Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience
Just as Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans, Terri Elders and her husband were sailing to Alaska. They missed many shipboard activities as they were huddled in their cabin watching with increasing dismay as the tragedy unfolded in New Orleans. At one point Terri turned to her husband and said, “I’m a child therapist. There’s got to be some way I can help all those children who are being uprooted.” When they returned home, she immediately responded to the call of the Department of Health and Human Services for licensed health professionals along with 30,000 other medical personnel she later learned.
In September, she received an e-mail from the Crisis Corps that was sent to many RPCVs, and, having heard nothing from HHS, Terri sent in her application. Though at the moment she is an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer, she received permission from her state office and her agency, Rural Resources Community Action, to serve with Crisis Corps for a month.
“When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”
AS I WRITE THIS on the Winter Solstice, exactly two weeks have elapsed since I returned to Colville, Washington, from my 30 days deployment in Beaumont, Texas, as a FEMA “affiliate.” As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I had been invited to serve with Crisis Corps through the Katrina Initiative, which marked the first time in the Peace Corps’ 44-year history that Volunteers have worked domestically.
Thrilled to be one of 272 Crisis Corps Volunteers to serve in the six Gulf States since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had ravaged the southeast, I was equally overjoyed to return home. The twelve-hour, six-day weeks had worn on me. Now, two weeks later, I’m still not quite yet wholly in the holiday spirit.
Though Peace Corps has always maintained that its Volunteers overseas should expect to be challenged, to have their patience and mettle tested, to be pulled, pushed and forced into new ways of thinking and behaving, I had never anticipated experiencing culture shock and life-changing experiences within the borders of my own country, or, even more improbably, be slapped by reverse culture shock upon returning home. As I go about my holiday preparations, I am haunted not by ghosts of Christmas Past, but by specters far more corporeal.
This past weekend as I decorated our Blue Spruce with the miniature violin from Vienna, the embroidered red heart from Kenya, the carved parrot from Costa Rica, I reflected on the kind of Christmas the people I saw at the Beaumont Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) would be experiencing. And I thought how not only my holidays but my life would be altered if all of my possessions suddenly had ceased to exist, not only ornaments, childhood photographs, souvenirs from my travels, but my income tax returns, birth certificate, marriage license, either washed away in the floods of New Orleans, or melted by mold in the travel trailers of Beaumont.
I wondered about the carefully coifed 74-year-old ash blonde who had sobbed that she might as well put a gun to her head if she were to be put out of her midtown Holiday Inn on the December 1 deadline FEMA initially had announced for its hotel and motel residents to find other lodging. Though FEMA and Texas agreed to extend this deadline until February and she does have a room, will she go to church on Christmas morning? She had confided that she had lost 40 pounds since Rita roared over Beaumont, destroying her travel trailer and all of her personal belongings. She had one decent outfit that fit, purchased at a Goodwill store, but felt God was punishing her for some unknown reason.
Over the weekend as I pushed my cart through the pet supplies at Wal-Mart, I lingered to select a stocking of doggy treats for my akita. Then I remembered Cathy, the young woman who had broken her collarbone in an auto collision just days before Rita swooped through. A mandatory evacuee, she had been bussed to Houston, to be housed in a hotel there, hours from her local physician and available medical treatment. Her border collie, Heidi, had not been allowed on the bus, so she put her into a local kennel for safekeeping, but the pet escaped during the aftermath of the hurricane. Now Cathy roamed around Beaumont posting flyers, praying for Heidi’s return.
As I wrapped packages for family, I thought about the father and son who came into the Disaster Recovery Center weekly to check on the status of their applications for personal property damages. Dad had been evacuated earlier from New Orleans when his 9th Ward home had been washed away. Then he and his Beaumont son fled oncoming Rita. “I’m Rita,” the son used to identify himself with a wry grin, “and he’s Katrina.” He was savvy to FEMA’s habit of identifying applicants by disasters. “We’re just glad we got each other,” he added, “Even though we go by these girls’ names nowadays.” His father giggled.