Saturday, October 08, 2005

Lest we forget...

If you're like me, you may have gone through a bit of a cycle of feelings about Katrina and its aftermath.

Not unlike the storm itself, my feelings first blew one direction (in my case, shock and anger that we weren't doing more), eventually picked up destructive force and lashed out. How was it possible for this level of incompetence to be allowed? Why was a horse show director in charge of a disaster relief agency whose jurisdiction spanned all levels of government? Why are people - fellow Americans - being treated like cattle, worse indeed than many third world refugees.

Then came a bit of a calm period. The relief effort seemed on track, other things came along to relieve me of seeing horrible images of destruction and need. In short, life seemed to be getting back to normal.

Then the winds picked up again, but this time in the other direction. Why are we always bailing victims of storms out? Who's going to bail me out if I can't pay my rent? Why is the government paying $2,500 per roof to have contractors nail blue tarps to the top of them? Why are none of those contractors from the New Orleans area? Why are we paying millions to lease several private cruise ships to provide housing when the government of Greece offered us similar ships for free? Why have we turned away freely given aid offers? Fortunately, the storm has been over land for a while and the second blast of winds has packed a little less strength (at least in my case).

Well, last week I met my first Katrina victims.

I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe I thought they would somehow be different. Maybe a haunted look, or a tattooed number on their arms - something that marked them as victims.

They weren't different though. They were just regular people - a mom and a daughter just going about the business of trying to get their lives back together.

The mom (who I'll call M) and her daughter (who I'll call D) lived about 15 miles outside of New Orleans. They heard the news about the storm coming and along with M's husband, loaded up the car with some clothes, their two dogs and some food to eat.

They drove north hoping to find a hotel to stay in and found they were all filled - not a room to be had within a day's drive of New Orleans. They slept in the car as best they could and drove further the next day. Little did they know it would be over two weeks before they would be allowed back home and they weren't really prepared for that.

They made do though and they felt relieved when they found they could return home. Relieved and a bit scared. What would they find? Was there anything left?

What they found was a home no longer that. Nearly everything in it was destroyed. Much of the furniture was still soaked, the carpets were still wet, and everything was covered with a thick layer of mold and mildew. M tells me this very quickly, trying to get past it as fast as possible. I can see she is fighting tears. She refuses to let them start.

They're lucky she says. They at least have a place to stay now. Her mother-in-law had recently moved into a nursing home and they're staying in her old condo. The only furniture and personal items in it was what they could salvage - two metal patio tables they were able to just spray off and bleach and a framed wedding photo she had taken when they first left - or what had been donated to them - an old couch and chair and a couple of old bedroom sets. There was also a big television and some things left by her mother-in-law when she moved.

Despite this, they're mostly happy. They got out and they still have their two dogs. There's a fresh batch of frosted brownies in the kitchen.

D has been to the pet store in the next town over, the one where I live. She bought their chihuahua a little sweater.

It's cold up here in Wisconsin D tells me with a smile. We're not used to it being this cold, she says.

She puts on a pair of cheap, new tennis shoes. They could have been pulled from the stock of a Soviet-era store Russia. She's a very pretty girl and I'm sure it has to hurt her pride, but all she shows is a smile.

I notice that when she takes the dogs out for a walk that she only has a light sweatshirt while her dog has a warm sweater.

She leaves eating an apple, making the best of it.

D is a college student M tells me. She was going to school in New Orleans, but there's not going to be classes there for a while. She was able to transfer to UWM on short notice, but they were already three weeks into classes and she was too far behind to catch up, so she's taking this term off.

M's cel phone rings while I'm there. M is trying to find out about food stamps. She's never been on them and didn't even know how to sign up for them, or where. The Red Cross, she tells me, had tables set up at centers. You went from table to table to enroll in different programs and to get information. It was an all day affair. Without this setup, she would be lost, she said.

So, now she and her family were going to be on food stamps. It's only temporary she's quick to add. It's only until December, then everyone has to show they've been looking for work. She says this quickly and without looking me in the eye. We're not trying to freeload, M says.

She didn't know what else to do though. They didn't have a big savings and that was mostly gone. It took her over six weeks to get her last paycheck - there was no one in New Orleans to sign them, the people she worked with were all in the same position.

She was sending out resumes for herself and her husband. He's still down in Louisiana. He has a job in the oil business, but is essentially homeless down there. They need the money though, so he'll stay down there until he can find something else.

M lights up a cigarette. I can tell she's not a smoker. She fumbles too much,she only takes furtive drags and she only smokes about half of it. The cigarettes are cheap. It's one of the few signs of weakness she shows.

D returns from walking the dogs. She looks at the cigarette butt in the ashtray - it's the only one - and frowns. M looks away, the silence says words that can't be said. It lasts only a second before they both look at me.

I do my best to smile. D smiles back. I know she cries at night, but all I've seen is her smile. It's one of the bravest things I've ever seen.

Anyway, says M., we're pretty lucky.



kris said...

You write about this beautifully. I love that you pay attention to people. Really pay attention.

tshsmom said...

Beautiful piece, Shawn!

My mind just can't comprehend all the homelessness and unemployment this disaster created.

The Zombieslayer said...

That was a wonderful piece, Shawn. You always have a wonderful way of putting something human to it.

Joe said...

I can't even imagine. I like the signs of strenth you show - the 'small good things' like the brownies and the sweater for the dog. My heart goes out to the husband doing what he has to do down there.

This is good stuff, Shawn. All of it. I'm gonna add a link on my blog. Hopefully the few people who look at mine will check out yours.

Shawn said...

Thanks guys. It just seemed important to say...

Sassy said...

Wow, Shawn. Your account of this familys tragedy is so moving.

Miranda said...

Very thought provoking post. My feelings and thoughts have gone through similar changes. Just found out awhile ago one. I still don't really know what to think.
The survivors I know aren't making as much of an issue about the disaster as those who aren't connected, but I suspect that that is because they are so busy trying to get things back together that they don't have time to figure out who to blame or who to justify.

Jason said...

Another excelllent anecdote!

Anna Banana said...

Thank you for sharing this, I really enjoyed reading it. I know there are real flesh and blood people living through this, but it has all become a great overwhelming swirl of images and I appreciate connecting with a calmer image. Thanks!