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Headlines Fade, the Disaster Remains

Regional Communications Director for American Red Cross shares experiences from Hurricane Isaac.

The following is from Sam Kille, Mineola resident and Regional Communications Director for American Red Cross - Greater New York.

Being more than a 1,000 miles away, during a time when politics is grabbing most of the headlines, it’s easy to forget that Hurricane Isaac slammed the Gulf Coast last week. It’s a little harder for me though, because I spent just over a week there — before, during and after landfall.

As an American Red Cross worker for more than five years, I’ve worked a few coastal storms. I actually felt a great sense of deja vu, revisiting many areas of Louisiana that I worked in following Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

Yet this storm definitely was different. The rain and wind sat atop of us for 24 hours straight. The power outages were massive and there were several floods. Places like Plaquemines Parish were under 10 feet of water.

Even after landfall, things didn’t get any better — very unsettling was the news of an evacuation of nearly 50,000 people in Tangipahoa Parish due to a potential dam breach. There’s a certain sense of “what’s wrong with this picture” when headed toward trouble, driving unimpeded on an interstate in one direction, while the opposite is filled with traffic.

Thousands of people turned to the Red Cross for safe shelter because of Isaac. At one point, shelters were open from Florida to Texas. Even a week later, many are still waking up in shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi.

I had the opportunity to visit a shelter in Hammond, La. Half of the nearly 300 evacuees had been there for days. They had heeded government warnings and smartly evacuated their low-lying communities surrounding New Orleans. Yet now, they were tired and worried about whether or not they had homes to return to.

The rest were new evacuees from Tangipahoa—they left their homes with little warning — many with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Most disasters have a heightened sense of emotion and stress — yet the timing of Hurricane Isaac couldn’t have been worse — the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Now, by no means was this a Katrina, but for those who survived it, old wounds were reopened.

While I heard many stories, there is one I cannot shake. “Queen” as she likes to be called, is a waitress at a restaurant in New Orleans. When the city flooded following Katrina, many in her neighborhood sought refuge in a school that was on higher ground. They were even fortunate enough to have a boat they could use to get in and out.

One day, they saw a woman walking through more than four feet of water. She had a child in each arm, their heads resting on her shoulders. Queen and her neighbors kept yelling out, “Stop! We have a boat, we’re coming for you.” The woman kept walking despite their warnings. Unlike the residents who knew where the hazards in the street were, the woman didn’t. In horror, Queen watched as the woman walked over an open storm drain — sucked in, three lives lost in an instant.

Yet despite the fear of what the future holds for many in the Gulf, I did witness many moments of hope. In Westwego, I visited a mobile feeding kitchen being operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, a partner of the Red Cross. There, 35,000 warm meals are being cooked each day and then loaded onto Red Cross emergency response vehicles which fan out into affected communities. And this is only one site!

Even in the shelters, people are adapting and making the best of their circumstances. In Hammond, I watched two dozen kids gleefully set the place settings in the cafeteria for dinner. The shelter manager had found that by putting the kids to work, it cured their boredom (after all, no TV or video games) and gave them a sense of community.

And that’s what the American Red Cross is all about — bringing people together to help them get through the worst day, or sometimes weeks, of their lives.

Sadly, the damage in the Gulf is far greater than most probably realize. While the Red Cross is doing all it can, it truly needs your help. Shelters remain open and vital supplies are still being distributed. Please consider a donation today by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS, or by texting REDCROSS to 90999, to give $10.

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