by Major Cedric Hills
Hurricane Katrina approaches New Orleans
clean-up kits are loaded by volunteers at the LaPlace distribution site
a resident of St Bernard’s Parish, New Orleans, tries to salvage some belongings
families arrive for assistance at the disaster drive-thru, LaPlace
Major Joseph Wheeler and volunteer helper Gail Gaylezorad at LaPlace
a resident of St Bernard’s Parish, New Orleans, returns home for the first time since the hurricane struck
MY appointment takes me to many disaster-hit areas around the world. The sense of horror that I felt on initial visits has waned and, sadly, the things I see now I have usually seen many times before.
My recent visit to America’s Gulf Coast brought a jolt back to reality. The United States of America is a huge country and the oft-repeated joke is that everything is bigger there. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on 29 August 2005 it hit with devastating force, with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. If this wasn’t either big enough or bad enough, less than four weeks later more than a million people had to get out of the way as Hurricane Rita approached the same coastline.
Rita’s centre slammed into the extreme south-west coast of Louisiana near Sabine Pass, Texas, with winds of 120 mph. I saw the immediate aftermath and as I drove through one devastated community after another I found myself quietly chanting the phrase, ‘I don’t believe it!’ as one eye-opening scene led to another.
The Salvation Army’s response was huge and impressive. I recall reading the news releases emanating from USA Southern Territorial Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, marvelling at the number of support vehicles and canteens that had been mobilised along with the hundreds of officers, soldiers and volunteers who had already committed to helping those communities expected to suffer the effects of this catastrophe.
Once the relief operation swung into effect my heart went out not only to those who had seen the results of a lifetime of work taken from them by the forces of nature, but also to those who were tasked with managing the mammoth relief effort.
At the end of September, just a few days before Rita hit, I travelled to Washington to link up with John Berglund, The Salvation Army’s National Emergency Disaster Services Coordinator for the USA. For almost two weeks it was my privilege to shadow John as he worked to support teams, visit field locations and liaise with national government officials.
Mounting a response of this magnitude is a huge challenge. As I write, it’s almost three months since the first impact but teams are still in the field and life is far from back to normal. During this time teams of relief workers have been drawn from all around the USA – gathered together at huge base camps and distribution centres located across three states.
The logistical challenges of regularly rotating teams numbering hundreds of workers are enormous. I witnessed the value of training programmes and the benefits that implementing the ‘incident command structure’ (ICS) brings. ICS is a management system built around nine key positions and taught to all those engaged in disaster relief. By using this system workers know their role and their place within the management structure – and as new teams arrive to replace exhausted workers heading home for a well-deserved rest they seem to slot seamlessly into the various management functions.
Arriving at the base camp in LaPlace I couldn’t help but be staggered by the size of the operation. Ironically, in contrast to the huge size of the programme, the incident commander (head of the whole operation) must be one of The Salvation Army’s shortest officers! Major Joseph Wheeler may be small of physical stature, but what a powerhouse of a person! Joseph, a corps officer from Independence, Missouri, brought a real pastor’s heart into the command centre.
As he showed me around, giving me my first introduction to disaster relief USA-style, his eyes regularly filled with tears as he described the compassionate work of his huge team. At his insistence, all leaders have to be on a rota to work on the canteens – because ‘they need to stay close to reality’.
The operation may be enormous, but individuals matter to Joseph. He told me about the local church members who came to the base camp each night to pick up the dirty laundry of the work force, taking it to their homes and bringing it back again the next day washed and pressed. He called them ‘God’s people’ – and people matter to Joseph.
It was only his third day in charge but he had already reorganised the operations centre to create an enhanced personnel department, giving even more emphasis to pastoral care to those working on the front line.
Joseph introduced me to Gail Gaylezorad, a volunteer helper from Minneapolis. Gail had stunned her husband of 25 years by announcing she was off for a two-week deployment to help the people of New Orleans – in 25 years of marriage they had never been parted for longer than a day. But her heart was touched by the suffering in New Orleans and she felt she had to be there.
