Thursday, August 28, 2008

Happy Anniversary, Katrina, You Big Pain

When you live more than 200 miles inland, hurricanes generally do only one thing: slow you down. It's a nice pace, and you get an excused absence from just about everything. Kids may get out of school early, the boss sends you home, you play board games with the kids, and when the electricity finally is restored, everyone flees the previously candlelit room and retreats to their own spaces like a bunch of cockroaches. "The together time was fun--really, it was--but I must be getting back to ... something else." Cabin fever is a terrible, terrible thing.

Once upon a time, I thought hurricanes were fun because all they brought us (at 200+ miles inland) was some overspending at the grocery store, the thrill of flashlights and new batteries, lots of rain and maybe a little yard work once it was over.

This weekend marks the third anniversary of Katrina's visit to New Orleans and all the crap she left behind. I read one account recently of a travel writer who visited New Orleans earlier this year. His cab driver was in his late 70s, and Katrina took everything he owned. To try to get back on his 70something-year-old feet, he's shuttling tourists around the city. He told the writer, "You know, that Katrina was a real ............" And I can't even type the word, it's so awful. I'll bet (and hope) my kids have never even heard this word. But it's about the most accurate description of a Category 5 hurricane you could imagine. Gosh, I wish I could include it here, because it really does capture the spirit.

Katrina was one of those terrific things that you will spend the rest of your life saying, "I remember when ..." and then you fill in the blanks with the event and what you were doing that day. Like Sept. 11, 2001, when I was having my first mammogram and the tech forgot about me and left me naked in a fifth-floor room for more than 30 minutes because she went to sit in front of the TV. I thought something was really wrong with me and entire teams of specialists must be gathered around my films, but later found out that wasn't the case. The world was falling apart.

As Katrina made its way toward the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans residents were gathering inside the Superdome for shelter and safety, I stood in front of the TV (not neglecting anyone, by the way) and wondered how it was that all this media could get into the city, but nobody seemed to be able to get out. I also remember hearing a reporter ask a New Orleans official what this would mean for the Saints' season opener. (True story.)

Over the next couple of days, I, along with the rest of the country, watched New Orleans drown. Too many days of that, and a person starts to think, "I probably need to get off this couch." Next thing you know, my friend Caprice and I were under the I-59 overpass making eggs.

A quick look at a map will reveal why Birmingham hosted so many New Orleans evacuees. We sit directly on one of three hurricane routes. Coming out of New Orleans, you can go either left, straight or right. Left will take you toward Houston, straight (sort of) will lead you to Memphis, or veer to the right and hey, y'all, welcome to Birmingham.

In the days following Katrina and the levees breaking, Birmingham welcomed thousands of New Orleans residents. And what do you do when you have that many guests? You'd better start cooking something. So Caprice and I joined a large group of Baptists who assembled the most streamlined kitchen in the most meager of circumstances and probably could have pulled off a 100 from the health department. When we reported for duty under the overpass, we were assigned a station.

Three years have passed, and details are fuzzy, but we discussed this recently and did recall a few vital facts:

* I said I would do anything except scramble eggs. I was assigned to the scrambled eggs station.
* Caprice wore a baseball cap, and I wore a hairnet because I did not have the foresight to wear a baseball cap.
* Caprice doesn't have fingerprints anymore because she suffered serious burns on her fingertips and some nerve damage in her wrists from the chronic rotation of the metal spoon.
* We were separated at some point after the breakfast shift. She claims she was still scrambling eggs when I disappeared across the street "to go chat with people."

To set the record straight, I did not go "chat with people." Breakfast was being loaded up to be taken across the street. I walked across that same street to the civic-center-turned-shelter to see if I might be of better service THERE, where I would not be asked to scramble any more eggs.

Without any credentials of any kind, I walked into the civic center to find something to do, and I stopped cold. The rows and rows of cots and portable cribs surrounded by suitcases. The sleeping children. The groggy grown-ups just waking up and rubbing their faces. The breakfast serving line (with all those glorious eggs) was just getting started, and church volunteers from across Birmingham filed in to prepare plates. I don't know where these people came from, but they ran a serving line like a machine, like they did this every day. But this was only the third or fourth meal to be served, and it wasn't like they had any training or planning. It was a natural disaster.

After getting in their way for more than 45 minutes, I traveled on and found myself in the supply center, a warehouse space about half the size of a football field. Separating the warehouse space from the sleeping area was a long stretch of tables, serving as a makeshift customer service counter. And that's where we took requests, wrote down sizes, brands of baby formula, you name it. And then we'd dash into the warehouse and wander down the aisles of donated items to retrieve whatever was requested.

When I would hand an evacuee a package of diapers or a pack of t-shirts or underwear, I was often asked, "How much do I owe you?" The dad would dig for his wallet, or the mom would rummage through her purse.

"You don't owe anyone anything. These things are for you to have and to use, not to buy."

One mom, with a toddler on her hip, quietly asked for a package of diapers and a box of wipes. When I brought them to her, she teared up. She looked like a person who typically takes care of her own needs, but Katrina had sucked that right out of her. "Can I get you anything else? Maybe something for you, not the kids?"

"Well," she sobbed, "I could really use a bra. There aren't any of those back there, I guess." She gave a half-laugh.

"Guess again. You wouldn't believe the stuff back there. Stand here." I returned with a brand new bra in her size. It was like working at Wal-Mart -- there was nothing we couldn't provide. Except their jobs. Their homes. Their schools. Their neighborhoods. Normalcy.

Meeting Katrina's victims shed a whole new light on hurricanes. And now her crazy cousin Gustav is threatening to pay a visit. Caprice called Wednesday and asked, "Are you making your plans? I know how much you love hurricanes."

"Eh," I told her. "Hurricanes aren't so much fun anymore. Katrina sucked the fun right out of them."

That Katrina was a real ... pain.