Updates from the field on Katrina relief efforts

Red Cross volunteer offers first-person accounts of her work on Gulf Coast

Baltimoresun.com Exclusive

hurricane season


Editor's note: Vera Zlidar is a researcher and writer for Johns Hopkins Population Reports. She is volunteering with the Central Maryland chapter of the Red Cross for three weeks in the Gulf Coast region.

Tuesday, Sept. 27, from Biloxi, Miss.: I've been "on duty" in the shelter for about 24 hours now. Where do I start? On the one hand, I feel like it's really slow because there aren't very many residents here. On the other hand, already I've seen amazing people and heard amazing stories. What would it be like if there were hundreds of people here? Perhaps I wouldn't get a chance to get such a good feel for who they really are.

Notice it's the people, not the work I'm doing, that I speak of. That's the case whether you're talking to medical folks on the ground seeing 1,000 people a day three days after the hurricane, or the folks doing the mundane, everyday things like throwing out garbage, cleaning cots, floors, keeping an eye on the coffee pot.

The people using this shelter at the moment are primarily retirees. As such, they have a long life history from which to view the hurricane -- not to mention very interesting stories. What I've found most surprising is the wisdom and intellect coming from some of these men (there are very few women here today). I guess I shouldn't be surprised at their penchant for waxing philosophical given what they've just lived through.

This first thing everyone asks you -- whether by Red Cross staffers or people affected by the hurricane -- is "Where are you from?" As if by fate, the first man I met in our shelter is, you guessed it, from Baltimore. He's been reminiscing about the places he used to raise all kinds of hell in, and I tell him about what changes have been made in the city.

He'll ask me if this place or that place is still open. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. It upsets him sometimes when they aren't. He's been thinking about moving back to Baltimore, but then he'll look at me and say, "It's changed too much. Why should I want to go back there for now?"

He's mentioned more than once how happy he would have been had I come down with a huge pack of crabcakes from Phillips and has asked me to mail him down a pack when I get home. Imagining the pleasure it would bring down here in the land of spaghetti, green beans and chili, I must.

Speaking of Baltimore, at least 30 people from the Central Maryland chapter of the Red Cross were all shipped down to headquarters and then later shipped out to Biloxi on the same day. In headquarters, it wasn't unusual for people to shout "Baltimore!" when trying to get someone's attention (we still hadn't learned one another's names). B'more was very well-represented. And very well-received, which makes you feel damn good so far from home.

Today, a woman came in with two children, a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old. While she dealt with logistics -- filling out paperwork, chasing down various agencies via telephone -- I took a break and spent about two hours being silly, running around, riding little bikes. (One guy came up today and donated a bike and a motorized motorcycle thing -- just said he's cleaning out his garage and thought the kids here might appreciate it. There are too many "kindness of strangers" stories around here to discuss.)

I got the feeling that they hadn't had the opportunity to be kids too much these last few weeks as folks were struggling to decide what to do with their lives after Katrina. So, I went out of my way to cater to the little girls' whims. In a way, I was able to get away from the weight of the disaster for a few hours, too.

As they were leaving, I wished this woman luck. She replied, "I got my luck already today, you were so good to my kids while I was trying to work all these things out," and she gave me long hug.

A little kindness goes a long way around here. The amazing thing is, you witness kindness on both the smallest and grandest scale, everywhere you look.

Saturday, Sept. 24, from Montgomery, Ala.: The first thing I saw was an enormous parking lot full of trucks. It's as if every rental truck in the area was commissioned for the relief efforts. Most bore the stamp of [a] rental company. The only indication of their intended use was a small, haphazardly slapped sticker bearing a red cross.

Entering [Red Cross] headquarters -- a massive, closed-down, K-Mart -- was more impressive than the army of trucks. The inside of the building was stripped bare, an ideal space for the massive logistical effort required to dispatch the relief services. Various sections have mushroomed throughout: community services, mental health, logistics, communication, family services, mass distribution, the canteen, the sleeping area, the warehouse with palette after palette of supplies. The only indication of the building's former life is a smattering of signs: fitting Rooms, electronics, Famous Eddies Legendary Foods.

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