10/04/05 — Families, sorrow touched life of Red Cross Katrina volunteer

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Families, sorrow touched life of Red Cross Katrina volunteer

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on October 4, 2005 1:48 PM

More than 650 people were jammed into a small gymnasium with no room to walk.

They came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Most of them had lost everything they owned. Some had been separated from their loved ones and didn't know if they were dead or alive.

Dora Perry, a volunteer with the Wayne County Chapter of the American Red Cross, was there to help the evacuees from the flooded city of New Orleans, La., who had been bussed to a Red Cross shelter in Denham Springs, La., after Hurricane Katrina hit.

She spent two and half weeks there, helping set up the shelter and caring for those who had escaped Katrina's wrath.

The 71-year-old spent most of her time in Denham Springs, but had flown to Houston, Texas, first to a temporary Red Cross shelter there.

In Houston, she saw a man in his 40s sitting in the shelter with his head down. He was watching the news about Katrina's devastation on television.

"I walked up and sat down next to him and asked him if he was all right," she said. "He said 'no, I'm not all right.'

"He told me that he and his wife and children started to evacuate and got separated. He had the kids and the last thing he heard his wife say was 'take care of my children.' He didn't know if she was alive or dead. He was crying; I was crying with him. All I could do was give him a hug."

From Houston, Ms. Perry and other Red Cross volunteers drove to Baton Rouge, La., and spent a few nights there before continuing on to Denham Springs. They had not even finished opening up a shelter in a parks and recreation building's gym when they were notified that bus loads of Hurricane Katrina evacuees were just about to arrive.

"We weren't expecting the number of people at one time that we got," Ms. Perry said.

She said the shelter registered 650 people that night and had to turn away some busses because the gym wasn't set up for that many people. The next day they discovered that even more people had gone in without registering.

"There was no walking space in between people," Ms. Perry said. "We were stepping over people. It wasn't very comfortable, but it was better than being on the streets."

Ms. Perry and the other volunteers also roughed it. They slept in a church shelter. Ms. Perry said she gradually progressed from the bare floor to a blanket to a cot.

There were no showers at the shelter. Five days after it opened, the shelter got phone service. A few days after that, portable showers were set up outside the shelter.

At first, local churches prepared and served meals. Then, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Men took over the feeding.

"It was like we were feeding 24 hours a day because once we got done with one meal for that many people, it was time to start serving another meal," Ms. Perry said. "Even after the Red Cross started serving meals, a couple of churches continued to provide meals because there were just so many people to feed. The churches even held cookouts for the evacuees."

Ms. Perry said it was one of the most traumatic experiences she's ever been through.

"As a parent, mother, grandma, it just touched my heart," she said. "There were so many people who were separted from their families and had no clue where they were. I'd say at least half of the evacuees there had been separated from their families."

She said some of them had been separated by the hurricane force winds and rushing water. Some parents had their children torn from their hands.

Others became separated during the evacuation process. Sometimes the children were taken first, then the parents, and they weren't always taken to the same shelter. Sometimes parents thought their children were on the same bus as they were, but they weren't.

"There were mothers in the shelter whose children were missing, and they were in bad shape," Ms. Perry said. "There's nothing you can say to that mother. We'd just tell her we are going to keep trying to locate her children and do the best we can to help her find those kids."

Through a local minister, some of the missing were located and reunited with their families.

And although Ms. Perry was helping reunite families in Denham Springs, it was a long time before she was able to connect with her own family.

She was there about four days before her family even knew where she was. She was able to get through to the Wayne County Red Cross office, but they were not able to connect her with her son.

Then one day, a young man who had located his grandfather in the shelter came to get him. The young man lived in Atlanta, Ga. Ms. Perry sent a message through the man and his grandfather to her ganddaughter who also lives in Atlanta. And that's how her family finally knew where she was.

The evacuees had been rerouted three times before they arrived in the Denham Springs shelter and had gone three days without a shower or even a change of clothes.

People donated clothing to help the evacuees who had gone to the shelter with only the clothes on their back. But there was one woman who could never find anything her size in the donated clothes.

"Each day she kept telling me 'Miss Dora, nothing fit me,'" Ms. Perry said. "I went through my suitcase and picked out about three sets of pants and underclothes and gave them to her. She just cried."

Ms. Perry said this trip is something she will never forget. "Every time I go out on a disaster, there's always one or two things that stick with me. With this disaster, it will be all the missing people. You can't forget it."

How does she deal with everything she has seen and heard?

"I thank God every day that he's given me that special gift to help these people," she said. "When I get up every morning, I ask Him to give me the strength that I can help somebody else.

"While in Denham Springs, I had so many ministers coming in every day hugging me and tapping me on the shoulders and that gave me extra strength."

But out of all the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina came new life. A young lady in the shelter gave birth to a healthy baby and returned to the shelter with her 2-day old infant before Ms. Perry left to come home.