Monday, August 24, 2009

Hurricane Katrina

Walking up to the Reunion Arena, I only then got a sense of how many people were impacted by the devastating Hurricane Katrina.

There were people in wheel chairs riding up and down the sidewalks, young kids playing in a corner, younger couples waiting in line for freshly barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, as well as retired couples who were just sitting around, waiting. But what could they possibly be waiting for? Are they waiting to go back home? Perhaps they’re deciding whether to relocate to Dallas.

The looks on their faces were unforgettable. Most had smile on their faces, but their eyes spoke volumes. The eyes told me that their owners were weary, many were reminiscing, others were plain emotionless, and they were all ready for a significant change for the better.

I made my way to the Red Cross volunteer desk and asked how I could help. Another Red Cross volunteer who assumed that she ruled the world since she actually sat behind the desk said “We don’t need any volunteers right now.” She then glanced down, as her straw hat slid down her forehead, and proceeded to give me a form to fill out. Then without looking up, continues in her falsely acquired authoritative tone of voice, “Fill out this form, we’ll call you when we need you.”

I fought the urge to invite her back to reality. I took a breath, put on a smile and proceeded to explain to her that I was there to talk to a refugee and asked if I could go inside the Reunion Arena.

Perhaps she thought I was either a complete idiot, or that I must be hard of hearing. In any case, she raised her head as her straw head slid backwards this time, squinted here eyes from the sun, and in a raised and somewhat offended tone of voice tells me, “The Reunion Arena is like their hotel…” at this point, her overheated sidekick picks up the conversation, “Would you just walk into a hotel and ask to go chat with someone in their hotel room?”

“No…” I said, as he cut me off again, “Well then how do you expect to get in?”

They pointed to a crowd of people sitting outside and said “There’s a lot of them out here, talk to someone there.”

I got somewhat offended by the way they spoke, but I brushed myself off and made my way to the crowd of people sitting in the shade.

Little did I know that this would be the most incredible experience of my life.

I walked up to a man, in his mid 40s. He just sat there, staring. His red and black baseball cap barely covered his eyes, which looked empty. His tall, slender body was limp; his palm cradled his chin as he rested just gazing into the distance.

“Hi.” I said, in a soft yet positive voice. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes, and smiled.

“Hi darlin’” he replied, in a very hopeful tone.

I introduced myself, and shared with him some things about myself. Then I asked if I could learn more about him and his experience with Hurricane Katrina.
“Absolutely, darlin’” he replied, “pull up a chair.”

Mr. Webster began, “It was Saturday evening…” He pedaled his bike as fast as he possibly could. The strong wind and the stinging rain were hitting his face and eyes, making it that much harder to see. His body was soaking wet, yet he kept going.

“Hurry!!!” a man yelled from a booth on the bridge. The storm was getting worse and he needed to raise the bridge; which became the only way out of the city that became Hurricane Katrina’s playground.

According to Webster, he was the last person to cross the bridge out of New Orleans.

He didn’t think the situation would get this bad. Suddenly a mandatory evacuation was issued, yet Mr. Webster didn’t think much of it. He stayed home for another hour until it was announced that all the bridges were closing.

“It’s time for me to go,” thought Webster. He got on his bike, and left.

“The line at the Superdome seemed like it was a mile long,” said Webster. He waited in the rain, but finally got inside.

Inside the Superdome, Webster reunited with his sister-in-law and her family, as well as his fiancé who evacuated earlier.

Mr. Webster spent four days at the Superdome. By Wednesday the situation inside the Dome got much worse. At one point someone started shooting, and then a smoke bomb was set off.

“It seemed like the place was on fire,” said Mr. Webster.

People were getting restless, and everything was hectic. To add to the chaos, the water in the dome was cut off, and the toilets backed up.

“The smell was indescribable,” said Webster, “There was urine, and body waste…” he paused as he leaned forward, dropped his head in his hands and shook it as if to erase a picture off an etch-a-sketch.

Slowly raising his head, Webster continued, “I have good memories embedded in my head. I erased my bad days.”

On Thursday afternoon, busses transported the refugees from the Superdome to shelters in nearby states.

After a stop in Beaumont, Mr. Webster and his family were en route to Houston. Mr. Webster’s bus, however, was re-routed to Dallas while his fiancé and the rest of his family were headed to Houston.

Upon arriving to Dallas, “I just bowed down and kissed the ground,” said Mr. Webster. “I thank God its over.”

The Reunion Arena became Mr. Webster’s new temporary home, a home he has to share with over a thousand other refugees.

“The arena is like their hotel,” explained a Red Cross worker.

Although the arena doesn’t proved half of the amenities a hotel does, Mr. Webster doesn’t complain.

“He has a very cordial attitude, and appreciates what everyone does,” said Yolanda Williams, who volunteers at the arena daily and got to know Mr. Webster.

One day Williams took Mr. Webster with her to a family dinner. During dinner, Mr. Webster heard Amazing Grace playing on TV.

“He broke down and started to cry,” said Williams teary eyed, “Then asked if he could hug me.”

“Sometimes I get by myself, start thinking about the hurricane and start crying,” said Webster. “Just hearing their voices gives me strength.”

Webster got excited when he talked about going to Houston to spend his birthday with fiancé.

“I can’t wait to see my fiancé, I miss her pretty smile.”

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