In the Wake of Katrina, a Sense of Purpose

People line up this month in New Orleans to get food from the American Red Cross. Volunteer Kimberly Lavey, below, of Waldorf said her experience with helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana was
People line up this month in New Orleans to get food from the American Red Cross. Volunteer Kimberly Lavey, below, of Waldorf said her experience with helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana was "life-affirming." (By Chitose Suzuki -- Associated Press)
By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

Just after Hurricane Rita swept through the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, Waldorf resident Kimberly Lavey stopped at the Southern Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross to volunteer for disaster relief duty.

That was a Friday. The next day she was processed at the organization's office in La Plata, and by Sunday she was on a flight to Baton Rouge, La.

As one of about 50 Southern Maryland volunteers who traveled to the Gulf Coast to help with relief efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Lavey, 34, spent three weeks in Alexandria, La., a city about three hours northwest of New Orleans. She was there from Sept. 26 to Oct. 16.

This week, she and the leader of the Southern Maryland Red Cross recalled her experience and how Katrina and Rita changed the local organization.

The area's response to the hurricanes far eclipsed the previous high of two or three volunteers whom the Southern Maryland Chapter has dispatched to major disasters outside its jurisdiction. Some of those who went volunteered twice -- staying double the typical three-week deployment.

For Lavey, the hurricane effort was a major leap from previous volunteer stints that included donating blood and helping out with Christmas in April, a national organization that rehabilitates the homes of low-income families. The new experience came with rewards, she said.

"I don't think I heard one unkind word from the people we helped," Lavey said. "Certainly there was some frustration from the victims. . . . But I've never felt more welcomed or needed."

Lavey was between jobs when she volunteered to go to Louisiana. So she did not face the first hurdle that some other volunteers had to get over before they could go: getting the necessary time off.

Some employers gave leave to accommodate volunteers, and others helped workers accumulate the time. Chris Hernandez, 42, an employee with the Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. office in Lexington Park, approached his boss about volunteering for hurricane relief, saying he would take a week of paid leave and spend the remaining two weeks in the Gulf Coast without pay. His manager sent out an officewide e-mail soliciting help, and his colleagues donated enough leave time to cover the other two weeks. Hernandez served as assistant manager in a mass care distribution warehouse in Natchez, Miss., from Sept. 2 to 23.

Southern Maryland Red Cross officials said many of the volunteers who went to the hurricane damage zone had little or no experience with disaster relief. Some had helped after the devastating tornado that swept through La Plata in April 2002. But that incident was of a much smaller scale than the hurricanes. Even though its offices had been destroyed, the local Red Cross was able to respond to needs after the tornado.

"We were lucky here in La Plata -- most of the destroyed properties were businesses," said Mike Zabko, the chapter's chief executive. "Down there it was mostly residential areas."

The chapter also helped about 150 families displaced from the Gulf Coast and moved to Southern Maryland. The agency distributed food and clothing, arranged accommodations and disbursed cash allowances ranging from $300 to $1,300.

All of the Southern Maryland volunteers have returned home, and just one emergency vehicle from the area remains in the Gulf Coast region. Relief efforts are now being handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Because of the vastness of Katrina, we were sending people with one day's worth of training, putting them on the computer system as 'deployed,' " Zabko said. Many people arrived on the ground not knowing what functions they would fulfill.

Lavey was tagged for logistics duties after she spoke of previous jobs that had included heavy lifting and driving a forklift. She and others in the warehouse spent long, sweltering days loading supplies into trucks, driving them to churches and shelters, and then unloading the materials piece by piece.

Lavey marvels at the ability of so many people from such disparate backgrounds -- including a Waldorf homemaker and a retired Wisconsin police chief who served as warehouse manager -- to come together to help others. In Louisiana, Lavey was assigned to a group that stayed in a Baptist church with two showers, worked 12 to 16 hours a day and got little to eat outside of red beans and rice. The volunteers' devotion, in part, inspired Lavey to continue taking Red Cross classes in disaster preparedness and response. She was recently on call for local disaster help.

"It was such a life-affirming experience," she said. "I will be with the Red Cross for the rest of my life."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company