From the Far North to the Deep South
Al Alcock, from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, served as Shelters Manager Coordinator in Hammond, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
My deployment as a Canadian Red Cross volunteer to aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was my first trip into the deep south, and one that I shall never forget to be sure.
During my deployment I was in Gulf Port, Mississippi with other Red Cross officials doing a damage assessment where the eye of the storm came ashore. There was virtually nothing left except the cement pads homes were sitting on, roads and some oak trees that withstood the surge. Behind the surge, what the water did not destroy was flailed by the wind’s havoc. The whole area had an eerie aura of deadly silence. Except for the groan of the occasional bulldozer, there was no sound – no birds, no traffic, nothing...
Al Alcock (front row far right) and part of his team in Hammond, Louisiana.
My primary deployment was in Hammond, Louisiana, which was my home for the next 18 days. I was the only Canadian Red Cross worker in Hammond and had the fortune of working alongside a wonderful group of people from all over the US. Despite the seriousness of our task, we had a lot of laughs and we maintained a very high standard of morale. I was known as the "crazy Canuck.”
Hammond was spared the brunt of the storm, receiving only minor wind damage. Hammond usually has a population of approximately 30,000 folks – this figure swelled to over 55,000 with the addition of people displaced by the storm.
The parish that some of the evacuees were from (Plaquemines’) was completely submerged under the storm surge, and when I left most of it was still under sea water. There is nothing left. Folks that lived in this parish have been there for multiple generations, most in the same home their ancestors built two centuries earlier. For them there is nothing to go back to, as nothing remains – in some cases, not even the land to rebuild on.
Three days into my tour I was asked to take on a much bigger role in Hammond. It involved overseeing both shelters along with the staff shelter. My work as Shelters Manager Coordinator for Hammond was a wonderful challenge, one that I truly enjoyed.
It was important for me to touch base and to feel confident things were alright at home. I phoned home every evening regardless of what was going on and it was very comforting to talk with my wife Lynn. Every day was a mixed bag of very high and very low emotions, all at the same time. Adrenaline rushes and stress were often felt.
Not everyone is cut out for this type of work. In fact during my tour we saw four people return home. They either could not handle the stress, the living conditions or who were just unsuitable for the task. We all have, and bring, different experiences and backgrounds to the challenge of being a Red Cross volunteer.
I must say the people from Louisiana are truly wonderful folks. I have never met people anywhere during my worldly travels that match the spirit of these individuals. They are warm, considerate, thoughtful, polite, respectful, friendly, spiritual and very, very loving. They have the biggest hearts I have ever seen. I could not have been luckier than to have had the privilege and honour of assisting such generous people.
Some of the stories the clients told me were very horrific and sad. Not all the stories related to their immediate past events. There were stories of growing up, the future, dreams and just plain talk. The key to working with folks is not to be judgmental, to listen and be respectful. Empathy is more important than sympathy. I always made it my primary objective to be optimistic and to pass that along.
When I left to start this deployment I was committed to bringing my Yukon spirit and sense of humour to Louisiana. I certainly laughed and joked a lot and I can only hope that I did the Yukon proud.
Would I do it again? You bet - it was truly a wonderful experience. Your heart swells with pride in knowing you provided at least one person with the hope to move on. I was fortunate to see many people move on.