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SA's Red Cross volunteers support the relief effort

On September 1, Mayor Phil Hardberger announced that San Antonio would accept as many as 25,000 of the New Orleans residents forced to evacuate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. People who were interested in volunteering to help with the relief effort were directed to call 2-1-1 Texas United Way or the Red Cross. However, a few hours after the mayor's announcement, both lines were overloaded. Not to be deterred, many volunteers simply drove down to KellyUSA, Freeman Coliseum, and Windsor Park Mall, and presented themselves for work.

Tucker and Lori Allen showed up at KellyUSA on Saturday, September 3, with Lori's mother and a friend. After a short common-sense orientation - be compassionate; do your best to meet their needs but don't make promises; don't cry or panic in front of the evacuees - they found themselves in charge of a huge room containing approximately 500 beds. "You walk in thinking you'll get some guidance," said Tucker, "but once you realize there's no one to give you a job, there's nothing you can do but start helping."

Red Cross volunteers Tucker and Lori Allen. (Photo by Susan Pagani)

Later in the week, there would be a more organized registration process, volunteer assignments, signs, and huge tubs of anti-bacterial hand-sanitizer - after a week of volunteering, Tucker developed flu symptoms - but in those first few days, KellyUSA was managed chaos.

The Allens divided the room into four sections and walked down the line of green cots asking the evacuees what they needed. "The first thing they wanted was a shower and a change of clothes," Lori said. "People had been wading through floodwater in the clothes they were wearing, and then had to live in them for days at the convention center. They smelled like urine, feces, and death, but they had to wait in line to be processed and then find a bed and then they could take a shower."

Volunteers bathed the evacuees who couldn't bathe themselves, and helped scout out clean underwear and socks, and water. They conducted missing-persons interviews, sorted hundreds of boxes of donated clothing, and vacuumed convention-hall-sized rooms. Volunteers also helped the evacuees navigate the labyrinthine halls of KellyUSA, a difficult task because there were no signs and everything was changing from minute to minute - including the volunteers, who were heard to say to one another, "Oh, you've been here two hours? Then you have seniority."

Many necessary supplies, such as blankets, pillows, and wheelchairs were in short supply. Tucker found a young boy, alone and curled up in an office chair. Alarmed, he asked passersby where the boy's parents were. His mother, within earshot, replied that she was trying to find a wheelchair for her son; the one he arrived in had been stolen and there weren't any to replace it. Earlier, Lori had been recruited to collect office chairs and roll them out to the arriving buses where 30 people were waiting for wheelchairs.

It was not uncommon for evacuees to arrive without medical supplies. "I saw a lot of people with lost or waterlogged medications, broken wheelchairs, and water-damaged prostheses," said Doctor Dan Santa Maria, a medical resident at the UT Health Science Center, who also volunteered on that first Saturday.

While he admits the medical area wasn't as organized as a hospital clinic, Santa Maria says he was impressed by the variety of medical staff - sub-specialists, nurses, doctors, medical students - and how efficiently the medical volunteers used the space, posting signs over the different services, such as podiatry, medicine, and pharmacy. "They were really well-prepared to do meat-and-potatoes medicine," Santa Maria said. If the patients needed more than that, there were emergency technicians available to take them to the outlying hospitals.

But, for the most part, patients with emergency issues had been taken straight to the hospital, so Santa Maria was primarily treating rashes and wounds and refilling lapsed or lost prescriptions. "One gentleman had all of his hypertension pills, but the bottle had been crushed, so he had combined them all in one bottle, and was taking he-didn't-know-what," Santa Maria said. H-E-B and Wal-Mart reportedly were supplying vouchers for free refills.

Although people were upset and adjusting to their new life in San Antonio, Santa Maria said, they were very thankful for the help and happy to be out of New Orleans. "I got some hugs," he added.

After a hot shower and a meal the evacuees were ready to begin pulling their lives back together. When two women stopped Tucker to ask where they could find FEMA, he parroted back what he'd heard from the Red Cross staff: FEMA is not on site. We don't know when they will arrive. They haven't contacted the Red Cross. "They reacted pretty well," he said. "They said thank you, gave me a hug, and asked where they might find Social Security.

"And then they asked if we had heard about New Orleans."

By Susan Pagani

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