Thursday, September 08, 2005

Impressed with the Red Cross

On Sunday, September 4th, I received a call from Hands on Nashville, a volunteer organization I work with from time to time. They were trying to round up volunteers very quickly for a project in conjunction with the Red Cross, receiving and directing a few planeloads of evacuees from New Orleans. Having watched the tragedy unfold for a week feeling sickened and helpless, I agreed immediately to help in any way I could.

I arrived at the Red Cross on Charlotte and was directed to go, with other volunteers, to the Smyrna air force base, where the planes would be arriving later . While everything was very whirlwind and rushed in that first hour, it turned out to be a case of "hurry up and wait." The plan changed multiple times before and after we arrived in Smyrna, and no one seemed to be able to get a clear sense of when the first plane would arrive, or how many people would be on it. This disorganization could be interpreted either as a lack of organization or as a simple result of the sheer magnitude of the disaster overwhelming all resources. I'm sure there will be endless discussions for years to come about who was responsible for the official and charitable response (or lack thereof), and I'm equally sure that the answer will never truly be known.

I do know that I met a Red Cross volunteer who had been awake since Saturday morning. Sometime Saturday afternoon, she had been told of the imminent arrival of evacuees, and she had begun putting together the supplies needed. She was frantic and exhausted, but she had done an excellent job.

About 300 evacuees arrived that day, on two planes. They were tired, dirty, some were injured, sick, or in desperate need of medication. But all were grateful to be on ground where a dry bed was promised. The Red Cross (and possibly other organizations involved - FEMA, TEMA, and the Air National Guard were all present, and I don't really know much about who was in charge of what) had put together a very well-thought-out reception room for the evacuees. There was medical triage as they exited the plane. They were greeted by the more than 50 volunteers on-hand with cold water, hot food (the two things they were most excited to see), snacks, personal toiletries, clean towels, clean clothes (hospital scrubs), toys for the kids, books, and yes, Bibles. All items were appreciated, because these people mostly walked in with absolutely nothing in their hands, even those with very young children in tow. I was impressed with the selection of supplies. I wouldn't have thought of toys, but apparently a three-year-old who has been through a week of hell-on-earth can still be delighted by a kazoo. Isn't that a miracle?

The evacuees were housed on the base in Smyrna, where they will ostensibly remain for the duration of their refuge, which could be months by all accounts from NOLA. I was heartened by the generosity of the volunteers who had made this Tennessee hospitality possible, and I was humbled to be a part of it.