September 16, 2005
Out of New OrleansBy Sunday, Sept. 4, it became crystal clear to my mother, my brother and his wife that the original one-week survival plan was going to be tested. The flood outside was not receding as hoped, and the water continued to become a rancid stew. The reconnaissance for food and water became dangerous as people were becoming more vicious with animal-like survival instincts taking over. Food and water couldn’t be distributed back at the apartment without families fighting over a bottle of water.
Outside the “war-zone” environment was enhanced audibly with the constant booming of helicopter blades providing the signal for search and rescue. The same pilots that previous provided life-sustaining supplies were now looking for people in dire need of evacuation. A wave was created in the cesspool as water was forced out with one sortie then sucked back in the street with the one. I imagine more rescue operations were conducted in this one-week period then in a real-war situation.
On Tuesday, rescue operators told the family that things were not going to get better and it was time to leave. Some other people in the apartment were inclined to stay, but my family knew it was time to go. They were instructed to get to the top of the apartment building where they would be transported to safety. I think my mother expected she would be beamed inside the helicopter. Instead, she had to get in a basket and be hauled up into the helicopter.
From that moment, it was a blur for the family. They remembered getting into the helicopter, arriving at the New Orleans airport, getting on a plane not knowing where they were going—and then waking up at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
I know it is their jobs, but the search and rescue operators, the Red Cross staff, and other emergency station personnel provided care and sensitivity that could only exist because those people actually cared! The concern for safety and wellbeing felt genuine to my family; at no point did they feel like they were simply a case number.
When I received the call from the Red Cross that my family could be picked up at a welcome station in Tinley Park, it took a moment to register what was said. Up to this point, I still had no idea where they were.
When we got back to my house, it was a moment of irony and humor when my daughter asked her grandmother if she wanted a bottled water…. But after hearing her grandmother’s story, she now better appreciates how even a bottle of water can be extremely precious.
Now I wonder in the long-term, how other displaced families are connecting and what will become of all of our situations: Who wants to stay where they were relocated? Who wants to move on, and who wants to go back?