Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hurricane Katrina and the Snakes

When it came time to go to New Orleans for the Hurricane Katrina disaster, even seasoned pros quit their jobs and refused to go. Most were like, “Hell no, I ain’t going to New Orleans! There’s no law and order, people are shooting each other in the streets. You could get raped and murdered in about a minute, plus there’s talk of a cholera epidemic. No amount of money is worth risking my life.”

From my home in the country, I spoke to more than a few disaster relief workers and they all said about the same thing. It was a tough decision for me. I was a single woman living in a lovely home in the country. There’s probably not a more opposite situation than moving from a quiet home in the country to New Orleans right after Katrina. But I had a mortgage to pay and no husband to help out with it so my bottom line was the money. Disaster work pays good.

I packed my things and drove to Houston, Texas, the home of our very first field office. FEMA had decided that Houston was the closest big city where they could set up their disaster operations but still be out of harm’s way. They do make some effort to keep workers out of danger. Houston was overflowing with disaster refugees and workers who had come from all over America and Canada to help out with the relief efforts.

The media was there too. They always get the best or only hotels rooms available. Once you arrive, you’re supposed to go directly to a field office and check in. Next you get a briefing and all your equipment. This situation was much different than other disasters though. New Orleans and most of the Gulf Coast was flooded in about 15 to 20 feet of the nastiest water you ever saw. When those levees broke, the whole area went underwater within a few hours.

All the people and animals there who had survived the powerful hurricane were now threatened with drowning. The Superdome was still filled with thousands who were tired, angry, hungry and scared. That story has been told hundreds of times now but my sources say that Americans never were told the real truth about what went on there. In some countries overseas they saw and heard a much different tale than the one we were given here in the states.

Thousands of disasters workers sat around their hotel rooms for 10 days waiting on the flood waters to recede. We saw the same frightening pictures everyone else was seeing and many of us were doubting our decisions to work this one. I returned to my home in Greenville, Texas and set up a home office there.

FEMA was already getting thousands of applications for assistance but since we couldn’t travel to the area, they were trying to figure out other ways we could get assistance to the victims and these alternatives included initial emergency payments of several hundred dollars. With the government though, there is always a lot of paperwork to be done before you can get any type of assistance. I contacted my applicants and told them what types of documents they needed to fax me and then worked their applications from a home office.

Sadly, that didn’t last long. After about 10 days, we began to hear that the flooding was going down and that the military and National Guard was formulating a plan to allow homeowners and workers into certain areas. Within two weeks of Katrina’s landfall, I found myself in the city of New Orleans. I’ll never forget sitting there on the Twin Bridges that lead into the city from Baton Rouge. On both sides of the highway there were all sorts of debris lying at various angles in the bayous and in Lake Ponchatrain.

I’d move the car up a few feet and then wait a few more minutes and then move a few more feet. It was hot and muggy there with huge mosquitos and the car would overheat quickly. Out the car window on the right, there was a train car lying on its side. Out the driver’s window, there were several coffins floating by. Down the highway another mile, there was a semi-trailer lying upside down on the right in a water-filled ditch and on the other side of the road in the lake, there was part of someone’s home.

That was only the beginning of what turned out to be a two-month long nightmare where I spent each day talking to homeowners who had lost everything and hearing the most sorrow-filled stories of what Katrina had stolen from them. Along with that, they would usually say that many of their family members and everyone they knew also lost everything because they too, had lived within her path.

The days were long and hot and the nights were spent on an army cot in a makeshift dorm two hours north of New Orleans fashioned for us disaster workers by FEMA. There were lines everywhere. I never liked waiting in long lines. In fact, I hate it! You had to sit in a long line to get gas for your car. There was a long line at any open restaurants, stores or cafes north of New Orleans. At our government compound, there were lines to eat, to use the fax machines….just about everything you wanted to do, you had to stand in line first.

