CONFESSIONS of a YELLOW HAT
After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, my boss let me go on extended leave of absence to assist those in need. Not having Red Cross training, and not wanting to go by myself or with a government group left me with few avenues to approach. Since I didnt know where exactly to go, how, or who to help, I linked up with the experienced deacons from my church, men who had been into the aftermaths of previous hurricanes, especially the four that hit Florida in 2OO4.
The Red Cross houses people, doctors them, feeds them, and gives them money when their area gets hit with disaster. These activities grant them their justly deserved fame as helpers of the needy. What you don’t often see published is that since the 9O’s, for around 85% of the Red Cross feeding, the cooking has been performed by SBC volunteers. Red Cross vehicles, called ERVs, travel routes twice daily through affected sections of a town delivering hot meals, drinks, snacks, and water. One of these trucks (really its a modified ambulance) can service an entire neighborhood, distributing 45O meals or more. And the ERV does it twice a day: lunch and dinner. In a pinch, the ERV can distribute supper instead of dinner, especially when disaster hits a rural or southern area.
The Red Cross has large tractor-trailer rigs, with specially modified trailers that expand into mobile kitchens. One is called “Spirit of America”. But there’s only a few of them. When disaster spreads on major areas, such as Katrina hitting a 4OO mile wide swath from Port Arthur Texas to Mobile Alabama; more of these feeding units are needed than even the mighy ARC can cover. Several years ago the idea hatched for the SBC to make their own kitchens. These run in a fashion similar to the Red Cross types, with some methods borrowed from military-style portable kitchens. The Army and Air Force can drop in just about anywhere in any conditions and feed 500 people on 6 hours notice, so there’s lessons learned from them. So different churches and sections of the SBC have different “units”, with a variety of jobs to perform. Obviously the kitchen units I’ll discuss in detail, (40 people) since I’ve gone with one for three weeks, and I don’t want to waste the last three paragraphs you just slogged through reading.
Shower Trailers are pulled in as a unit, allowing the workers to get clean daily (5 people) . Another interesting unit type that comes along is the Laundry (5 people) . Using portable generators for power, they clean the clothes for 2 types of people: the other workers from the units, and anyone that comes up and asks. None of these 3 units functions without good running water, so Purification units (5 people) also travel into the affected areas. They have generators and pumps, and a wide variety of filters and germ-killers, and they can turn almost any crud from a ditch into cool clear refreshing water. The water-purifiers set up first and run until a town’s water gets pronounced “safe” again. Other types of units include Chain-Saw, which clears roads and houses, and cuts trees for safety.(8-12 people) Next unit would be the Mud-Out, (8-12 people) which uses shovels, squeegees, hoses, and whatever it takes to clear out homes and buildings affected by flood waters, which usually leave behind inches of mud piled behind their wake. Also they pull out the sheet-rock, carpets, and furniture that mildew and rot when homes get water-logged. Interspersed with all these units are the Chaplains, who come along to be counselors to those affected in trauma, liaisons to affected churches, and advisors to those working in the units.
All told, from the units I listed above, that would at a minimum of about 9O people working in a neighborhood. Sometimes more come along obviously. The one church we worked from in Slidell had 3-5 chainsaw units, 2 showers, and two mud-outs, as well as the one kitchen, water, and laundry, that made for over 2OO volunteers. Four additional “units”, 3 from the Mennonites doing chainsaw & mud, and one from Habitat for Humanity also worked from the church site. So I was a very small cog in a huge machine. Actually it reminded one of either an ant nest or possibly a beehive. I worked the kitchen.
The kitchen feeds all those workers, say 2OO, three meals a day. Also it feeds, soup kitchen style, anyone who walks or drives up, or works at the church proper, at lunch-time and/or dinner-time. That averaged 3OO more people per meal. That’s 1200 meals per day so far kids, and that’s just one site, and we’re not even really started. Remember the ERVs from last week’s homework? Also “my” site furnished 12 ERVs with their food (average 400 meals each), and it sent meals to 2 gymnasium shelters (avg. 2OO meals each), and supplied foods for another “meals on wheels” type program that assisted the homebound. (approx 1OO meals). That’s 7OOO meals per day average, just from one site. Some days the meal count topped 1O,OOO, but always a consistent 7K average for the 6 weeks after Katrina.
So for three weeks I worked that Slidell kitchen (one in cannery row and 2 weeks in Inventory). The can area opens the dozens of can required to heat up, say green beans, for 35OO people. These are the large #1O cans that schools use. They weigh 7 pounds apiece and come in a case of six weighing 45-5O pounds total. I know these numbers by heart, I assure you. If an entire meal comes canned: let’s say an entre of beef stew (80 cases) , a vegetable of corn (40 cases), and a dessert of vanilla pudding (40 cases). That’s nine hundred sixty cans to be hefted, opened, dumped, cooked, and disposed of properly. Usually they didnt have entirely canned meals (say salad) but that depended on the supply trucks and fresh foods available.
The can-opening team, (Cannery Row) consisted of Vikkie, four other people that seemed to change out, and myself. Mind-bending heat and back-aching labor were the norm. There’s lots of pix and blurbs describing that week, elsewhere on my blog. Looking back now, I’m quite grateful for the experience. The work was relatively mindless, so it left time for chatting, singing, or having conversations with Vikkie, while still working. I’ve never had Gatorade before that week, but I learned to love it. How strange it is to me that it doesnt taste good to me at all, except when I have a dire thirst. Or a dire infernal thirst. Or maybe a dire infernal giant thirst. Of fear and flame. If you just breezed by the last 3 sentences, don’t worry about it, they’re inside jokes for my people at work.
But back to Vikkie: Talking to her became as refreshing as the Gatorade. I could tell you the names of the Other four on Cannery Row, but I’m not sure they’d want their names used on the Net. In between bouts of can-opening one can drift into other areas of the camp or kitchen. Now some would collapse and swig up all the water or Gatorade they could get. But some would volunteer to help other sections. There was always piles of work to do, from 6am to 7:45pm. Or 4:45 am if you worked the breakfast crew. Others greatly appreciated any help to their tasks in the hot sun-shine. Being a southern-style winter-hater, I didnt mind the heat, and remained grateful that Katrina had at least not hit during winter time. I cannot imagine those jobs while wearing sweaters. Vikkie would often wander into the kitchen itself to help out. I admired her for that even though it meant I could not chat as much with her directly.
Vikkie may figure prominently in future episodes of Rebuilder. Who knows.