Archive for Wednesday, November 30, 2005

McLouth woman who helped after Katrina would consider going back

November 30, 2005

Editor's note: McLouth resident Nancy Smelser traveled in September and October to the Gulf coast, where she worked as an American Red Cross volunteer. Here is her report.

After watching the heart-breaking news reports of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, I volunteered to go with Red Cross disaster relief teams to the Gulf coast.

It was an amazing trip. I talked to my family first, and got their OK. Then I took a three-week leave of absence from my job and left on Sept 28 with five others from the Lawrence-Douglas County chapter of the Red Cross.

We were sent to Montgomery, Ala., to a large operations center. All of the departments that Red Cross employs in a major disaster were set up in a former Kmart building, including a fully stocked warehouse of supplies. I was assigned to work in bulk distribution, and our job was to drive trucks of supplies to various locations all over Alabama and Mississippi.

We delivered a variety of supplies including diapers, bottled water, cleaning supplies, tools, food and snacks and clothing. Sometimes we delivered to shelters or local chapters, and sometimes we were sent out on community outreach, where we delivered the supplies wherever we saw they were needed.

Some of our trips were short ones that we could make in one day. If the trips were longer, we would stay overnight in the shelters where we delivered supplies. It was very satisfying to be able to deliver supplies directly into the hands of those who needed them. I also took some letters from students at our elementary school and handed them out to the people who received the supplies. They were all very touched to receive those. It's hard to watch a grown man cry over a few apples and oranges, a bottle of water and a picture drawn by a child.

I met some amazing people. There were volunteers from all over the country, and I made some very special new friends. But we also got to talk with the people we were delivering supplies to, and that was what really made you feel like you were down there for a reason. Most of them were so grateful for the help we were providing. There were some frustrations, but you will find that wherever you go. Some had suffered terrible losses, but their faith and character were still strong. At times we were frustrated because we wanted to be able to do more for them.

And at other times, the challenge was trying to help people who would not even try to help themselves. It was really tough on the volunteers to work with some people, and then you'd turn around and be blessed by someone else.

It's hard to describe the things we saw. The news coverage doesn't begin to show the extent of the destruction. Along the coast, whole communities are just gone. In some areas the wind and water scoured everything away, even the grass. There are bare slabs where houses, businesses and churches used to be. Even 100 miles inland from the coast there are trees down, roofs torn off and buildings damaged.

It gives you a new respect for the power of nature. Try to imagine the entire area from Wichita to Kansas City virtually wiped out, with no buildings left standing -- trees uprooted or broken off, no power or running water, roads torn out, no stores or gas stations left standing, and you might get an idea of what it's like down there.

As we enter the holiday season, I am so thankful to be back at home with my family. Our home isn't fancy, but we have so much more than a lot of people down there have. Some of them are camping in tents on top of the cement slabs where their homes used to be. It gives you a clearer perspective on things, and helps you prioritize what is really important when you see people working through problems like they are.

I am so grateful for all the support I had while I was gone from my family and friends, my church family, co-workers and the staff at our local Red Cross office. I took them all with me!

I would do it again if I had the opportunity; in fact a lot of the friends I made down there have gone back for another term. Some are in Florida now, and some back in New Orleans. I hope they are all able to be back home with their families for the holidays.

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