My friend, David Britt, President of the United Way of Central Louisiana, sent me this letter he wrote to his community. It’s too good not to share.
It’s been almost two weeks since the good people of New Orleans braced for Hurricane Katrina, a mere fortnight as they used to say in the city’s earlier days. But these two weeks will take on mythic proportions for the rest of our lives here in the central Gulf Coast states.
It’s going to take years to tell and to hear the stories that will come out of these weeks. I will listen with great interest when New Orleanians are ready to tell their stories. The quiet numbness, shock and grief I’ve read in many faces tell me there’s much more to come.
The stories I can tell so far are really the stories of countless other people. Local Cenla residents were calling our office constantly the day after the hurricane, itching to provide clothes or diapers or food to our new guests. They didn’t know where to take all those things, and at first we didn’t know either. Most of us don’t keep a warehouse around in case it might come in handy.
The local Red Cross chapter had the foresight to do exactly that, however. They had the Sally’s building lined up, though their handful of staff was consumed with providing emergency shelter to more than 6,500 people. United Way volunteers and donors were all dressed up with nowhere to go, so we struck a deal: the Red Cross provided the building, and United Way provided the volunteers.
On Tuesday New Orleans flooded and we realized that Cenla’s evacuees weren’t going home soon. On Thursday our volunteers cleaned up the Sally’s building, and on Friday the doors opened for business.
Looking back, it seems crazy. We had no staff to run a donation center. We had nothing to give out. But Friday morning the donations began to roll in, and they kept coming. The other need, volunteers to receive and sort the donations for distribution, arrived too. I’m not entirely sure how the word spread, but Lord, how it spread. We’re still counting the volunteer registrations to find out how many came to help.
We not only stockpiled donations, but we sent them out to shelters. We responded to the need for speed, and I can’t say exactly how many pounds of things we distributed. It felt as though we filled the warehouse at least once, emptied it, then filled it up again. But by Sunday the Red Cross shelters had received so many donated clothes, blankets, pillows, and other needed items that they told us they had no place for more. We provided truckloads and cars full of supplies to several churches providing shelter also. Cenla had done a good thing.
After Labor Day, most of our volunteers had to return to work, and we began to panic. Shelters we knew about were full, but donations kept coming. We needed to get the donations out to the people who needed them, whether they were in shelters or not. That’s when the Salvation Army stepped in. The day after Labor Day, the Salvation Army accepted our invitation to turn our donation center into a distribution center. The next morning at 9:00, they accepted their first customers. A wholesale warehouse transformed into a retail operation literally overnight.
Many of my stories this week are full of hope. My strongest image may always be a green beach bucket, brimming with coins collected by two young kids to help evacuees. A respected judge and a few attorneys spent days welcoming and directing donors who dropped off items for the suddenly homeless. A bank executive requested leave that was instantly granted so he could personally develop the donation center. Medical personnel at all levels showed up to help and were instantly put to work tending to the new arrivals in our community. An auditing firm closed its offices and sent its employees to volunteer at the center, sorting clothes and escorting evacuees through aisles brimming with contributed goods. A church canceled Wednesday prayer meeting so its members could sort clothing and linens to be ready for distribution the next day.
Many of my stories are rich with irony. I met a woman who, until Katrina, worked with the homeless in New Orleans. She was homeless now herself, walking through our Response Center with her mother and her scientist husband to pick up a few toiletries. They had lost everything and couldn’t access their bank accounts.
There are too many stories to repeat here. Naturally, there were frustrations. I learned the truth of Mark Twain’s aphorism: A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. But in the confusion, some excellent things happened, in part because organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were already in place, and in part because in a time of crisis untold numbers of Cenla citizens responded unbidden and found ways to help. Their stories are going to take a long time to tell, but I have to conclude with the most important message of all: thanks, everybody.
David T. Britt, President
United Way of Central Louisiana