Katrina Series: Part 1

downloadWe have just marked the 10th anniversary of the Katrina disaster and I have been remembering my Red Cross days there. My almost three weeks of deployment were profound and life-changing.

Over the next week, I thought I would share with you my memories in a few installments from a 10-year-old piece named, “Undercover Shaman: My Tour of Duty with the Red Cross.” (And I have to laugh because it has been a good ten years since I had a regular day at the gym.)

Part I: The Set-Up

One Thursday night in September 2005, I came home to receive the telephone message that “I have been authorized to travel” and so began my three weeks as a volunteer with the Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was a humbling, gratifying, and frustrating experience that moved me into a continuous altered state and taught me, in some very concrete ways, the power of energy to attract, repel, hold, mold, and heal. Herewith is the story of my adventure that permanently altered my internal settings and allowed me to traverse the realms.

It was a Monday, the one day during the week when I was usually at the gym as my office hours started later in the day. It was Monday, August 29, 2005 to be exact. I went to the gym that morning; I was unusually preoccupied with threat of a serious storm to hit New Orleans. As I left the gym, I asked the front desk folks if they had heard any news about New Orleans and they said “no.” I came home and clicked on the TV to see the reporter saying all was fine, the storm had passed. “Hurrah,” I thought, but I didn’t feel “hurrah” at all.

Then the levees broke and unforgettable mayhem ensued. Like the rest of the world, I watched in shock, horror, and dismay as the news brought story after story of gut-wrenching sadness and screaming outrage. Like the rest of the world, I wanted to help. I contacted my local Red Cross chapter. Their telephone lines were jammed. Once I got through, I was advised to go online or come to the office. I needed to complete an application as well as receive days of training in understanding the Red Cross philosophy, organizational structure, methods, and procedures. The process felt endless. I wanted to help now.

As synchronicity would have it, I then received an e-mail from my credentialing organization saying that the Red Cross was in immediate need of mental health workers to assist with the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts. Given the magnitude of the storm and the enormity of the need, the Red Cross would waive the usual requirements if we mental health folks were licensed, would complete their application process, and be willing to give 2-3 weeks of time. I downloaded the application form over Labor Day weekend and completed it quickly. I was to fax my completed application to a number in Virginia. The number was busy day and night, night and day, finally at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, my fax went through and I knew at a deep level that I was going to Gulfport, Mississippi.

On Thursday nights I facilitate a therapy group and usually get home around 10 p.m. That Thursday night, 48 hours since I had sent the fax, I came home and listened, with a racing heart, to the message that I was authorized to travel and deployed to area 871. I was to call an 800 number to make travel arrangements. I was to call another 800 number at 3 p.m. the next day for a conference call. I was to leave immediately. The whole message seemed like a rattling string of digits; it was brief, brisk, formal, and military-like. I played it over and over again to make sure I had accurately heard the information. I then paced around my apartment for several hours as this felt like something very big. At 1-something in the a.m. I called the travel agency. I guessed they would be working 24 hours, and they were. I was told that area 871 meant I was going to Montgomery, Alabama. “What about Gulfport?” I wailed. No, 871 meant I was to head into Alabama. “Ok,” I thought to myself, “Thy will be done.”

The Friday afternoon conference call is chaotic. The fear of the unknown is palpable. The more I listened to others, the more my apprehensions dissipated. We are told to bring several copies of our professional license along with ID or we can’t do any kind of therapeutic work. We are told we were going to hardship areas and, therefore, need to bring tp, soap, towels, rain gear, sleeping bag, bug spray, flashlight, snacks, enough clothes to last for 2 weeks as well as be able to carry it all. We are warned about mosquitoes, snakes, and unpotable water. We are told not to count on cell phone service or electricity. It is recommended that shots like tetanus and the like be up-to-date.

I shut down my practice for 3 weeks. My sister and brother-in-law outfit me with requisite gear. I fly to Montgomery, Alabama on Monday, September 12, two weeks to the day since Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast.

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4 Responses to Katrina Series: Part 1

  1. Adele Ryan McDowell September 7, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    Thanks, Mary Jo. Maybe you would want to guest post on your Haiti experiences? That would be fabulous! xx

  2. Adele Ryan McDowell September 7, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    Thanks so much, Lin. xx

  3. Lin Nesheim September 6, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    Oh my! Absolutely cannot wait to read the rest!

  4. Mary Jo September 6, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    What a great idea to share these experiences! Looking forward to your next !