When they finally brought the shower trailers in for us, we were all so relieved. Those first few days at the compound, we had to be bused to a local rec center for showers. Then they brought in about six 18 wheelers that had been fully equipped with shower stalls. The trouble was that there was no air at all in them. It could be 120 degrees inside those trailers at times. You’d go in there hot and sweaty from a long day of crawling over muddy, wet couches and take your shower but be sweaty again before ever leaving the trailer.

I got deployed to the Gulf coast in Chalmette, St. Bernard’s Parish. This was one of the hardest hit areas and the danger was greatly enhanced by the fact that there had been a massive oil spill from Murphy Oil. The entire city was ruined. There was one to two feet of toxic mud covering everything. The EPA was there measuring the toxicity daily. I ran into a woman from the EPA one day while working and pulled her over. We were in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by every type of rotting debris.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I said greeting the woman.

“Are you with FEMA?” she asked, looking down at the badge around my neck.” I nodded. “This is a tough one, isn’t it?” She smiled but I could see a grimace behind her smile and knew she was probably suffering through the same horrible conditions as the rest of us.

“How’s the air, soil and water quality?”

“Not too bad…really.”

I could tell she was lying. Everyone I spoke to said that Chalmette had 300,000 times over the limit of poisons like benzene and cyanide in the air, soil and water.

“There are thousands of snakes here,” I told her. “Have you run into any?”

She ducked her head so I wouldn’t see the fear in her eyes. “A few. Where did they come from?”

I figured she must have traveled from up north somewhere. “There were wetlands along the coast here. The storm washed all those marsh grasses into Chalmette and the snakes were in those grasses.”

“All this brown hay-looking stuff is actually marsh grass?” She definitely wasn’t from the south.

“Yep, afraid so. It makes quite a sight, doesn’t it? A foot or two of toxic mud covered with a foot or two of dead marsh grasses. It’s challenging to get up to the houses to inspect them.”

“Do you ever go inside any of them?”

“Occasionally,” I said, covering my eyes from the intense Louisiana sun. “All the structures are unsound so we don’t have to go inside but I’ve been in a few of them. They’re all filled with snakes.”

“Yikes! I’d stay out of these houses if it was me. Do you know what kind of snakes they are? Are they poisonous?”

“Afraid so…these are cottonmouth water moccasins.”

She stepped back and straightened her stance. “Oh my gosh! Won’t those kill you?”

I grinned. “Only if they bite you. I grew up on a farm in East Texas and we had cotton-mouthed water moccasins in our stock tank.”

“So they don’t bother you?”

“Oh yeah, they bother me plenty, but I stay out of their way.”

She sighed. “Man, I’ll be glad when this one is over.”

“Me too. Believe it or not, I’m praying for a nice little hurricane in Miami so I can get transferred out of this hell-hole.”

She laughed. “Well, good luck with that.” She gazed down the street at the broken houses, crushed autos and huge piles of debris that had come from God knows where. “Guess I should get back to work. It was nice talking to you.”

“Same here,” I told her, waving good-bye.

She drove away and I traveled down the road a few blocks to meet with my next applicant. It turned out to be an Asian couple in their thirties driving a white mini-van. They both pretended to speak much better English than they actually spoke and I could tell they hadn’t been in the U.S. very long.

I greeted them and then said, “Let’s just do our paperwork out here at the back of your van, if that’s okay.”

They both nodded and I went over all the legal documents they had to sign and explained what they meant and ask them both to sign. Then I checked their ID’s, looked at their insurance policies and made a bunch of notes about the house and the things they were telling me about their losses.

Finally, the woman looks at me and says, “You go in, yes? You go in and see.”

I glanced up from entering information into my computer. “No ma’am. That structure isn’t safe to go inside. It sat under water for 10 days. The construction is compromised.”

“You go in and see, yes?”

I sighed. “No ma’am. I don’t need to go inside. It looks exactly like every other house in New Orleans.”

She got a bit more persistent. Taking me by the hand, she started pulling me toward the house. “You go in and see now.”

I was shaking my head the whole way but followed her up close to the front door. The entrance was covered in toxic mud, marsh grasses full of snakes and peppered with chairs, couches, tables, parts of a fence, somebody’s computer monitor and other assorted soggy, broken, stinking furniture.

