Katrina, Part III, What I Felt



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I received this from a book group I am in. Thought some might like it.</font>




This is one of my dad's friends.


Katrina, Part III, What I Felt

I have seen in this past week more literally overwhelming destruction
* and more humbling nobility of spirit * than ever before in my
life. I have felt more encouraged and affirmed than I can remember
being in a long time. By the end of the week it felt like a badge of
honor, a mark of distinction, to be able to call myself a human.

It began at the Coast Guard operation in Alexandria, Louisiana. The
person in charge there, in certainly the biggest assignment of his life,
and one for which he couldn't possibly be adequately prepared, had
been working 20 hours a day for a week, and we civilians had shown up
uninvited, offering to help with our amphibious vehicle (called a DUKW,
pronounced "duck"). Yet he was as courteous and gracious as he
could be. He showed us around the facility, introduced us to someone
who could figure out how to plug us in, and bragged on his people, who
had also been working 20 hour shifts, and who were also gracious and
attentive and helpful. He told us about a girl in the Coast Guard in
New Orleans who had just the previous week obtained whatever licensing
or credentials are required to do aerial rescues from a helicopter. He
said a typical Coast Guard helicopter pilot may do 20 aerial rescues in
a career, and this girl had done 70 in her first week after qualifying.
So before we got close enough to see the first sign of wind or flood
damage, my heart began to swell with admiration for all of the rescue
and relief workers.

The sun was rising on Saturday morning as we entered the city of New
Orleans, a major port and renowned tourist attraction, a city of a
half-million people, the home of the Superdome and the New Orleans
Saints NFL football team and the French Quarter and Mardi Gras * the
city where the party never stops. The sky was blue, the sun was
shining, the temperature was perfect, the roads were clear.

And the great city was empty, abandoned, desolate. We passed mile
after mile of highways, homes, shopping centers, hotels, offices,
churches and franchised fast-food places without people or traffic. I
have seen a great city skyline standing black against a black sky.
There was nobody. That was the single eeriest experience of my life.
It was like being in some sort of post-apocalyptic movie. I felt the
emptiness, the abandonment, the smallness and the weakness and the
transience of the greatest human achievements. I felt what hell would
be like for me * alone in a world that was built for relationships.

As we roamed the desolate city, I felt the perspective of the looter.
No one else was around. No one seemed to own anything or be in charge
of anything or responsible for anything or able to provide anything or
to care about anything at that location. It was like being the only
person left alive after a world-ending nuclear war. The whole material
remnant of the "developed" world is now just your unexplored urban
jungle for hunting and gathering, which is what you are reduced to in a
place that is, for the moment at least, too primitive even for
agriculture, much less manufacturing. I could see the signs on the
small shops that said things like "We shoot looters" and identify
with the person determined to protect at any cost what was left of his
property, but for the first time in my life, I could at least imagine
what the world looked like to the looter, too.

One of the most remarkable emotional experiences was just the spirit of
the workers. We must have seen agencies from 20 states represented. We
saw every possible law enforcement and military agency from every
possible level of government, as well as countless private organizations
like us. It could have been a bureaucratic nightmare, but every leader
we encountered, no matter how harried and overworked, was kind and
willing to help and be helped. Every one of them offered to share their
food and drink (but not their gasoline), and looked for ways to keep
structure and coordination intact while still incorporating unexpected
offers of help. Every one of them was working as hard as they could to
make it work and get the job done. One Louisiana Parks & Wildlife
leader snapped dismissively at us when we pulled up and tried to ask a
question, but I spoke to him affirmingly and encouragingly and
sympathetically for no more than two minutes before he was nearly in
tears, talking about the challenges that he faced, offering us food and
drink and a place to park our duck. That was probably the first moment
in our adventure when I actually felt useful and valuable. I couldn't
captain the boat and I wasn't a mechanic, but I could reflect to
people their own value in a way that made it possible for them to work
with us.

We found people at the Crossroads Church of the Nazarene like all the
other workers. Their brand new building had sustained damage, but the
pastor and a group of Red Cross volunteers formed a bucket brigade-style
line and helped us unload 217 cases of Similac like it was a party.

I came close to feeling something less than admiration for the actual
people we were trying to help, which is never a good thing. People who
don't want to leave stinking, flooded homes in an abandoned
neighborhood without utilities are not apparently normal people. Most
of them seemed to be kind of marginal in some way. They were physically
sick and weak and frail, or they were a little mentally deficient, or
they were just emotionally unstable. They seemed to be totally out of
touch with reality. We tended to be in a hurry, trying to reach as many
people as possible before sundown. The National Guardsmen and
professional Search and Rescue people who directed us were allowing one
bag per person and no pets. I'll never forget the little old lady who
came to the boat, and then remembered that she had forgotten her Bible,
so we waited for her to go back into her house for her Bible and come
back to the boat.

