Katrina Series: Part 4

The Seabee Base

The Navy Seabee Base is my new home for the duration. It is an enormous 4 bay hangar that normally houses tanks and massive construction equipment. (The Seabees are the construction arm of the Navy.) Vehicles travel up and down the main concourse. The Red Cross is in the second bay; there are 600+ Red Cross workers housed here, with approximately 50-100 departing and arriving daily. In adjoining bays, there are FEMA images (2)workers, Job Corps kids, Nevada One Medical, US Forestry Service, scientologists wearing yellow “volunteer spiritual minister” tee shirts and offering free nightly massages, plus Marines, firefighters, and Native American smoke jumpers who are later deployed to Texas and California.

The main concourse of this hangar is spotted with white Styrofoam coolers filled with water, Gatorade, and ice. It is very, very hot in MS. Evacuees stand in unshaded lines for countless hours, sometimes over countless days, for Red Cross or FEMA to complete paperwork and to receive money. Daily, evacuees, nurses, and mental health workers in the lines keel over from heat exhaustion and dehydration as do volunteers loading trucks, working the warehouses, and the like. One day the heat index outside is 112. Inside the shelter it is 10 degrees warmer. There is concern about bacteria and illness, so FEMA installs a kind of air conditioning that blows some air into the entire facility and lowers the temps to 85’sh. FEMA also brings in showers in trailers; there are outdoor wash stations, portapotties, and food catered by Braggs, the big name with fire crews.

My first 24 hours at the Seabee Base I visit two ER’s, ride in a police car, and spend time with the head of security at the navy base. Later I escort an unstable volunteer (ironically a Lt. Colonel’s wife) home to the East coast, a trip that takes 24 hours. It is Day Three before I actually put my head down on my cot. I am on call 24/7. There are nights of high drama including young volunteers with drugs and alcohol, which are verboten in our quarters.

When the lights go out at 10 p.m., the darkness is punctuated by blue or orange flares anchored to the floor to denote aisles and the massive fans brought in to help circulate air. People are up and down all night long, going to the portapotties, unable to sleep. There is constant movement in the dark. Even if your eyes are closed there are shadows walking across your lids. The flares and emergency lighting give the place an other world reality.

If you step outside, the area is brightly lit with enormous pole lights. There is the whir of the compressors and there are those who cannot sleep. It feels like you have just stepped onto a soundstage for a M*A*S*H episode with the tented tables and chairs that serve as a mess hall. The air is filled with nervous energy, fatigue, and homesickness. Every night after lights out, I do “walk-abouts” and connect with the insomniacs and wanderers.

I rarely leave the Seabee Base. Once, my co-worker and I find the only area Laundromat. It’s located on Highway 49 (Gulfport to Hattiesburg), where traffic is perpetually clotted. It seems that this Laundromat is the destination point for many; it is jammed and everyone is politely waiting for available machines. Power has been out for days, the weather is very hot and humid. Life is not normal: schools are not open, many businesses are closed, the area hospital just re-opened, curfews are in effect. Everyone’s focus is clean up and restoration. Every one is helping every one.

My colleague with her very effective voice gets everyone’s attention and we work the room, so to speak. We offer support, proffer resource numbers, distribute water and supplies from the back of van we borrowed. The neediest are often reluctant to take what they consider might be too much water or goods, saying they have enough and make sure everyone else gets some supplies. People share their stories. One mother tells us that her child asked, “Is our house broken?” Another parent tells us that her young daughter looked out the window after the storm had passed and pointed and said, “I want to go there.” Her mother said, “Where?” Her daughter responded, “There, Water World,” thinking she was seeing an enormous amusement park ride.

The work is heartwarming. I feel so blessed. The majority of time is spent defusing, debriefing, and dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and the frustration with the Red Cross system. My last two days, my Red Cross partner and I are sent out to evaluate the six evacuee shelters from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis given the new damage caused by the second storm, Hurricane Rita.

That is the set-up, how I got there, what it looked like, and my general experiences on the physical plane. Tomorrow, we take a look from a more energetic and shamanic perspective.

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2 Responses to Katrina Series: Part 4

  1. Adele Ryan McDowell September 10, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

    Thank you, Kathy, yes there were processes that could have been more efficient and the hierarchy could be unwieldy and showed some dueling egos, but it’s a lot of need, changing teams of volunteers, newly discovered needs, and even working in conjunction with other agencies. However, that said, the Red Cross is amazing. They get on the ground and set-up where this is no water, electricity, etc., and provide relief and support. I am proud to be a part of disaster mental health action team. The Red Cross is possible because of volunteers who leave their jobs and families and give their time and energy.

    I was wide-eyed going through this very new and unusual experience. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g was so different to me. I was stretched in all possible ways. And of course, I had “great ideas” for the Red Cross which I shared.

    I was very happy to be there. I met great people. And when you share an intense experience like this, you get to know people really well fast. It was an important and life-changing experience even amidst some of the chaos and craziness.

    Thanks so much for your comment. xx

  2. Kathy DiGiovanna September 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    I find your story fascinating. I cannot imagine functioning in chaos. Also, it comes through that no one is really in charge. Did you take notes and advise the Red Cross and other relief organizations about what you saw.
    How bad were communications? How did you manage to keep your sanity and offer your vision without getting angry or frustrated at the confusion.
    Keep writing.