In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the City of Corpus Christi opened several shelters to temporarily house evacuees. I worked at the shelter in the American Bank Center for four days. These are just a few of the unforgettable people I met there.
She was fifty something, still in shock, and her filthy clothes looked like she’d just fled a muddy battlefield. I was trying to convince her to get back in the shelter registration line because other evacuees were getting ahead of her. She shook her head no. I told her that the young man she was waiting for could get in line next to her after he cleared security. “I can’t be away from my son,” she said. “We’re all we’ve got left.” At that, she stared into the middle distance and set her jaw, but she didn’t cry.
A lone elderly man in a wheelchair asked if we’d found his luggage. I told him that his was the only bag we hadn’t found. He said he figured that by now it had either been picked up by mistake or stolen. He told me the flood waters had risen so fast that he’d only had time to pack the things that were most important to him. All he really wanted out of the bag were his family Bible and his marriage license. I asked a police officer to talk to him. He spent most of each day alone just outside the doors of the arena staring out over Corpus Christi Bay.
A woman came up to me shaking and crying. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t control herself long enough to tell me what was the matter. Finally, she showed me a government assistance form she’d been given. She pointed to a question asking if she was buying a home. “I was,” she sobbed, “but it’s all gone now.” I told her filling out the form would help put her in a new home and gave her my pen. She later went to way too much trouble to make sure I got my cheap, plastic pen back.
An elderly woman was being wheeled toward the shelter exit on a gurney. A coworker asked the paramedics if the woman was “checking out”. “Yes,” one of the paramedics answered. With great difficulty, the woman propped herself up on her elbows and fixed us all with a cold stare. “No, I’m not,” she said. “No, I am not checking out. I am coming back here.” She laughed along with us as she rolled past
Many local clergy showed up to offer consolation and hope. The second night in the shelter, a loud, boisterous religious service spontaneously broke out. I walked over to an American Bank Center official to try to explain what was going on. ”No, it‘s alright” he said with a big smile. ”This is just what these folks need.” I looked again, and he was right. It was a hallelujah shouting, hand clapping, gospel singing eruption of joy from people who’d just lost everything. It was enough to make even the most cynical heart believe there’s more to this world than is dreamed of in our economics books. It was the inspiring music of people regaining faith in their future and finding the strength to rebuild it.
Well done, Corpus Christi. Well done.