load them into their cars, and I don't think that was what she had in mind." I go inside the building, where some of the the PTA and school reps are meeting, but I don't see Jill. The mood has changed from festive to tense. Evidently, all the moms who had waited all morning for the truck to arrive had been told that they could take whatever they wanted, and they started to carry off entire boxes. Jill asked them to carry everything inside and stack it to wait for buses and vans from the other programs to come and take things away. When I finally see her, she looks frazzled. She was worried that if people just took random boxes, there would not be enough to go around. Jill had given specific instructions to the Executive Director, who apparently did not relate this to the staff. All they seemed to know was that a truck was coming with some things for the Head Start families. They had no idea of the scope or size of the donation and were surprised when they saw how big the truck was.
Evidently, some of the women started to take large quantities of things, until Jill and Michelle had to gently remind everyone that the boxes were to be distributed to 15 other programs as well. One person wanted to take a box marked "towels", probably not realizing that there were at least 50 towels in the box, and there were only 2 or 3 boxes of towels on the truck. Each box of baby clothes at about 300-500 pieces in it, packed and folded neatly to maximize the number of items that could go into each box. Jill and her folding team ran into a box shortage at some point prior to our trip and had to cram as much as possible into each box. I don't know if the people who wanted to take entire boxes realized this or not. I suppose that it could have been worse...at least we knew for sure that the things we brought were desirable and needed. Each person got at least one backpack or diaper bag. Jill said she saw someone take off with 10 backpacks and several diaper bags. Ginny and Cathy were very apologetic. I told them that I thought that if someone took more than their fare share, I believed it would get to people who needed it. We don't know how many people were living together, or if they had neighbors in need. It seems unlikely that they would be able to sell any of it, given the fact that no one had any money to spare.
After everything was moved inside and the crowd had dispersed, we were taken to lunch at one of the few open restaurants in Lacombe by the PTA delegation. They told us stories of how they had evacuated to relatives' homes and hotels, and come home to find trees planted in their houses, roofs damaged, and water inside the house. Those who did not have water or wind damage had taken in relatives. Michelle's family had 17 people living together in a 2 bedroom house. They considered themselves lucky. Cathy's family rode out the storm in their house; they sustained minimal damage and no flooding, but many of their neighbors had trees fall on their houses, and they were without power for weeks. Things had started to get better, they said, because stores were opening and the electricity was back on in the north shore. Lots of people who worked in New Orleans might never return, they said, since much of the oil business moved to Houston and planned to stay there.
After lunch, Michelle took us on a driving tour of Lacombe. There was a pile of rotting clothes on the side of the road that Michelle pointed to. "That is what remains of clothes brought down here from a church in West Virginia or Ohio. Someone had a cousin up there who organized a clothing drive for us and they sent a whole semi truckload of clothes. They just set it all out in front of this strip mall, and it was a free-for-all. People came and took stuff and the rest was left on the ground. Then, we had to evacuate because of Rita, and the rest of the clothes got left out and rained on. All those good people's efforts got ruined because there was nothing set up to hand things out in an orderly manner. I saw this happen once, and I just couldn't stand by and let it happen to y'all. I know how much effort you put into this."
We appreciated her candor and her willingness to stick her neck out for us. As a local, she could step in and take charge of the situation. As outsiders, it would look like we were picking who was "worthy" or not and that was not our goal. I think Jill was upset because for weeks, she's poured heart and soul into this project. She spent hours sorting and folding and boxing things just-so; to see someone reject an item by tossing it on the ground was more than she could take. Michelle saw what was happening and stopped it before it got out of control. As for me, I was not even aware that there was a problem until after the fact, so I don't think it was any kind of melee, just something that needed to be handled swiftly, and matter-of-factly. I give them all kinds of credit for doing what needed to be done and handling it with finesse and grace. Brownie and Dubya need to take lessons from these two.
As we drove around, we could tell that from the interstate to Lake Pontchartrain, the conditions got progressively worse. At first we saw houses that were standing, but every every house had a mini-landfill of furniture, sheet rock, fixtures, appliances, plumbing, toys, TVs, books, etc. stacked in the front yard, all covered in mold and mildew. "What you see here by the road," Michelle said, "Is the entire content of these homes...the content of people's lives."
By the time we reached the lake, we saw many more houses that were near-collapse and some that were blown entirely off their foundations. There was a popular seafood restaurant that sat on the lake front, but all that remains is a blue concrete slab. The rest is somewhere out in Lake Ponchartrain or swept off into the Gulf. Michelle told us that the wind damage was one thing, but the real devastation occurred when the storm surge swept 18 feet of water into the area, for at least 3 miles in-land. We saw a boat in middle of the median on the interstate, and random items, like so much trash, dotting the landscape. Rather than fast food containers and soda bottles that usually litter the roadside, there were ruined photo albums and clothing and knicknacks...the contents of people's homes; the contents of their lives before the storm.