Grappling with catastrophe

SAN ANTONIO — I grabbed my press badge, some dolls and Sunday newspapers to give away as I headed out to Kelly Air Force Base, Sept. 4, to interview the evacuees from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Despite news of citywide collections of food and clothing, the storm survivors that I met were still caught in the midst of an unbelievable catastrophe, the magnitude of which I could scarcely imagine.

Most victims, while grateful for the help they had received, felt that the military had not been alerted until days after the storm and should have been alerted days before, once the evacuation was ordered. The poor of New Orleans, mostly African Americans, were left behind, without cars, gas or money. The as yet uncounted losses include a large number of elderly and sick people for whom the president has tragically failed his responsibility as commander-in-chief.

I walked into one building. It was clean smelling. The air was cool. Soldiers, Red Cross workers and community volunteers were running errands, taking in and registering people, helping families locate other family members. Volunteer nurses and military personnel were helping the disabled to bathrooms. Ambulances moved back and forth in a constant flow. The mood was somber and quiet, except for a circle that was a prayer service.

Nearby, colossal size tents were being erected. A total of 20,000 people were expected here and this was just the beginning.

Roy Smith, 48, of New Orleans had been airlifted by helicopter. Smith was brought to San Antonio by Air Canada, where he was met by Australian teams who brought him to Kelly AFB. He was impressed by the internationalism of his rescuers.

A gray haired man, Charles McGee, breathed slowly on his oxygen. He had fought in Vietnam and was upset at all the U.S. military in Iraq. He talked numbly of the floating bodies, but said he had seen all this before in Vietnam.

A couple in their 30s, Charles and Gwen Johnson, had swum to safety and walked a long way to the New Orleans airport. They were brought here, and now both wore badges as “volunteers.” When I said that in the same situation I would probably have died, Gwen Johnson answered, “We didn’t do it, God gave us the strength.” She saw the tears in my eyes and gave me a hug. “We have strength we don’t even know,” she said.

Tyrone Williams Jr. was still searching for his father, who was perhaps in another building. Some teenagers wandered in little groups, unnaturally quiet.

Viola Joiner was with her grandchildren Carilyn, 8, Lawrence, 3, and Angel, 6, from the time they plunged into the water, then got into a boat, and then climbed on a roof, where they were later rescued by a helicopter. Joiner was still looking for two daughters, two sons and six grandchildren.

Al Campbell is a gaunt, tall Black man about 50, with a college degree in education. He called the Superdome “a tomb,” with no water and no one allowed out. “We need to do what King did,” he said, referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the mass nonviolent civil disobedience movement he led for civil rights. “They just left us there! People were stealing just to get food and water.”

Annette Parker, a Black woman about 65, had been rescued by helicopter from Methodist Hospital in New Orleans only a few days after major abdominal surgery. She was very weak. With the help of a volunteer and a Red Cross nurse, we obtained a wheelchair to take her to a bathroom. She looked forward to a hot meal, which she had not had for over a week. Post-surgical drainage was seeping through her clothes and I had the nurse check her wound, which was taped together with Band-Aids! Thankfully she had been given antibiotics. She was shortly to be given a sterile surgical dressing and brought to a hospital.

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