Monday, September 05, 2005


Now, I'm not the most innately attuned person when it comes to media and current events. The news upsets me and therefore I tend not to watch it if I can possibly avoid it. I was aware of the hurricane coming ashore. I was aware that it had totally devastated southern Louisiana. I was NOT, however, aware that it would touch me personally (although common sense should have told me otherwise).

I work in a public assistance program that grants food assistance and nutritional education to needy families. Now and then I am granted an opportunity to truly make a difference in the lives of others, but for the most part it is a job. It's work. Yet, on August 31st, that all changed.

As flood victims from southern Louisiana made their exodus into Texas, many of them opted to head north of Houston to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And, but by the grace of God, many of them ended up in my office. None of us saw it coming. Our supervisors were literally stunned when we contacted them, asking what the protocol was to be for serving the needs of these suddenly uprooted people who lost everything they owned to floodwaters. They quickly became a priority and we did everything we could to accommodate them quickly and with as much compassion as possible. (And for the record, I've never been prouder of my coworkers than during this period.)

There is no way to sit with the victims from New Orleans and Baton Rouge and listen to them relate their personal accounts of survival and struggle without being moved emotionally. Typically my job is to assess people's nutritional needs and educate them in the most time-efficient manner possible, but sometimes a person's greatest need is not to be made aware of the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet. Sometimes they just need to be heard. And so that's what I did. I listened. I set my forms and paperwork aside, leaned forward in my chair, and lent a compassionate ear as they at last had a chance to recount their overwhelming experiences with another human being.

In the past few days, I listened to a mother lament that everything she had struggled to provide for her family was lost in a heartbeat. I listened to a couple vent their frustrations over how little help they received from Mississippi and Arkansas before finally arriving here in Texas. I listened as another couple mourned the news they recently heard that their suburb on the outskirts of New Orleans would never be rebuilt. And then there was the father of two small children.....whose tale touched my heart so deeply that I actually had an emotional breakdown after he left.

He said, "You see things like this happen on TV and it's always somewhere else. Like it's not real, you know." I agreed. Who wouldn't? And he continued, "But when I jumped down in that cold water from the roof of my house, it was very real." He'd spent hours trying to get in touch with his wife, leaving her several messages on her cell phone and praying that she would call him back and let him know that she and their two children were alright and where he could find them. Frightened and frustrated, he was moved to action. Certain that she would have taken the kids and fled to her mother's house, he was determined to search for them there. Five miles away. And all five miles were underwater. "I jumped in the water and started swimming because I didn't know what else to do. A couple of times I was hugging trees to keep from being swept away...the water was moving so fast. I swam two and a half miles before I saw some guys in a boat, and I begged them. I told them, 'Please! I gotta find my wife and kids!' And they turned their boat around and took me the rest of the way to my mother-in-law's house."
He was obviously overwhelmed as he relived the events. I was overwhelmed listening to him. But by the grace of God was he sitting in my office and sharing this account with me, and I don't think I've ever been more moved by the words of another. Nor have I ever been more grateful that I have the opportunity to help people. I took this job for exactly that reason -- to help people. To be there in their time of need. And what he needed at that time was to be heard. I'll never forget him. Nor his two beautiful daughters, whose faces haunt my memory every now and then when I least expect it. God bless them all.

I'm proud of the efforts my home state of Texas has undergone to accommodate the needs of Katrina's many victims. In fact, I've never been prouder. Several former Louisianans informed me that they intended to settle down here in their new home state, due mainly to the degree to which we have offered friendly, helpful hands. And I'm glad they're here. And to our neighbors who continue to flee the devastation in southern Louisiana in search of help, I say, "Welcome to Texas. Come on over. We're here for you."