Part one of a two part series reflecting on local individuals and organizations’ ability to come together in a time of crisis.

We’ve all seen pictures of the destruction and dislocation caused by the hurricanes along the gulf coast last year. Very early on the morning of September 6 some of the chaos caused by Katrina came all the way to Forest Park.

“I got a call the Friday before Labor Day from the State of Illinois,” began West Suburban PADS Director, Lynda Schueler, “saying that the governor was welcoming evacuees from Hurricane Katrina into Illinois and that they were going to be housing them in the state mental health facilities. They said a busload of them was going to be arriving in our area on Sunday and could they drop them off at our door and could we take care of them until they move into two pavilions at Madden Mental Health Center.”

Schuler explained that PADS, which has administrative offices in Forest Park at the St. Bernardine’s Convent, didn’t work that way. PADS guests sleep in churches and synagogues throughout the western suburbs, she explained, and the program wasn’t even up and running for the season yet. After hanging up, she decided to call Kate Wenzel at the OPRF United Way to organize a meeting for the day after Labor Day of area providers to prepare for whatever was going to happen.

On the day of the meeting”Tuesday, Sept. 6″Schueler received a frantic message from the administrators over at Madden saying that they were going to get Katrina evacuees that day and they really needed help.

Schuler invited the two administrators to the meeting that was already scheduled for later in the day, and together the ad hoc group attempted to make some initial plans.

Part of the challenge was that the people from Madden didn’t have much information. They didn’t know if the people coming were families, children, people with health issues or the elderly. “They said they needed volunteers,” Schueler recalled, “so I spoke up saying we had a network of volunteers and that we could put the call out. At this point I did know what my offer would mean.”

Alan Arbuckle, a volunteer who came on the scene as a volunteer on Wednesday and was eventually hired as the coordinator of the whole project, talked about how chaotic it was for the evacuees.

“When they got on the plane,” he said, “they didn’t know where they were being taken. All they knew is that it would be either Memphis or Chicago.”

“Madden didn’t have anything,” Schueler continued. “All they had was two empty pavilions that could house 28 people each. “They were asking us to supply everything. So Sheri (a PADS staff member) and I packed up what supplies we had on hand and were at Madden at 3 a.m. when a CTA bus comes around and 57 people get off. It was a mix of singles and couples and families and pets. They just wanted to go to bed. They’d been poked and prodded all day.”

The PADS office put the word out by email to their network of volunteers that same day, but not many were able to respond right away, so five PADS staff members shouldered the burden of tending to the needs of 57 people in distress for the first three days. And then, at the first organized staff meeting, West Suburban PADS was told that they were not only responsible for getting volunteers but were in charge of the whole operation as well.

“It was just so chaotic,” Schuler said. “You’ve got medical personnel You’ve got mental health people…It was like a zoo. They wanted to see these evacuees, and they wanted to talk to them, and they wanted to invite them to church, and they wanted to bring them clothes.”

Arbuckle said that particularly problematic were what he called “vigilante volunteers.” These were people who were not assigned a time by PADS or by the Volunteer Center in Oak Park but would just show up and demand to see the evacuees.

The PADS volunteers found themselves trying to manage all these “visitors” at the same time that they were trying to meet just the basic needs of the evacuees. Arbuckle was especially critical of the politicians who came. Without naming names he said, “We had politicians who would come in with photographers. They didn’t talk with the people.

They just said to them ‘welcome to Illinois,’ had their picture taken, and left. They never came over to us volunteers and asked us what we needed.”

The basic problem was that there was no system in place for dealing with a situation like this. No one knew who was in charge. PADS somehow had to come up with everything from toilet paper to refrigerators, and was given no funding with which they could make the purchases. The cooks at Madden suddenly were asked to feed 57 more people with the same budget they had before the people from New Orleans had arrived. The government lawyers took a month to complete the contracts with outside vendors to bring in meals. It took two weeks for professional case work to be put in place. The Red Cross never showed up, and FEMA didn’t arrive until many days later.

Arbuckle again related how the lack of basic systems impacted the evacuees, some of whom had been taken out of their homes in New Orleans at gun point by the military. One woman at Madden had a son in Atlanta, but without phones she was unable to talk with him. There were problems with people getting checks they needed from FEMA. It turns out that Madden has a Hines (the VA Hospital) address and zip code, so checks mailed to Maywood did not get to them.

Many of the people, of course, did not have birth certificates, so they had trouble proving their identity. Without a birth certificate or a social security card, it was difficult to get the job that would allow them to move out of Madden and into an apartment.

Next week, in part two of this story, we will see how the insight, experience and commitment of local individuals and non-profit providers overcame the systemic breakdowns and enabled many of the evacuees to start over with a little bit of momentum.