Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Local Volunteer Helped Katrina Survivors Find Homes, Jobs -- and Hope

This week, in honor of the 10 years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck, we are remembering those whose lives were impacted, honoring the resiliency of the community, thanking those who stepped up to help, and reflecting on lessons learned.

By Leila Roche
In her more than 50 years as a Red Cross volunteer, Carol Clark had seen her fair share of disasters. Carol, who lives in Pueblo, was deployed to New York after 9-11, chased Hurricane Floyd around the southern states, and was even flown to Guam to help victims of Typhoon Paka. Now retired, she had been deployed to disasters locally and throughout the world since beginning disaster response in the ‘80s. But the devastation that made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, was one of the worst she’d seen.

“Katrina was at the top of the list [of worst disasters I’d seen],” Carol said. “Just the sheer magnitude of the people involved was unbelievable. A shelter of 5,000 ceases to be a shelter. It’s a small city.”
It’s no surprise – given that Katrina is still currently ranked the third most intense tropical cyclone to make landfall in the U.S., behind only the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and Hurricane Camille in 1969. A decade later, it is still our country’s costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes.
This photo that Carol took from the second level of the
convention center shows just a small portion of the
5,000 people who were sheltered there.

In preparation for the storm, Carol and a team of Colorado volunteers were pre-staged in Houston, Texas. After the storm made landfall, they drove to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she was deployed for three weeks.

“I’ll never forget all the buses on our way in,” she said. “They were putting survivors on Greyhound buses. Hundreds of buses were passing us going the opposite direction. There were hundreds. It was just bus after bus after bus. We wondered if there would be anyone left in Baton Rouge.”

There was – more than she could have fathomed.

“When I walked into the Riverside Convention Center, seeing the size of the first shelter was utterly overwhelming,” Carol said. “It made you just stop dead in your tracks. It was row after row of cots. And then I found out that was just the first shelter. There were two more.”

The shelters housed over 5,000 people who were there for the “long haul,” she said. More like small cities, they had everything from schools to vaccination clinics to churches.

Carol’s job was to help survivors find new jobs and homes. She matched people with sponsors, in some cases requiring people to move across the country. But there was just nothing left for them in Baton Rouge, she said.

“People had lost absolutely everything,” Carol said. “It’s hard for us to imagine – losing everything. But there were no homes for them to return to. No jobs for them to return to. It wiped out their home, their schools, their place of business. They lost everything – in some cases their entire sense of being.”
Carol Clark, pictured here with Pueblo volunteer Don Espinosa. 

Her deployment lasted three weeks. She had one day off. And her days were 12-14 hours of work. She got sick twice. But every hour spent working was well worth it, she said.

“The reward of finding someone a home – a hope – was invaluable,” she said.

One family in particular stood out to her. The father was a math teacher, the mother also an educator. They had two daughters. And “they just wanted to get out so desperately,” she said. After a few days of interviews and negotiations, she was finally able to find them new jobs and a new home in a different state. After searching for them in the shelter, she finally found them to tell them the good news.

“I had the tickets in my hand when I told them the good news, and they jumped up and gave me a huge hug,” she said. “Their bags were packed in less than five minutes, and they were gone.”

Carol continued: “People were so thankful when I could help them get out of their situation in the shelters – I was happy to help them leave and find a better place to start their new life.”

In response to Katrina and Hurricanes Rita and Wilma --which followed closely -- the Red Cross set up more than 1,400 emergency shelters in 31 states and the District of Columbia, with overnight stays totaling more than 3.8 million. Nearly 68 million hot meals and snacks were served to evacuees and responders. More than 1.4 million families — about 4 million people — received emergency assistance to purchase urgently needed items such as food, clothing, diapers and other essentials. And nearly 250,000 Americans volunteered to support disaster survivors.

“Each day you’re helping someone,” Carol said. “You work with good people doing the Red Cross mission. If you can’t help each other when you’re in need, we’re going down a bad road.”

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