“We go inside. You see,” she said for the fifth or sixth time.

I pulled my hand away and stood my ground. “Ma’am, under no circumstances am I going inside that house. It isn’t safe, plus it’s filled with snakes.”

She ignored my warning and starting climbing over debris to get to the door. Reaching down, she took hold of a chair to push it out of her way. Out crawled a big ole cotton-mouthed water moccasin.

I sighed and shook my head. “Ma’am, there’s a snake there,” I calmly told her.

She turns around to face me, smiles and says, “You go in. You see.”

I pointed at the snake which was well on its way to crawling out from under the chair. “There’s a snake there, ma’am.”

Right up behind me came her husband. He shouted something in Chinese and the woman looked down, saw the snake and started jumping all around. She jumped, leaped and hopped all over the place, through the mud and over a soggy couch before finally landing out in the middle of the yard covered in mud.

I watched the whole thing and it seemed to unfold in slow motion. Her husband quickly ran to her side to see if she was okay and she was, but I stood there laughing as hard as I could. I knew it was wrong but just couldn’t stop myself. I must have laughed a good 3 or 4 minutes. The lady did not see any humor at all in what had just happened but I couldn’t help myself. It was the funniest thing I’d seen since coming to New Orleans.

I had already seen and heard an unbelievable amount of harsh reality and devastating truth, so these few moments of laughter seemed to bring a little healing to my soul. I was thankful the woman wasn’t injured because there were no hospitals to be found within a 100-mile radius. As the days and weeks drug by, I thought of that incident many times and laughed every single time. There were way too many long, weary days and nights without enough sleep or food. There were many times when you honestly didn’t feel you could place one foot in front of another and make it one more step.

On October 24th of 2005, Hurricane Wilma made landfall in Southern Florida and I immediately asked to be transferred there. My transfer came through around the first week of November and I spent a lovely Thanksgiving working in the gorgeous West Palm Beach area.

Carolyn L. Sorrell - © Copyright July 2012 – All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 8, 2016

Hurricane Ike & the GPS

There are still thousands of utility workers out here restoring power, phones, etc. A steady stream of trucks runs up and down the freeway day and night. Some carrying commercial generators, others carrying food and water…insurance adjusters, FEMA, Red Cross.

I've been assigned to a rural area of Beaumont…one of those lonely, country areas where they have to pipe sunlight in. It's a long ways between appointments sometimes. There are still hundreds of electric and phone wires draped across the roads. I cringe each time I have to drive over one.

It's easy to get lost out here too. MS Streets and Trips can't find these addresses. All my friends said, "Carol, buy you one of those GPS's and you won't get lost anymore!"

So I found one on sale at Office Depot the other day and bought it. It's kind of cool! I unboxed it, read the instructions, turned it on and it began to talk to me. There are several different voices you can choose and each has a name. There are female voices, Bonnie, Rita, Clare. And there are male voices…Jeff, Robert and Ted.

I chose Ted because he had a soothing voice and my days are usually frantic from start to finish. I programmed in my first address on Sunday and waited while Ted mapped our route. Finally Ted says, "Take the next right and go straight." So I did.

He told me every turn to make warning me 800 yards ahead of time before each turn. After we had safely made it to 2 appointments, I picked up the GPS, stroked it and said, "Ted, I have a feeling me and you are gonna have a very sweet long term relationship."

Ted says, "Go 400 yards and take the next right." I love it when he talks like that to me.

We had to go out to Old Sour Lake Rd at noon. There's nothing but fields and horses out there. Why do people live in desolate places like that? Ted got us lost. He told me to turn left on N. China Rd and go straight and I did and we wound up in some guy's pasture.

I picked up the GPS device and said, "Ted, that was embarrassing. Don't let that happen again. Okay?"

So Ted says, "Go 600 yards and take the next right." So I did. And we got back on the highway.

