Dear family and friends,
It is hard to believe I am home in Evanston, sitting on my deck, the trees slightly changed in color since I saw them last. Same blue sky as Baytown, but temps there were consistently upper 80’s and low 90’s; here a gorgeous early fall day in 60’s.
It is of course hard to describe an experience so intense, so profound. I know I will be unpacking it for a long time. I am taking today to decompress and re-enter a “normal” pace of life. It is hard to say how grateful I am to be home, to sleep in my bed next to my beloved, no ear-plugs or eye-mask required. One song I began down there is about “the things we take for granted most of the time.” (The staff shelter was in a Baptist church and I was able to use the piano there occasionally, a real gift.)
Some of my work down there was with Red Cross staff persons, who are very impressive but who operate under extraordinarily demanding conditions. I cannot say enough about the “salt of the earth” people who volunteer for these things. In addition to the Red Cross people, the North Carolina Southern Baptists staffed and ran the kitchen. (They had evening meetings at the church and I played a song for them at a few of these. Many of them recognized and especially appreciated “Was It a Morning Like This.”) These folks stayed also at the staff shelter (the Baptist church about a half mile from the kitchen, which was set up on the parking lot of a former K-Mart), and during the day prepared the food that was so important. The ERV’s (Emergency Relief Vehicles) would then take the food to outposts where the storm had done the most damage. Meals would also be distributed at the site of the kitchen twice a day, people driving in in a very regulated fashion, and I spent one day working on the line for the noon meal, doing some of that distribution, checking in with people to see how they were, etc.
But most days I spent driving to areas near Galveston Bay, driving the neighborhoods, offering water or GatorAde and visiting with people. Chaplaincy comes under Disaster Mental Health in the Red Cross structure and most of the time I was there we had two chaplains and five or six other mental health professionals. I was very blessed to be part of a great team that both worked well together and exhibited lots of humor. (See the song “Flexibility” with which we serenaded the ERV drivers and other workers, to our enjoyment and theirs. We did the song on the one day it rained, and were clothed in black garbage bags with holes for our arms and heads, so we were quite a picture as well…) The person who led the team most of the time was the other chaplain who came in the same day I did, and with whom I traveled from Ft. Worth to Houston and then Baytown, a female Episcopal priest from Long Island with a lot of energy and flexibility – a term which came to have more meaning than I could have envisioned! (The song gives you an idea…) I was further blessed to team up early with a psychologist from Atlanta, Betsy, and we quickly developed a lot of trust in working together. She is a skilled practitioner who demonstrates much respect for the spiritual dimension of people’s lives, and the rapport we had was truly a gift and not to be taken for granted. She also came in the same day as I, and went home to Atlanta yesterday as I did to Chicago and Evanston.
There truly is no way to describe the amount of destruction we saw, as anyone who has witnessed first-hand a disaster of such a scope knows. I did take pictures which I hope to put together and perhaps post, at least a few, on my website. The first few days we were in the “East Bay” towns, such as Shore Acres, Sea Brook, Kemah, LaPorte. What these folks experienced was both the 100 + mph winds and also a surge of water that, from seal level, was twelve to thirteen feet. Some were people of means and will have insurance that will help them. Many were of modest means and will receive some help from FEMA and possibly insurance (though insurance companies tend to be very creative about deeming the damage flood-related if the coverage is for wind, or vice versa) but what help they get will not nearly replace what was lost. The resilience of many of these folks was quite remarkable, along with, in a lot of cases, their pulling together with one another. But these homes took in water (not just “clean”) that was usually four to seven feet high in the house, and ruined literally everything. So houses would always be completely emptied, with the front yards filled with everything from inside, including stove, refrigerator, etc., that might be brand new, but ruined. People were trying to protect the possessions so that FEMA and/or insurance adjusters could assess their damage, and were often not wanting strangers around, but our Red Cross vests gave us access, as people were virtually without exception appreciative of what the Red Cross was doing.
Countless poignant stories, but a couple of brief ones to give a picture: A woman, about my age, who had moved there last year with her husband, confided to me that she had thought she was doing pretty well. She lived in a pretty nice place and the main living unit was elevated, as was often the case, and had been spared. However, these folks would usually finish part of their lower part and use it for appliances, storage, etc., and she had stored lots of stuff down there and never relocated it after their move. And just that day (about ten days after Ike hit) she had found and discarded, as they were completely ruined, all her brother’s letters and items from Vietnam, things she had promised her mother to preserve, as he had died over there at the age of nineteen. No one can put a price tag on that kind of loss, tied as it was to the loss of her brother, and her voice broke as she told me, as she knew it. I hope as I am writing this that she is able to talk with someone about all that. And in many cases it was things like this, or photographs, whose loss hurt people the most – things that cannot be replaced.
Another visit I will tell about was in Oak Island, where Betsy and I spent much time in the last week we were there. It is around on the other side of the bay, south of Anahuac, and the devastation there was in many cases complete, so that for instance on a street where there had been eighteen houses there are now three, with the rest piles of rubble or simply bare concrete slabs, the storm having swept everything inland. A Vietnamese woman was standing by what had been her home. (There were a number of Vietnamese people in this area, often involved in the fishing industry.) She was wearing the conical hat many of us have seen in pictures. She spoke no English, but as she received our meager gifts of cold water and, in this case, an apple and banana, and looked into our eyes with enormous sadness, she gestured at what was there and and then turned back to us and wept, as Betsy hugged her. The grief she felt transcended language barriers, but so, I think, did at least a measure of caring from some fellow humans.
I could of course go on and on. I am more tired than I can say, but was truly blessed to be in touch with these people. They are in my prayers as I think of them. I was also inspired by people like Pastor Eddy, of the Baptist Church there in Oak Island, his building uninhabitable but a tent outside serving as a center for so many people to find clothing and food (one of our ERV’s made twice-daily visits there) and also simply to gather together, to talk and share. Up the road at Our Lady of Light Catholic Church in Anahuac, Pastor Neil, in a bilingual (English/Spanish) homily (there were also many Mexican people in the area), addressing parishioners who were in many cases very poor even before the storm, reminded them in an authentic way that gratitude is possible in any circumstance. That may be a good place to stop, as I pray and invite prayers for these and so many people who are showing true faith-in-action as they confront a situation whose devastation is beyond description, but in which hope lives and grows also. Please join me in praying for them all. And I thank you deeply for your prayers and support for me.