Crossing Great Distances

United States, September 12, 2005

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks  </span>
    Suzuki (left) and Mari from Peace Winds Japan are on the ground helping with Mercy Corps efforts. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps Photo: Roger Burks

I read today that the disaster footprint left by Hurricane Katrina is larger than the size of Great Britain. As I travel across decimated Louisiana parishes and through wrecked Mississippi counties, I feel like I'm traversing the entire expanse of a country.

The continuing unreliability of telecommunications - and well as a profound absence of any kind of inter-agency coordination - dictates that when we want something to get done, we must go and do it face-to-face. Instead of telephoning a shelter for hurricane evacuees to ask what the needs are, Mercy Corps teams are traveling every day to the dozens of towns across the region where these shelters are located.

We speak to officials, volunteers and displaced families, personally discussing their challenges and frustrations. We find out what they're lacking and make arrangements to get those supplies delivered to them. On some occasions, we drive a couple hours to the nearest city where stores are open, buy the supplies that have been requested and then drive two hours back to the shelter to distribute the much-needed items.

We're covering a lot of ground every day. Not all journies end productively - but we're trying.

Today I traveled across Louisiana's ravaged St. Tammany Parish with Mari, a health worker from Peace Winds Japan, one of Mercy Corps' international partner organizations. Talk about crossing distances: she and her colleague Suzuki, who is a logistician, traveled here all the way from Tokyo to join the relief effort. Both veterans of emergencies in places such as Iraq and Indonesia, they're now lending their expertise to help solve one of our own country's deepest and most troubling crises.

Our international team also includes colleagues who are originally from France and New Zealand. The Mercy Corps office in Baton Rouge is located above a garage at the home of Mr. He, a businessman who splits his time between China and the United States and serves on the board of another Mercy Corps partner organization, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation.

Our team is rounded out by staff from Washington D.C., Portland and the New Orleans area. Three colleagues - Diane Johnson, Eileen Ihrig and Gretchen Shotwell - were displaced from their homes by the hurricane.

We have traveled from homes across the world to join here and form a remarkable, determined team.

We cross long distances each day to find and help hurricane survivors. Often we sit in traffic, held in gridlock by a combination of evacuee-swelled local populations and the inevitable, yet maddening, "disaster tourists" who clog the roads to catch glimpses of Katrina's horrifying wake.

After an hour and a half commuting from Baton Rouge to St. Tammany Parish and another forty-five minutes languishing in a line of traffic coming off the highway, Mari and I finally arrive in the small, picturesque town of Abita Springs, Louisiana. We've come to visit a local evacuee shelter and assess the families' needs. After we're stopped and screened by a brawny, ruddy sheriff's deputy, we're allowed to proceed and speak to some folks who work at the shelter.

One of the shelter managers, an out-of-state volunteer in his early fifties, surveys Mari and I with some measure of suspicion and exasperation. I wonder to myself what he's thinking.

I introduce Mari, then myself and begin telling him about what Mercy Corps is doing throughout the Gulf region and how we could help the shelter's residents. He nods politely, but seems to have already checked out. I give him my business card, which he takes and, after glancing at it for a second, hands back to me.

"You need to speak with the coordination center in Baton Rouge," he says as he starts to walk away.

"There's nothing you need right now?" I ask.

"Headquarters in Baton Rouge takes care of that - you have to talk to them," he repeats. The conversation is over. Security at the shelters is tight, and so we're not allowed in to assess the situation for ourselves. There's nothing else we can do here today.

Frustrated, we return to the car and head for our next destination.

On the way out of Abita Springs, we pass by a small grocery with a sign proclaiming "we have red beans and rice for lunch." I explain this regional delicacy to Mari, and she's game to try it.

We enter the grocery and, right away, see that the shelves are nearly empty. I walk up to the counter and inquire about the red beans and rice.

"There are none, sir," an earnest young woman tells me. "We just haven't had time to take the sign down. I'm sorry. All we have are bologna or ham sandwiches on white bread, no cheese. The stores around here are running low on almost everything. I'm really sorry."

I tell her there's no reason to apologize, thank her and we hit the road again.

We still have a long way to go for the day - down to Slidell, then to Covington and finally over an hour back to Baton Rouge for the night. When it's finally time to sleep, this will have been a sixteen-hour workday.

Tomorrow, there will be more, maybe longer distances to cross. We never know what we'll find on the other end of each journey.

As long as there are people in need, though, we'll keep on driving those miles in search of a chance to help.