Lending a Hand

One local resident calling that day was Alissa Villarreal, a recent college graduate who lives with her family in New Canaan. “I’ve always been busy with school and other stuff,” says Alissa. “But I was watching the footage of Katrina on television and I thought, ‘I could do something to help.’ It just seemed the right thing to do.”

That was on a Monday. On Tuesday Alissa began her training in disaster relief at the Red Cross centers in Greenwich and Stamford. By late Saturday she was on a plane along with other volunteers from across the country, heading toward those parts of the South that millions had been fleeing.

The worst natural disaster in U. S. history caused an estimated $200 billion in damages, took nearly 1,300 lives and created the largest diaspora of citizens since the Great Depression of the 1930s — more than a million people, by some accounts. Yet it also brought out the very best in the American character. According to the Red Cross, more than 190,000 people from all fifty states made their way to the Gulf to help the evacuees, making it the largest deployment of relief workers in Red Cross history.

“We’ve never had this many people willing to take two weeks of their time to help victims,” says Stacey Hafen, executive director of the New Canaan chapter. “The response was just overwhelming.”

New Canaan sent nine volunteers to the Gulf Coast and the Darien chapter sent sixteen. Other organizations along with thousands of individuals sent food, money and volunteers. Among them was the First Congregational Church of New Canaan, which deployed twenty-one volunteers to help a sister church in Eight Mile, Alabama, feed victims and rebuild houses.

But it was the Red Cross that managed to accomplish what individuals and small groups could not, and what federal and state governments did not. In addition to providing the record number of volunteers, the nonprofit relief organization set up 1,100 shelters in twenty-seven states, served more than 24 million hot meals and 17 million snacks, provided mental health services to some 611,000 victims and, over time, expects to give financial assistance to some 3.7 million survivors.

In the process it also changed the lives of a number of local residents, some, perhaps, forever.

Starting the Process
After filling out paperwork and under-going criminal and Social Security background checks, volunteers had to meet a laundry list of criteria: medical clearance, health insurance, a test to see if they could lift fifty pounds and assurances that they could spend at least two weeks on-site. In addition, these recruits were responsible for obtaining their own foul-weather gear and providing enough food and water to last for two to three days (for Alissa, that meant obtaining new waterproof boots, water bottles, powdered Gatorade and a supermarket shelf
of Carnation Instant Breakfast).

Then, in short order, they underwent Red Cross orientation and disaster training, a process that usually takes place over the course of several months, but was condensed a single weekend or, in some cases, into a single day. Topics included four hours of CPR instruction and classes in  “mass care”; specifically, what is required to feed and shelter huge numbers of people. Also, particpants were briefed on the conditions they might face — from sleeping on cots or on the floor to dealing with insect infestations, extreme heat and no air-conditioning or electricity. Yes, they would be going south, but this would be no vacation.

Working through a travel agency, the national Red Cross office arranged for the volunteers to fly to the Gulf region. And not unlike the very people they were going to help, they had no idea where they might end up, or where they would stay, or what they would do once they got there — wherever “there” was.

Heading Off
Alissa flew first to Cincinnati, where she met up with a group of volunteers from other states with whom she’d be spending the next two weeks. They then caught a connecting flight to Montgomery, Alabama, the organization’s staging area for disaster relief in the South and, in this case, for DR871, the Red Cross code for Hurricane Katrina.

The next day she and her fellow relief workers traveled to Laurel, Mississippi, and settled into makeshift quarters in a church basement. “The women stayed in the bridal prep room, the men down the hall,” she says. “It reminded me of Sunday School at First Presbyterian at home, and that gave me a nice feeling. We were right below the sanctuary. We’d wake up to the organist practicing above us.”

From dawn until long after dusk, the group worked in a nearby indoor horse arena that had been converted into a shelter for hundreds of evacuees, most of them from New Orleans. While the Red Cross usually tries to match volunteers’ skills with victims’ needs, when those needs are overwhelming, as they were in the Gulf, that doesn’t always work. Alissa, who graduated with a degree in music, found herself assigned to manage the shelter’s kitchen, which turned out more than 1,000 meals a day and distributed food to surrounding areas.

“In our training we were advised that we must be flexible,” she says. “I wasn’t really interested in running the kitchen, but it turned out to be fun and it shielded me a little from the wear and tear of dealing with the evacuees.”

Other volunteers arrived to find their jobs custom-tailored to fit their talents. Hugh McManus, the former Darien chief of police who retired last March after thirty-nine years on the force, was assigned to safety and security for Red Cross personnel and volunteers. He, too, flew into Montgomery, then went to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to oversee a service center for refugees. During the next two and a half weeks, he traveled to other hard-hit towns — Laurel, Monticello, Centerville, Waveland — visiting their shelters.

Like Alissa, McManus had seen extensive coverage of Katrina on TV and decided to help. What’s more, he and his wife live in an eight-room house in the Marvin Beach section of Norwalk, fifty feet from the water and six feet above sea level. He felt that he was acquainted with the power of hurricanes.

Still, what he found upon arriving in the region was far more devastating than anything he could have imagined.

“I wasn’t prepared for the devastation,” McManus says. Especially disturbing were the scenes encountered in Waveland, where Katrina had came ashore with a twenty-foot storm surge. “It looked like something out of a war zone — as if someone dropped a bomb. Everything was gone — it was just debris.”

Jimmy Johnson also had trouble grasping the enormity of the damage.

A truck driver and father of four, Johnson was deployed by the Darien chapter to Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. Though underreported on the news, that coastal area sustained perhaps even greater damage than New Orleans. “When we were flying into the area,” Johnson recalls, “all you saw was blue — it was like the plane was upside down. Waveland and Biloxi were totally in ruins.”