When we picked up one group of 25, they were actively engaged in their
situation. They didn't seem disconnected at all. When Herb asked for
a head count, one man immediately jumped up and counted for us. Another
told him some of what he needed to know about what was under water, that
we were going through or over. Another wrote our names down on a pad
for the book she hopes to write someday, and to pray for us. They
helped each other sort out their bags when they left the boat for the
big helicopters. One chatted with me about where I was from, and about
relatives he has in this area.

They were people, like me. For all their differences of accent, skin
color and lifestyle, we were linked by an extraordinary circumstance,
and I felt what it means to talk about our "fellow men". We were
part of the same extended family, and when push came to shove, we would
help each other. In the commonest of people is the spark of the divine.
In people for whom it would be easy in other circumstances to feel
contempt or incomprehension there is something admirable and likable and
akin to our own family and heroes.

I had one emotional experience that I can't imagine anyone could ever
understand who hasn't been there. We had only experienced the
emptiness and desolation of the evacuated New Orleans for two days. For
only two days had we had to drive 70 miles to Baton Rouge each day for
gasoline and a restaurant and a place to sleep. But when a Domino's
Pizza place opened up on Monday morning, it was like seeing a loved
one's eyes flutter and open when you had thought they were dead.
It was shocking and exciting. The only drinks they had were two-liter
bottles, and they only had four available toppings: pepperoni,
pineapple, jalepeno and olives, so I ordered a two-liter coke and a
large thin crust pepperoni, pineapple, jalepeno and olive pizza, and it
was very heaven. It wasn't so much the food that was wonderful, as
just the ability to order something, and hear the cash register and
sense hope for a returning normality. And then a man walked in and
announced to the crowd of customers and employees that a service station
down the road at such and such a location actually had gasoline for
sale! This crowd of normal, simple people were a victorious community
in that moment. Domino's Pizza, which was never anything special to
me until then, will henceforth always represent to me the indomitable
human spirit, and the determination to rebuild what is destroyed, and to
revive what is mortally wounded, and to regain normality that
catastrophe has stolen. Civilization is not normal. It is a phenomenal
pinnacle to which humanity claws its way by superhuman effort, and which
it maintains at heroic cost. With the help of my own overactive
imagination, in a mere two days, I caught a glimpse of that truth.

The most impacting emotion of the whole week, though was an odd mixture
of humility and pride. I don't have any military or governmental
affiliation that makes me "official". I don't have any practical
trade skills that makes me "essential". I was just tagging along at
the last moment, doing whatever I could, lowering and raising a ladder,
handing out or loading and unloading boxes of water or formula, rolling
a flat tire out of the way. I can't imagine anyone who had the
opportunity that presented itself to me, choosing differently than I
chose. But for a week, I was treated like a hero.

Driving down the road with a load of baby formula, we were passed on
the left by a white pickup truck from the maintenance department of some
local school district, and the driver gave us a thumbs up sign as he
passed us. A few minutes later a woman in a sedan passed us on the
right, made eye contact with us, and mouthed the words "thank you."
We would stop for gas or a meal in Baton Rouge and someone would hear us
talking to each other, or see something on our truck that suggested what
we were doing, and * male and female, young and old * they would
come up to us, and their eyes would water and their bottom lip would
quiver, and they would say with a thick, choked voice "thank you for
everything you're doing. This is our home. You are our heroes."
And we would get to say: "You're welcome. You're worth it.
Everyone's just doing what they can."

We were looking for a way to reduce the number of trips we would need
to make to Baton Rouge to get gas, so we asked a customer at a gas pump
who had 3 5-gallon gas cans tied on top of her car, where she got them
or if she knew where we could get some. She said we'd probably have
to go all the way to Lafayette, another hour and a half past Baton
Rouge. A couple of minutes later she came back to us and asked us where
we were heading. We said we were doing relief work in New Orleans. She
said: "My home was destroyed, and you're going there to help. You
take my gas cans. And thank you." Of course, she refused payment for

I have never lived before in a culture of such sincere mutual
admiration and gratitude. Surely that's what the church is supposed
to be like, and what heaven will be like. People who were providing us
with food and shelter and a shower were thanking us as we were thanking
them. The National Guardsman who guided us on the boat, who made it
possible for us to do anything useful at all, thank us as we thanked
him, for making it possible. And every night that we went back to the
Baton Rouge church, we'd find a mint or a piece of candy on "our"
bed, with a thank you note * sometimes a printed one from an adult,
but usually one written in crayon by a child from a local Christian
school. The one I saved and brought home with me is written in red
crayon. In a childish scrawl it says:

"Thank you. Thank you so much for coming down here you are so brave.
You are risking everything for us and I want to thank you. You will be
in my prayes. You will always be blessed by God. I hope you get enough
food and rest. Sense you have treated us so well here is a treat for

Victory Academy" * and at the bottom it had a cherry-flavored Jolly
Rancher candy taped to the note.

I came away from this week feeling grateful for a God who is bigger
than the big storm, and grateful that he has made us in his own image,
and allowed me the companionship of creatures who are only a little
lower than the angels.

Brad Mercer
September 10, 2005