The War on Katrina

United States, September 13, 2005

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    The author's Katrina response team badge. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps Photo:

About half of the Mercy Corps hurricane response team is meeting under an awning attached to a trailer in a parking lot near Kiln, Mississippi. We have to pause every few minutes as a landing C-130 jet or departing military helicopter saturates the air with a rumbling, whirring deluge of sound.

Welcome to the War on Katrina.

Stennis International Airport, the adjacent high school and various office buildings in the vicinity have been turned into a sprawling Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for Hancock County, Mississippi. Nearly every county, parish and city within Hurricane Katrina's footprint has an EOC to serve hurricane survivors and to inform and coordinate relief efforts. This is one of the largest.

Here at Stennis Airport, there are villages of camouflaged tents, fleets of Humvees and squadrons of mobile command centers with attached satellite dishes. Then there’s us – four and sometimes five relief workers living and working out of a tiny SunRay Smokey trailer. At times, we feel like the little organization that could.

Six of us are discussing the day’s strategy in the midst of this uncanny landscape. Another team member, Eileen, is already meeting with teachers and administrators at a local school. We decide that Mari, Suzuki and I will visit shelters and conduct follow-up assessments in hard-hit Gulfport, while the rest of the team will coordinate with officials here in Hancock County.

Before we depart the sturm und drang of the EOC, we decide to eat lunch at the center’s chow hall that is housed, sure enough, in the school cafeteria. We line up with dozens of National Guard troops, county officials, volunteers and humanitarian workers to partake in a simple meal of tuna salad sandwiches, potato chips, apples, oatmeal cookies and bottled water.

The conversations I overhear range from serious talk about strategies and logistics to wistful banter about wives, husbands and children at home. Like others we’ve met, they have come from across the country to pitch in for this unprecedented effort. Men and women from wildly different regions and all walks of life swap stories and laugh like they’re old friends.

Soon after eating, I get in the car with my two new friends from Japan, Mari and Suzuki, and head to Gulfport. We are going there to visit a shelter at Gulfport Central Middle School.

The school is situated about twenty blocks from the coastal highway, where the hurricane cut its deadliest swath of destruction. That entire part of the city is closed off by National Guard troops blocking the streets with Humvees. Even blocks away, though, it’s plain to see leveled buildings and collapsing roads.

We arrive at the middle school and find a Red Cross tent where nurses are giving medical advice. There’s also a shelter at this school where dozens of survivors are housed and fed. Mari, Suzuki and I walk up to the nurse in charge and introduce ourselves.

Mari begins her health assessment by asking the nurse what specific medical issues she’s been seeing.

“Asthma, allergies and diarrhea are on the rise. There are so many allergens and molds in the air,” the nurse explains. “There’s also a major problem with people running out of their prescription medications. Doctor’s offices are closed and pharmacies have been destroyed. People especially need their anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicines.”

As Mari gets more details about the local health crisis, an older man slowly approaches the tent.

“Do you have any Procrit?” he asks, referring to a medication used to treat anemia in cancer patients and those with chronic kidney problems. The nurse takes time to speak with him and then gives him some useful information. The man gratefully thanks her and then walks away again.

“We have a couple of nurses and a psychologist going door-to-door right now, making sure that people have the medications and support they need,” the nurse says. “Diabetics are especially at risk right now.”

”Is there anything that shut-ins and shelter residents need right now?” I ask.

“Yes! Cleaning supplies! They’re few and far between around here,” the nurse exclaims. “Bleach, disinfectants, scrubbing brushes – we need everything like that we can get. If you can get that to us, you’d have a couple hundred people lined up to kiss your faces.”

That’s how it works – although we don’t usually have time for that much kissing.

We thank the nurse, leave her our contact information and, after visiting a couple more shelters and hearing about similar needs, return to the EOC to coordinate with the team.

Within minutes of our arrival, a mass distribution of household cleaning kits is being planned between this office, Baton Rouge and Portland headquarters. Help is on the way.

Tonight, there are already five people sleeping in the four-person trailer, and so Mari, Suzuki and I decide to drive two hours back to Baton Rouge for the night.

As we drive away from the massive EOC at Stennis Airport, a passing truckload of National Guard troops gives us a friendly wave. We return the salutation.

After all, we’re all part of the same team.