Between the Red Cross insignia to paramilitary blues, an abundance of backpacks, and a willingness to talk to anybody, you could spot the assorted volunteers in the Atlanta airport where many of us converged to fly into Montgomery.
Night One is spent at a “professional” motel complete with fire ants, in/out all night guest traffic, meager housekeeping, and the like. Happily, we are transferred to another motel the following night. That motel, like all others in the area, houses many Red Cross volunteers (several to a room) and families of Katrina evacuees. I find great morning communion at the motel as Red Cross workers get their coffee and cereal right along with displaced moms, dads, and kids. We are all in it together. People call from their cars at stoplights in front of the motels and ask, “Y’all from New Orleans?” They honk their horns, wave, and shout what sound like blessings of “we’re with y’all.” It feels like we are all connected to one another in a more tangible way these days. The web of light is alive and thrumming.
On Day One we are taken HQ, headquarters, which is an old, empty, massive K-mart building, where the Red Cross has created assorted “desks,” such as mental health, nursing, transportation, mass care, supplies, health, financial, orientation, staff shelter, canteen, etc. The parking lot is filled with hundreds and hundreds of rental trucks that are constantly being filled (day and night) and sent out to assorted distribution sites. I complete orientation, fill out more forms, hang out at the mental health desk with my colleagues, and learn the fine art of “hurry up and wait.”
There is a need for a contingent to be sent to Tylertown, where there is trouble brewing. Ideally, they are looking for mental health workers with this profile: male person of color, bilingual, and with prison experience. Then we are told the National Guard has gone in and there is no need for Red Cross mental health workers. The next day we are told that my little group is going to Tylertown. Get packed and be prepared to ship out in the morning.
My roommate at the motel is very unnerved and upset, she does not want to go to Tylertown. Her expertise is in dealing with young children; she has brought toys and children’s books in her duffel bag. I am also not thrilled at the prospect of going into a place of severe violence with armed National Guards, but had moved, once again, into the place of surrender, the place of “Thy will be done.” That night we talk about our concerns; I later talk to the gods; we sleep peacefully.
Bright and early the next morning, we are packed and waiting at our motel for someone from transportation to come claim the six of us. Every 45 minutes or so, I call HQ and tell them we are still waiting. We are stranded for close to 3 hours. By the time we get picked up and taken to HQ, another contingent has been sent to Tylertown. We were now reassigned to Gulfport, Mississippi. My roommate is convinced that I am energetically responsible for the change of assignment. I am thinking the gods have their own plan.