When the Willie V. Whitfield United Methodist Church signed up with the Red Cross to provide shelter services, we anticipated running a shelter for a couple of days at a time—perhaps three days for a big storm. Before the Katrina hurricane, they actually had a couple of shelter activations where they were in operation for three days.
The Sheppard Center of the church is equipped to handle the handicapped, has a full service kitchen, showers and lots of space. The members of our church are committed to serving the surrounding neighborhood and community. They never anticipated three full weeks of shelter activities with 85 evacuees from the coastal areas with Katrina hit. They are a family oriented church and dedicated to helping those in need, and the Katrina hurricane put those merits to test.
They had to quickly gear up for the extended shelter period, which meant planning for additional food, clothing, laundry, cleaning and so forth. Many of our volunteers worked 10-12 hour days, some even giving up the comfort of their own beds to stay at the shelter overnight and provide security. Of course, many social engagements they missed as personal schedules they altered so the evacuees would get the best care on a 24 hour a day basis. The goal was to provide a warm, stable, friendly and caring atmosphere for these people who had lost everything; cars, homes, businesses, jobs and even relatives. It was our job to ease the trauma of 85 people, including children and seniors and several people with special needs.
All of a sudden they had to plan for the extended stay. They arranged to have volunteer doctors on call and nurses either at the shelter was active, and all evacuees needing special care were seen by the nurses as soon as they arrived at the shelter. They got cell phones so the evacuees would have free service to contact friends and family. They got two television sets donated and cable service installed so our guests could watch the news of the coastal areas and to entertain the children.
People in Montgomery were extremely generous and helpful. They collected enough clothing to set up two clothes closets which was a great help as most people had a limited change of clothes; they also collected funds and bought new underwear and socks for everyone. Special offerings were arranged each Sunday for the evacuees so they would have some personal funds and could purchase needed items, fuel for their cars and so forth. They also collected household items and food which was given to the evacuees when they left the shelter and headed home; they knew they would need cleaning supplies, food, bedding, dishes and utensils.
They thought meals would be a problem, for although they had a great kitchen they were not prepared with people or food to last more than a few days. The Food Bank immediately provided a truckload of food and supplies. Local churches contacted us and arranged to cook supper meals and bring them to the Center. Local businesses began providing breakfast and lunch. While they were still busy coordinating and serving meals, by the fourth day of the shelter activation they were relieved of many of the preparation activities. But they made sure three wholesome meals were provided each day and that snacks were always on hand.
Once the early challenges were taken care of and we had established routines for the many shelters tasks, arranged schedules to insure the people would be present to man the desks and kitchen and assist our guests to doctors and dentists for treatment, to optometrists to replace lost glasses, and to local shops for car repairs. Many businesses provided these services free or at a reduced charge.
But it wasn't all hard work. One couple, who had been headed to their wedding in New Orleans when the hurricane arrived, was married in our Chapel; they got cakes and punch and decorated the center for the reception. One lady delivered her baby just one day after arriving at our shelter. One evening our guests from Louisiana cooked up a Cajun feast for the volunteers. They also had birthday parties and other parties at the center, field trips to the zoo and to the bowling alley and to the park.
While three weeks are not long in the normal scheme of time, the 23 days of maintaining all the facilities of the shelter occasionally seemed interminable and sometimes the multitude and extent of the tasks were daunting. They usually had several crises every day, from cars breaking down, evacuees trying to locate relatives or discovering members of their family had died, lost medication and other property, to the many instances of extreme remorse when confronted with the tragedy of their situation.
Katrina brought us people loaded with many problems that they couldn’t solve, but they tried to help with every resource they had and provided comfort and consolation whenever they could. For many of us working in the shelter it was an emotional overload trying to be cheerful with people whose life had been dramatically changed for the worse. But bonds were made and the healing was begun. Several of the evacuees are still in the Montgomery area. They helped many people finds jobs and apartments here. Some joined our church and others occasionally drop in to see us. It was the type of adventure that they will never forget, that they don't want to have happen again, but that they'd eagerly do over as a very rewarding mission.