The American Red Cross responding to need.


Plane arrived from New Orleans with evacuees.

They knew it was coming. Satellites broadcast images as it crossed Florida on August 25 heading into the Gulf of Mexico, gathering strength as it turned north.  Hurricane Katrina reached the Gulf Coast on Monday, August 29, 2005.

Wind at 175 mph and an onslaught of water from New Orleans to Biloxi wiped out infrastructure. Sufficient food supplies and fresh water were no longer available. When the dikes failed 80% of New Orleans was under water and 1800 people died.

Citizens climbed to their roofs awaiting rescue that never came. The poorer neighborhoods were particularly hard hit. Pets suffered. The Red Cross has shelters which are typically able to handle tornadoes, floods, fires, etc. But this was bigger than they were designed to handle.

The national Red Cross operates Call Centers throughout the country offering help. In Indianapolis, a Call Center was established with more than a dozen phones and computers. Volunteers were instructed to stay focused. In the first few weeks, over 400 people volunteered at the Indianapolis Call Center answering 25,087 calls.

The first two days were busy with calls about the wind and rain, and later about rising water. I talked to several people who were trapped on the second floor with the water rising. They were frightened and desperate. We took the addresses and forwarded them to the Emergency Rescue number we were given. Did it help? I hoped. I don’t know. Later, one woman called asking if I could find her a hotel room within half an hour’s drive of New Orleans. She had no electricity, and I knew more about conditions where she was located than she did.

The Call Center volunteers could give each caller information that was specific for their location. They could advise them which road to take for escape, and where they might find shelter, food, or water. By the fourth day, we received calls about where to find insulin, heart medicine, diapers, and formula. There was terror and despair in the callers’ voices.

Without electricity, people could not recharge their cell phones, gas stations could not pump gas. Many people with limited incomes buy only the gas they could afford that day, so they could not drive far anyway. We were told they were not refugees; they were evacuees. As Disaster Mental Health workers, we helped the volunteers deal with the sadness and helplessness that overwhelmed those seeking help.

The New Orleans Superdome was downtown near the river; it was on higher ground and safe. About 25,000 people fled there to escape the waters. The Superdome can handle large numbers of people, but not under these circumstances. Food was scarce, and running water, sewers and suitable toilets were lacking.

On the fifth day several airlines flew people from New Orleans to somewhere, anywhere. The first flights went to Texas.

Two planeloads landed in Indianapolis to be welcome by a throng, including the mayor and the media. I was one of six Red Cross workers who greeted evacuees on the tarmac.

First, evacuees were directed to a decontamination unit set up by the Wayne Township Fire Department. Here they undressed and were washed down. Next, they were given 2-piece fleece workout suits, either S, M, or L. (No underwear yet.)

I asked the women how they felt being washed down while naked by the firemen. They were so glad to be bathed and free of sewage it didn’t matter. To them, the men encased in hazmat outfits were not ‘people’. They were so glad to be cleaned little else mattered.

Typical Emergency Shelter

A clinic was set up inside the International Terminal and immediate health needs were managed and the sickest were taken to a hospital. Sack lunches were provided, people were registered, and everyone was taken by bus to the 4-H buildings at the State Fairgrounds.

Besides those who arrived by plane, there were many people who drove north from places on the coast until they found a relative or until they ran out of gas. Few relatives were able, because of space or finances, to accommodate the evacuees. So, the newspaper and the TV directed these folks to go to the 4-H shelter at the Fairgrounds as well.

At this shelter 4” mattresses were supplied. There was a commercial kitchen, and fast food was available. People were taken to the Goodwill, for needed clothing. The evacuees said they felt as if they were in heaven. This was despite lack of privacy, the police presence, and the unknown future.

Red Cross shelters are orderly by design. The evacuees were exhausted. After chaos, order feels safe. “Somebody knows what to do.” – and they were grateful.

Contributed by:  Marion Harcourt, MSW, ACSW
Disaster Mental Health Red Cross volunteer


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