Everything went fine until our 2 O'clock appointment, a destroyed mobile home out on Westville Lane which is not on most maps. Ted told me to turn left on Meeker Rd but I'd already been out there for other inspections so I knew we should turn right.

"Ted, I'm sorry but you're wrong on this one."

Ted says, "Turn around! Turn around!"

I said, “No Ted…really…you need to learn to admit when you're wrong."

But he was insistent so I just ignored him and went on out to Westville Lane and inspected the destroyed mobile home.

After that one, I programmed in my next address and we headed down the road toward Highway 90. When we got near the highway, Ted says, "Go 600 yards and turn left."

I says, "Ted, don't you mean 'right'? We go right down here."

But he was insistent. "Go 400 yards and turn left."

"Ted, really man, that's gonna take us out to Sour Lake and we don't wanna go there today."

"Go 200 yards and turn left."

I picked up the GPS device. "Ted, I can't tolerate lying. I can put up with anything but lying. So don't lie to me again or it's over between us." Then I turned right.

"Turn around. Turn around," Ted says.

"Ted, don't make me throw you in Sour Lake. Cuz I will, you know. I threw my cell phone in the Atlantic Ocean during the 2004 hurricane season and I'll dang sure throw you in Sour Lake if you keep lying to me."

Finally he got quiet and I took us on to our next appointment. The last one we did on Sunday was out on Captain Kidd Way. They gave us a wrong address to begin with and then when we got there, it was a beautiful house in the middle of nowhere. Some guy had bought some land and thought about developing a community there but quit after only one house was built.

The whole place was grown up in tall weeds with mosquitoes as big as horse flies. This woman followed me around the whole time and whined about how her ex-husband had done her wrong. Under my breath I mumbled things like, "Grow a backbone and stop putting up with his crap, lady!" and "Sheez lady! Do I honestly look like I care that much?" and finally, "Oh God! Please help me get away from this whiny woman!"

I was eaten up with mosquitoes by the time I was able to leave there. I was supposed to drive to Dayton Texas and meet Ryan. He's a sweet retired fire fighter from Rhode Island that I met and trained when we were out in San Diego last year for the wildfire disaster.

He still calls me a lot and asks me things like, "Carol, if I've got 2 walls still standing, can I call a house 'destroyed'?"

I was out of 90-69's and Ryan said he had just been to the field office in Houston and gotten a bunch. So I told him that I'd buy him dinner if he'd meet me and give me a few so I wouldn't have to drive all the way to Houston.

I wanted to take highway 90 because it's closer than I-10, but Ted thought we should take I-10 so we did. "I think this is the long way around, Ted, but whatever," I told him driving down the on-ramp.

Sure enough I-10 took us a full 30 minutes out of our way. Ryan was running late too so it didn't matter but I took Hwy 90 home in spite of Ted constantly nagging me to "Turn around! Turn around!"

On Monday, I began the day by picking up the GPS device and saying, "Ted, I really like you and I enjoy your company. But you've gotta be more careful. I hate getting lost. It costs us time and money. So let's not drive to any more vacant fields, okay?"

Ted said, "Go straight and turn right in 400 yards."

I guess that's his way of apologizing. You know how men are.

We did fine until our 1 O'clock appointment. We had to go see Ethyl Walton. She lives out on Turner Road in one of those crappy mobile home parks.

Ted said, "In 600 yards, take the ramp and get on the highway."

So I said, "Ted, that's the long way around. Let's go out Hwy 105 instead. Okay?"

But he was insistent. "In 400 yards, take the ramp and get on the highway."

I wasn't giving in so easy this time. "Ted, I told you this morning that I was done putting up with crap from you. I've got rent to pay in two places this week. We can't afford to get lost today."

Apparently Ted doesn't know how high gasoline prices are nowadays. "Take the on ramp to I-10 now!" he says.

"Whatever, Ted," I replied. But in the back of my mind, I was searching for an exit that would take me down to the Gulf of Mexico so I could throw Ted's lying ass in the ocean.

Copyright ã Carolyn L. Sorrell - September 2008 – All Rights Reserved