Her place in ‘The Palace’ – the name fondly given to a huge tent in which the 500 volunteer workers sleep – is an inflatable queen-size air bed. It may be basic accommodation but Gail praised the way that she and the other volunteers were cared for. ‘It’s not luxury but we want for nothing – and the food from the Southern Baptists is great!’
When you see The Palace and the rows of beds lined up, accommodating 300 men and 200 women, you realise that volunteering for disaster service with The Salvation Army is not something for the faint-hearted. Air-conditioned they may be, but these workers aren’t cosseted.
Geoffrey Wright, a 43-year-old Salvation Army adult rehabilitation centre (ARC) employee from Austin, Texas, welcomed me with a beaming smile and firm handshake as he proudly showed me the ‘disaster drive-thru’.
a BIG response
Figures released by the Community Relations and Development Department of The Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territorial Headquarters, Atlanta, Georgia, demonstrate the scale of the response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
The immediate needs of survivors were dealt with by providing shelter, food, water, ice, cleaning supplies, baby supplies and hygiene products.
At the end of November 2005, just three months after the first hurricane hit New Orleans, the USA Southern Territory – comprising 15 states and the District of Columbia – published these details of its relief effort up to that point:
|5,324,043 hot meals were served, along with 7,516,515 sandwiches, snacks and drinks.|
|The Salvation Army provided 178 mobile feeding units (canteens) and 11 field kitchens, each capable of producing 20,000 hot meals a day – including eight Southern Baptist kitchens – in the many areas affected.|
|157,957 cleaning kits (broom, bucket, mop and detergent) and 185,363 food boxes (groceries) were distributed.|
|The Salvation Army provided pastoral care to 238,134 people and registered and began helping with 263,608 social services cases.|
|The Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) received more than 61,000 inquiries and linked up 25,508 survivors.|
|Salvation Army officers, employees and volunteers served for a total of 751,062 hours.
The Salvation Army assisted a total of 1,368,603 individuals.|
Having witnessed disaster responses all around the world I thought there were few surprises left – but in a country boasting drive-thru fast food restaurants, banks and even funeral parlours, I suppose it should be no surprise that the LaPlace base camp boastedits own drive-thru disaster distribution.
Although not yet midday, the line of cars already waiting outside the compound stretched for a mile around the block. I watched as the gates opened and the drivers made their way down the lot, stopping at each section to pick up hot meals, clean-up kits, buckets and detergent, ice, drinking water and food rations.
The smiles and handshakes as each team member loaded the vehicles provided reassurance that help was on hand. Every need was met with courtesy and care.
Later that day I was driven into the city of New Orleans. Salvation Army canteens served refreshments on the main street outside hotels that would have been full of wealthy tourists just weeks earlier.
The city was still eerily quiet, but at each checkpoint our guide stopped and offered refreshments to the police or military guards. The standing of The Salvation Army within this community is high, and it was humbling for me to bask in the reputation earned by those fine volunteers who manned the canteens.
St Bernard’s Parish (the 9th ward) was still officially closed but a nod and a wave to the officers manning the checkpoint saw us politely waved through.
As we toured the area, silently taking in the sheer scale of destruction and damage, we came across an elderly man and woman. She tried hard to hold herself upright with her walking frame, while he vainly attempted to break down the door to their home. We stopped and John quickly went to help.
Using an old shovel the front door was quickly smashed open and a few precious mementos were rescued. A cuddly toy still wrapped in plastic had been given to the woman as a farewell gift when she retired from her teaching post a few years ago. To most people it was an insignificant item but for her it was a precious memory. We stood with them a while; a few tears and words of comfort exchanged.
The numbers quoted when reporting this disaster are huge. We talk in terms of millions of people being affected – yet this isolated incident reminded me it’s about individual people. Impacted family members, willing helpers, caring leaders. At my first ‘drive-thru disaster’, at the largest disaster response I’ve ever seen, what did I learn again? Simply – people matter.
Major Cedric Hills, The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services Coordinator, has found himself in the immediate aftermath of many major disasters. But, as he tells All the World, nothing prepared him for the massive scale of disaster relief USA-style.