Hurricane Katrina Anniversary Stirs Memories
Vineyard Residents Who Helped Vividly Recall Battered Region
By TOM DRESSER
During the eight years that former West Tisbury teaching assistant Jill Dresser (who is my daughter) lived in New Orleans, the common refrain she heard was that it was a doomed city, a bowl that had sunk below water. Potholes were frequently seen gushing up water. Rain storms quickly became momentary afternoon floods. And there always was talk of The Big One.
Then it came, a year ago today: Hurricane Katrina. "On August 27 news of Katrina started floating by," Ms. Dresser said. "This was the Big One. As the hours passed, the jokes became less funny, the lightness faded, tensions took over. Fear set in. The levees had broken. The city was flooded."
Vineyarders were swept into the tragedy in myriad ways. Their experiences were life-altering, a powerful exposure to the wrath of nature and the warmth of humanity.
For Ms. Dresser, it was time to leave. "After waiting, watching, crying, screaming, we left in separate directions," she said. "We didn't know when or where we would see each other again."
When word of the devastation reached the Vineyard, Deborah Medders, executive director of the local Red Cross, began coordinating and training spontaneous volunteer recruits from the Island chapter. "We ended up deploying nine people," she said. "The Island was so overwhelming in its generosity, fundraising, training and human resource deployment."
One person who volunteered for the Gulf region was registered nurse Cynthia Farrington of Edgartown. "I needed to help out," Ms. Farrington said last week. "It was a terrible disaster, such an experience." She was there three weeks, working 12-hour to 14-hour days.
"These people were in a gymnasium, in cots right next to each other. A young man thought he was having a nervous breakdown: he had a crying baby on the right, a man in detox on the left, and someone trying to steal his cot."
Ms. Farrington described New Orleans: "You wouldn't believe what I saw. From the ninth ward, it was like the end of the world - and this was four weeks after Katrina. There were dead animals, cars rammed into houses. The number of dead bodies was spray painted on houses. It looked like a war zone."
Vineyard volunteer Jim Pepper explained what he saw in e-mails home: "Houses on their sides, with no foundation anywhere in sight. There are places where cars were blown and floated into piles that look liked a kid's toy box, with trees and building debris mixed in. Cars look like they had been put into a blender. Trees were piled like pickup sticks everywhere. There is no place that the storm didn't impact. East New Orleans is a ghost town. I've seen homes crushed into unrecognizable piles of rubble. Everywhere you go has a sort of Third World feel."
In the shelter, he said, "it's like living in a beehive."
His job was logistical management for field kitchens. He wrote of the work: "Everywhere, people are working to make things right. And I'm amazed by the commitment and level of effort of the volunteers here."
Mr. Pepper was moved by what he saw. "When Mother Nature meets human nature, we're all touched.
"Lots of nice things happened to me during my travels in Mississippi. I feel a little teary about all that it means to leave this incredible event in my life. I saw it and still can't put the scale in perspective."
In November 2005, Ms. Dresser retrieved her belongings in New Orleans. "I flew back. The city was closed up. Military police walked the streets. Block after block sat in abandoned darkness. Roads were closed. The devastation was kept behind police barricades. The open roads were lined with refrigerators with cryptic messages: ‘R.I.P. New Orleans;' ‘Thanx 4 da memories.'"
The Red Cross sent Marie Laursen to West Palm Beach, Fla., to assist victims of hurricane Wilma.
"I served as a nurse at a shelter with 200 people," she said. "This was five weeks after Wilma, and we serviced people who had difficulty getting their affairs in order for [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] FEMA. Disabled, single parents, anyone with no other place to go. FEMA was not getting to them. People were shelter weary. I felt like I was walking on quicksand regarding rumors and false information. You have to be flexible to go."
One flexible person was Tisbury's Bill Little, the director of disaster services for the Red Cross on the Vineyard. He was gone about 100 days. He went to the Biloxi, Miss., area, where he pitched a tent and ate MRE, or meals ready to eat, which he said are actually very good.
He went as an independent. His recollecton? "Total devastation. Went around with my backhoe and bucket. People who only had a tent gave me ice water."
He went to neighborhoods clearing trees for FEMA trailers. All around him, he said, "good people [from the] Red Cross, Salvation Army, Baptist Church, all stepped up to the plate; everyone pitched in."
Mr. Little is glad he did it. "Sort of humbles you," he said. "Unless you were there, you can't imagine what it was like."
Ms. Dresser returned in February 2006, for Mardi Gras. "The city had opened up. People had returned. The barricades were gone. FEMA trailers had replaced the refrigerators as street adornment.
"Flooded homes were accessible now. I drove through two of my old neighborhoods. My former homes were destroyed. Neighbors sat listlessly, all conversations pointing back to Katrina. The tipped-over homes, the inverted cars, the dirt-covered streets, the abandoned markets - and the help. There was help everywhere: free toothbrushes, free cans of food, free Christian doctrine. Help, help, help [but perhaps] too little too late."
Mardi Gras marched on but through the shadow of the hurricane's devastation. "The floats were brilliant, defiant, proud. The crowds were small, intimate. There was a strong feeling of love and community in the air, one weighed down with devastating sorrow I cannot describe," Ms. Dresser said.
Karen Burke of Katama said she felt compelled to go.
"I went to New Orleans in March [this year]. Because my background is driving a tour bus, I could be a driver of an ERV [emergency rescue vehicle]. I put my experience to good use. We were in downtown New Orleans, sent to the ninth ward." At one point, Ms. Burke drove her vehicle beside a house that was sitting on a white limousine.
Yet she found there some of the pleasure for which New Orleans has long been known. "Everyone called me ‘Baby,'" she said. "The people were fabulous. All you could do was be there to listen to them."
She said the experience changed her life: "It gave me a better understanding of myself. It was one of the most important things I've done in my life."
Ms. Dresser made her most recent trip to the Big Easy in July. "The city is ablaze with the sounds of construction crews fixing houses, roads, infrastructure. The city is resonating with the sounds of sirens. The charm of the city has worn thin. The houses are gone. The heaps of housing wreckage are gone. The only remnants of any life in the ninth ward are the street signs and lonely foundations," she said.
"Will it ever be the same?" she asks. "No. Never. It is the worst tragedy I have ever witnessed, or hope to witness."