Ending her helplessness by helping others out

September 20, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I drive to work yesterday with the sound of screaming in my ears, and then more screaming. This happens on one radio station, and then another. It's the kind of angst that sounds like post-9/11, or post-Katrina. But it isn't. It's the sound of people who need to get a life, because the Baltimore Ravens lost a football game, which is not the same as a national catastrophe. It is a business, or an amusement, and everybody needs to calm down.

I get to the newspaper and put in a telephone call to Gale "Max" Kooser. After the voices screeching on the radio, I need a dose of perspective. Max comes off of Marnat Road, in Northwest Baltimore County, where she sat on her front porch two weeks ago and said she felt helpless. We all do. The difference is, Kooser, who is 60 years old, actually did something about it.

She packed her bags, and she said goodbye to her family. She went to New Orleans, where the language of catastrophe is not about football games but the destruction of lives. She walked into a Red Cross office there and said she would do anything they asked. The Red Cross people said they hadn't had volunteer help in five days, and there were Hurricane Katrina survivors lined up outside who had no idea where to go.

"As bad as you anticipated?" I asked yesterday.

"Controlled pandemonium," Kooser said.

"Even now?"

"Oh, yeah. All day long. There's no way to describe it, really. The temperature gets up in the 90s, and people come in carrying a few things in a small bag, and it's all they have left. It's like they're walking through hell and want to get out as fast as they can."

The news reports say people are starting to move back into some parts of New Orleans, but the top official in charge of the federal response, Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, has been urging delays for a city still largely without power or drinking water or a working 911 system. The bodies of the dead are still being discovered, and the damage to buildings assessed, while the alleged leaders in Washington scramble to make up for lost time and try to rearrange the facts about their dreadfully inept responses.

"We've got a good 60 people lined up outside right now," said Kooser. It was a little past 9 in the morning. Kooser was on her cell phone from the Red Cross office in New Orleans, where she's working in "safety and security, going through shelters, making sure there's enough MPs there, making sure things are calm."

She has a pretty good history, and pretty varied skills. She was a police officer in Georgia some years back, and an officer with the Coast Guard auxiliary. She is a master carpenter. Several weeks back, she sold her business here, Dragonheart Landscaping, and started looking for work, and found employers shying away because of her age.

"When that hurricane hit," she said yesterday, "I said to myself, `What are you gonna do, just sit around the house and do nothing?' There's all kinds of ways to respond to this hurricane. Some go in harm's way, some donate money, some get down on their knees and pray.

"When I got down here, there were people on line bedraggled, scared to death. The line just kept growing. All ages, all colors, all classes. And day after day, this mass confusion, and this stunned look on people's faces. They're trying to get help, and nobody's had answers. We get them to shelters. We give them an emergency phone number to call. But the line's been jammed, so they've got to call at 1 or 2 in the morning - if they've got some kind of phone to us. A lot of 'em don't.

"Sometimes you just cry with them. We had one couple arrive with little twin boys. We had a good hug and cryfest, because there was nothing else we could do at that point. We just said, `Hang in there, say your prayers. It'll level out.'"

Now, she said, hundreds of volunteers are arriving in New Orleans each day. And the volunteers are in turn enlisting other volunteers: Girl Scouts, for example.

"The most moving thing," she said, "was..." Her voice broke for a moment. Behind her, you could hear the sound of many voices, of people without homes still trying to get some assistance.

"A little girl," Max said finally. "About 4 years old, sweet as all get-out. And she didn't have anything to hug. One of the Girl Scouts who's been helping out, about 14 years old, handed her a teddy bear. She walked over to a corner and sat down, and started rocking it back and forth."

At night, Max said, she and other volunteers sleep on cots at a nearby Catholic church. She calls home and talks to her partner, Rosslyn, and their 8-year old son. Then she has a quick meal, goes to sleep, and knows "that you get up in the morning and try to have a good attitude for all these people wondering what each day's going to bring."

Yesterday morning, there were reports that Tropical Storm Rita was headed toward the Florida Keys, and talk that it might take aim at New Orleans. If that happens?

"They told us," said Max, "we drop everything and get the hell out of Dodge." Unlike the Katrina disaster, when so many stayed in place until it was too late.


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