I joined the Red Cross right after I retired from the San Antonio School District. Before that I had already taken some disaster courses and I was aware of the many functions the Disaster Service had for potential volunteers.
When I first entered the doors of the San Antonio chapter of the Red Cross, my intention was to volunteer to clean up and do some custodial work. However, when Jim Todd, Deputy Director of Disaster Service interviewed me, he immediately introduced me to Pete, the shelter guy. He was in charge of finding shelters and setting up agreements for the Red Cross. He was elated to have someone working with him. Little did I know that he would leave six months later for other opportunities leaving me in charge. By that time I became more familiar with the job and was able to function properly. I was about to get my baptism under fire.
On August 27 2005, the Deputy Director, Disaster Services, call me in his office and told me that we needed to open a shelter. Apparently, the people in Houston and the coast were evacuating on their own prior to the hurricane Katrina hitting land fall and the hotels were filling up. The city was asking the Red Cross if we could help by opening a shelter close to the freeway.
We complied by asking the San Antonio School District to open a shelter at Davis Middle School. As soon as we had the shelter open and the staff was in place, the evacuee started coming in. Davis MS is in a prominent black community and school was in session. The evacuees were mostly black and the community started to respond to their needs by bringing clothes and toilet articles. Pretty soon the shelter was full of clothes and other items. Also, some of the families were being picked up and placed in the community’s home. (We didn’t know that they were doing this and we lost track of them.) Later when the residents were moved to the mega shelter, I had to make arrangements to move all the clothing and toiletries to the Salvation Army which by now was in the large shelters.
When Katrina hit landfall. More evacuees started to come in and we had to find shelters throughout the city. So, the city requested that the Red Cross open other high school gyms in several school districts which we opened. During this time we were waiting for the city to open a mega shelter. Finally they open a shelter in the Windsor Park mall and the facilities in Kelly Field. The city also open a shelter at Levis Straus building thereby setting the stage to move the evacuees from the schools to the mega shelter.
The Red Cross was organized by branches at that time. There was a branch in Floresville, New Braunfels and Uvalde. They shared the same situation of sheltering evacuees that came through the southeast counties like Karnes, Gonzales, Wilson and Guadalupe. Each of those branches had to accommodate evacuees with shelters because they couldn’t go any further. They had run out of gas or food. Also, there were churches who opened their doors and asked the Red Cross to help their residents.
By protocol, when a hurricane is expected to hit landfall, we have a five day planning time to prepare the shelters and all that goes into it. We normally use the shelters for 5 day before they are able to return to their homes which were not affected by the storm. Unfortunately, a lot of them were not able to return because of considerable damage. Not from the storm, but from a flood.
The hurricane brought in so much rain that the levees surrounding the New Orleans broke and flooded part of New Orleans and the people who were not evacuated had to walk to the Superdome where they stayed and later some of them were brought to San Antonio by bus and airplanes which arrived at Kelly Field. They were in miserable shape. Hungry and dirty. They were deloused, due to conditions in the Superdome, and fed.
After everything calmed down, I asked the Deputy Director if I could observe the activities at the shelter so I could see if there were any improvements to be made at the shelter. He agreed and I went first to building 171 which used to be a headquarters building for the military. Then I went to building 1536 which was an empty building converted for the use of sheltering. We could put thousands of people inside. Later I went to Levi Straus and afterwards Windsor Park Mall.
The Red Cross was mainly responsible for feeding and bedding. We did have a shelter Manager at each shelter and we did have plenty of volunteers. Most of them were trained before they could work at a shelter. Building 171 had an array of problems. First of the floor was carpeted rather than tile flooring which would have made it easy to clean. The space for cots was not in accordance to Red Cross protocol but it was necessary to adjust because of the configuration of floor space. The hall was set up as a mini mall where the residents could go to different agencies who can assist with their legal, medical, and communication problems.
Building 1536, also at Kelly Field, was a large industrial type building with portable toilets and showers which was converted for sheltering thousands of people. The Salvation Army was there with a huge assortment of clothing run by volunteers. There were buses from Via bus company that made runs to downtown and back. Residents were given a wrist band to identify them as evacuees. Food would be trucked in from the Baptist Men cooking for those thousands at all the facilities.
At Windsor Park Mall the whole complex was fenced in except where the Red Cross and government vehicles would be able to come and go as necessary. It looked like a prison but the residents would be able to leave but they had to let the city firemen know where they were going. They would be able to check in and out. Windsor Mall actually had firemen at the check in area and the city had all kinds of support from AT&T who placed telephones allowing the residents to contact their families. There was a recreation and an entertainment area where the residents could see a movie or listen to a musical show. The only disadvantage were the showers which were outside in the parking lot. Again, Red Cross handled the feeding and bedding part with the volunteers assisting.
The Levi Straus building had closed a year ago and now the city had access to it where they placed the remaining evacuees. It was out in the west side of San Antonio and contained 300 residents. It didn’t have all the support that the other shelters had but they had an array of nurses because of medically disabled persons.
Later when FEMA came in, they set up shop in different areas and started to assist the residents with their losses. There was some money given to the residents which allowed them to buy needed items. Unfortunately a lot of them used the money to buy unneeded large items which placed a burden at the shelters. Some families who were placed together, move their cots to form a barrier to protect those items. Sort of like a fort. They stayed like that until they were sent home.
When another government contracted agency came in and took over all the functions of the Red Cross, we had to turn over all the equipment to them. The Red Cross lost some items marked belonging to our agency. Quite some time later after everybody was sent home we found one of our trailers at Levi Straus abandoned and empty of all disaster equipment. Even later, we received a call from a neighboring school district for someone to go and pick up some Red Cross equipment which was left at the school.
We learned some valuable lessons or rather, the state learned their lessons. This event showed that the Red Cross had to change the way we did things. For example, the counties that surround San Antonio within our jurisdiction open shelters for the residents coming through their town without approval from anybody. Later they were requesting reimbursements from the Red Cross and the state.
For myself, I learned that when an event like this happens, it brings out the good in people and sometimes the worst. All kinds of practiced scenarios go out the window when disaster strikes. Hurricane Katrina was expected but the floods were unexpected.