Once on the ground, “You saw kids with no shoes,” he says, “and piles of clothes in the streets, clothes in the trees. It was amazing.”

Johnson’s job also matched his skills. With the sun beating down for much of his two-week stint, he drove a big freezer truck filled with ice into East Biloxi in an attempt to cool water supplies.

Assisting Evacuees
To experience something of what the victims of Hurricane Katrina endured, during their stay volunteers were given a day off and encouraged to tour the hardest-hit areas of the region.

Driving through Oak Harbor, Louisiana, near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, McManus came upon a flooded house and a man in his forties who was struggling with waterlogged debris. “I don’t even know his name,” McManus says, “but I spent several hours with him and his wife and child and neighbors, helping clear the heavy stuff he couldn’t handle.”

Others experienced the reality of the situation right where they’d been assigned. After his twelve-hour shift driving the ice truck, Jimmy Johnson washed off the day’s heat and dust in a portable shower and slept on a cot in an airplane hangar on the CB Naval Base in Gulfport. “It was a strange place to be,” he muses, sleeping there alongside the relief trucks, helicopters and some 800 fellow volunteers.

One of them was Sherri Abruzzese, a Realtor with Prudential Connecticut Real Estate in Darien and a mother of three. “Before this, my idea of camping was the Ritz Carlton,” Sherri says wryly. “That first night, at three in the morning, I walked to the Porta-Potties two blocks away. I was carrying a flashlight to make sure there were no snakes in there and I started to cry. ‘I can’t do this,’ I said.

I thought I would die that first night sleeping on a cot.”

By evening of the next day, however, the cot felt like heaven and Sherri had forgotten about the snakes. “I didn’t even look anymore,” she says. “You can get used to anything. What helped me was the people of Biloxi: No one complained — their spirit was amazing.”

Bill Emmons, a seventy-four-year-old retiree from New Canaan, had read that the Red Cross needed an additional 40,000 volunteers and he signed on. He had worked for IBM and an executive search firm for twenty-five years, yet when asked his field of expertise, he answered, “Availability.” A first-time volunteer, he found himself living and working in an exhibition hall in Alexandria, Louisiana, filled with some 600 evacuees, most of them from New Orleans and Lake Charles.

“Talking with the people face-to-face, as opposed to seeing them on TV, was a moving experience,” Emmons says. “They have absolutely nothing — what they’ve got is what they could carry. Their homes are gone, their work is gone, they don’t know where they’re going.”

Ask these area residents to talk about the best part of their experience and they say it was getting to know the other volunteers and the evacuees; ask them about their worst and they all say, “the little ones.”

“The kids really got to you,” says Johnson. “The hardest thing was seeing the kids crying, but worse was looking into their eyes. They knew something was wrong but they weren’t sure what. One night they had beds and now they don’t. That brought tears to my eyes.”

Rising at six in the morning and working in the kitchen until eight at night, Emmons still made time to help carve out a study hall for school-age children in the shelter, and to connect with a woman and her daughter who had lost everything. When pressed for details, he choked up. “I can’t really talk about it,” he says.

During her stay Sherri drove around Biloxi in a Red Cross rescue vehicle, delivering lunches and dinners. “One day I was in a neighborhood that was completely devastated, no one around. Then at the end of a dead-end street I saw a four-year-old girl, standing barefoot in debris. I stopped and knelt down to talk to her and she said, ‘We have no food and the waves took my house.’ So we sat together at a redwood table that was covered with ants and bees and we had a Jell-O snack together and I cried,” Sherri recalls. “After that, I went back every day. I met her parents and on the last day the little girl’s mother said to me, ‘My children will remember the Red Cross for the rest of their lives.’”

“Sorry,” she adds, excusing herself to cry.

Gratifying Experiences
Having volunteers feel overwhelmed isn’t typical, but in this case, no one is surprised. “This event just seemed to hit people,” says Stacey Hafen, the New Canaan chapter’s executive director. “Probably because of the vast devastation and the reality that so many people needed help. I think they got caught up in the emotions. They also experienced a sense of helplessness — they saw so much need and realized there was only so much they could do.”

As a medic in the army, Sandy Redden saw trauma; now as a Wall Street executive he eats pressure for breakfast. Before 9/11 he recertified as an EMT, and later, volunteering with the New Canaan Fire Department and Red Cross, he initiated Community Emergency Response Team training in New Canaan.

On September 12 Redden left his wife and two children at home and headed for Atlanta. There he was appointed the mass-care administrator for the Red Cross, opening and closing shelters as the need expanded and contracted. Over the course of one long night, he was charged with finding shelter for 600 evacuees. He tried three different locations, and it was just after daybreak when he finally found space in a high school. On another occasion a gang had taken over a shelter, turning it into an armed camp, before the National Guard was called in and reclaimed it.

“It was an overwhelming responsibility,” Redden says, “and it seemed like it was never going to end — that you just had to keep doing it. What kills you are the little kids and those people who needed a lot of help. I’ve been around the world and dealt with a lot of situations, but I think my cup is just about full now. The best thing about this experience was leaving and coming home — and the hardest thing was leaving and coming home.”

Once back in Fairfield County, the volunteers found that they had changed. Sherri Abruzzese returned to find her weekend home in the Hamptons flooded from last October’s heavy rains. “Before, I would have been hysterical — ‘Oh, my God! Can you believe this?’ But the people in Biloxi lost everything. They kept saying how blessed they were to have a trailer and their families. It put everything in perspective. These people will be my friends for the rest of my life.”

All of the New Canaan and Darien volunteers say they hope to return to the Gulf; Sherri already plans to go back in January. She has to, she says. “I left my heart in Biloxi.”

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