USA: Katrina continues to change lives a year later
Wednesday, September 06, 2006 - One year ago, American Red Cross volunteer Kym Bushong was drawing on her background as a wedding arranger to stage one of the highest-profile events of the season-the nuptials of two New Orleans evacuees in front of more than 1,000 of their closest new friends and media from all over the world in the Houston Astrodome shelter. Boxing titlist Evander Holyfield escorted the bride down the aisle.
"Before, my focus was on business, working, on my little circle. Now my focus is on volunteer work," she said. "I learned a lot about the human spirit; I learned a lot about the resilience of people. But, I also learned a lot about myself and I've grown from that experience."
As the nation marks the first anniversary of the 2005 "wicked sisters," hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, it's clear that monumental season left a profound impact not only on the people of the Gulf Coast but also on people from all over the country who chose to help through the Red Cross.
In Crawfordsville, Ind., Bushong still helps decorate for weddings; she turned her distributorship for Little Debbie snack cakes over to her daughter. But, "now my time is filled with volunteer work with the Red Cross," she said. She trains new volunteers for her local chapter and serves on the Disaster Action Team. "I respond to the home fires. I've seen the difference we make in the lives of the people we serve."
And, she's stayed in touch with the new Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Smothers as they make their way toward the future, together, back in New Orleans. "They're happy," she reported. It's one of Bushong's proudest accomplishments.
Meanwhile, veteran Red Cross disaster volunteers Barb and Dean Beck of Greenwich, Ohio, have spent the past year much as they have the previous 10, responding to emergencies around the corner and across the country.
On Aug. 29-the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast-the Becks were headed for the Red Cross national call center in Falls Church, Va. Last fall they spent months in that massive facility as part of the team that answered hundreds of thousands of phone calls seeking information, assistance and reassurance. This time, they were part of the call-up for Ernesto.
Even after responding to some two dozen disasters-including flooding in their own northern Ohio chapter in June-the Becks can't quite leave their Hurricane Katrina-Rita-Wilma thoughts behind.
"Where are those people now? Where are they living? Will they ever be able to go home?" Barb Beck still wonders.
"I'm concerned about the mental health impact," Dean Beck said. "This will be an issue this season, as those folks down there [on the Gulf Coast] struggle to put their lives back together while they look over their shoulder, wondering if another storm will hit them. It's kind of an on-going 'stealth disaster' that the Red Cross and other agencies are helping communities deal with."
Pat Howard of Sandusky, Ohio, has carried on her own project to support the emotional and physical recovery of hurricane survivors she met in Florida on her first disaster relief operation.
"I'm constantly in touch with people in Belle Glade. I send clothes down there to the Baptist church where I got to know the older mothers and I check on how they're doing.
"And New Orleans-I can't help think about New Orleans, especially now," she said as the media filled with anniversary retrospectives. "I hurt on the inside: So many people are misplaced, so many people will never go home, so many lost their lives.
"When I saw the hurricanes, saw what was happening down there, God said 'That coulda been Sandusky', and I knew what to do. I knew to put my hands to work. The only thing I regret is that I didn't do it sooner."
Howard closed her card and gift shop to become a Red Cross volunteer, first as a family service caseworker for Wilma survivors in Florida, and then with a mobile feeding team in New Orleans.
"It knocked me clean off my feet," she said of the devastation she saw. "Being able to hug on people, being able to minister to people-that was what I was meant to do."
As national liaison for faith-based initiatives for the Red Cross, David Belton is leading a new push to empower and partner with diverse populations - particularly through African-American churches.
"The word 'Katrina' means to cleanse, to purify," Belton said. "So what we're trying to do at the American Red Cross is cleaning up those things that we weren't doing such a good job at and trying to make it better."
One year into the post-Katrina era, Belton's message is two-pronged:
Every American, no matter their situation, needs to shake off the "sitting duck" mindset that would have them "waiting for someone else to come and save them." The Red Cross is here to help each and every American prepare for, prevent and-if necessary-respond to disaster.
Also, the Red Cross is ready to help any congregation serve its community in time of need, by training members in sheltering, mass care and other disaster response. At the same time, Belton emphasizes, the Red Cross does not discriminate, and he encourages faith organizations to adopt the same "open door" attitude.
In Little Rock, Ark., Alan Gibson sees the fruits of an "open door."
The community affairs director for the American Red Cross of Greater Arkansas is impressed with the tens of thousands of "new friends and neighbors" who found refuge in his state after the storms.
"I think we've seen a very positive impact from the presence of the evacuees," he said, noting that people from every walk of life-not just the poor-were displaced by the hurricanes of 2005.
Arkansans opened their hearts and their communities to the survivors, Gibson said. More than 3,000 turned to the Red Cross to volunteer, and many of those have continued to be involved with the organization. He encourages that generosity.
"For some people, giving is writing a check; for some people, it's a donation of food or clothing. But I think the most important donation somebody can give is the gift of their time.
"Relief requires hands: Sometimes it requires hands to unload a truck. Sometimes it requires hands to set up a cot. Sometimes those hands are just to hold somebody's hands and to give them a shoulder to lean on and to tell them the sun will come up in the morning and it's going to be OK."
Across the nation, those hands belong to hundreds of thousands of Red Cross volunteers and employees who respond to more than 70,000 disasters every year. The vast majority of those disasters are home fires-which have a profound impact on the families involved. And then there are the monumental disasters-like the hurricanes of 2005-that leave an imprint on the hands and the hearts of everyone who cared.
For information about volunteer opportunities with the American Red Cross close to home or across the nation, visit Redcross.org or contact your local Red Cross chapter.
Eilene E. Guy is an American Red Cross disaster public affairs volunteer from Sandusky, Ohio. She retired as assistant managing editor of the local newspaper and devotes herself to communications and governance for several nonprofits.
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is provided at no cost, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. The Red Cross also supplies nearly half of the nation's lifesaving blood. This, too, is made possible by generous voluntary donations. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. To donate blood, please call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE (1-800-448-3543), or contact your local Red Cross to find out about upcoming blood drives..
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