Part two of a two part series reflecting on local individuals’ and organizations’ work to help Katrina evacuees restart their lives.
“It was so chaotic. It was a zoo,” was how Lynda Schueler, the director of West Suburban PADS, described the situation she encountered on September 6, 2006 as 57 weary, disoriented evacuees from New Orleans got off a CTA bus at the Madden Mental Health Center.
John Dede, a 56-year-old resident of New Orleans until September 5, was one of the people who got off the bus. He had survived the flooding for eight days when the National Guard forced him to leave his home. “I had prepared myself for the flood with food and water,” he said. “The flooding was only about ankle deep when the trucks started picking people up. They took us to the airport. They could have brought us food and water long before that. They put us on an airplane, and it was only 45 minutes before we landed that we were told that our destination was Chicago.”
Dede lived in the “chaos” Schueler described but is not planning to return to New Orleans. The reason he intends to remain in the apartment he found in Forest Park is the way he was treated by the volunteers. It was the volunteers who found ways to meet the needs of their “guests” even though the needed systems were not in place.
“Since I’ve been here,” he explained, “I’ve met a lot of good people. I want to stay and thank the people who have helped me. Besides, it will take two years to get New Orleans back in shape. I’m going to stay here.”
First on the scene to assist Dede and others were Lynda Schueler and Sheri Hackett, another PADS staffer. They quickly evaluated the situation and realized that all Madden was able to provide were two empty pavilions. PADS, however, had four assets which helped them meet the daunting challenge of meeting the basic needs of what would grow to sixty guests and seven pets (four dogs, two cats and a guinea pig): a network of 800 volunteers, a staff which could be on site for the first few days, connections with resources, and experience in dealing with homeless people.
“We put the call out to our volunteers,” Schueler said, “and we got a pretty good response back. We were having to staff not one shelter like we were used to doing but two. We were needing 37 to 40 volunteers per day. We established eight hour shifts with shift leaders from among our more experienced site captains who knew how to run a shelter, organize and delegate.”
The PADS volunteers not only had experience but had been working in a organizational culture in which the homeless who slept in PADS shelters were referred to as “guests.”
One volunteer, Doug Wyman, shared the story of a conversation he had with one of the evacuees. Wyman asked the man if he planned to return to New Orleans. The man replied that he was going to remain in this area, explaining his decision by saying, “I’ve never been treated so well by white men in my life.”
Alan Arbuckle was one of the PADS volunteers who responded immediately to the email Schueler sent out, and was there already on September 6, a Wednesday. “By Thursday or Friday,” he remembered, “we were inundated with doctors from Loyola, nurses from Cook County and mental health care professionals from Pro Care on Lake Street. They all came and did thorough evaluations.”
He was impressed by the doctors who were “humble and did whatever needed to be done.” He told of highly educated people who had never volunteered before in their lives, who had life changing experiences as they cared for evacuees.
Arbuckle recalled the chaos in which the volunteers were working. “We didn’t have any equipment. Each agency kept its own files so we had no unified file for each guest. I didn’t know from moment to moment what was happening.” So he decided to step in and try to create some order. He was rewarded with what amounted to a field commission for his efforts, being appointed as director of the program at the end of September.
“All my life,” he said, “I’ve dealt with volunteer situations: the Special Olympics, outings for disabled kids, and, of course, PADS. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, sometimes fighting to get the bare necessities.”
Gradually, other agencies and businesses came on board. The Volunteer Center in Oak Park took over the bulk of the work of answering phones and scheduling volunteers. The United Way kicked in money to help buy supplies. Local restaurants began supplying food to supplement the heroic efforts of the Madden kitchen staff which was given no extra money to feed sixty extra people. Catholic Charities provided lawyers and case workers who helped the evacuees recover the money they lost when FEMA checks and vouchers were mailed to the wrong address. The mayor of Maywood, Henderson Yarbrough, invited forty of the evacuees to St. Eulalia Catholic Church for Christmas dinner.
For one who had to deal with the lack of preparedness on a 24/7 basis for three months, Arbuckle was extremely sympathetic to the people who work for state and federal agencies. “People from FEMA, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Madden did a terrific job of making do with what they had…People performed better than the system.”
“It wasn’t some disaster preparedness plan that came from the state or federal government,” Schueler concluded. “It was a grass roots effort, people pulling together at the local level. It was the insight and experience of people who had come together and knowing that you wouldn’t have to do this alone.”
By December all of the evacuees had left Madden. According to Arbuckle, only one-quarter of them returned to New Orleans. Half chose to remain in this area and 25 percent moved on to other areas. He said that most who stayed around here were hooked up with congregations which could give them rides to go shopping and help them furnish apartments.
Because he has severe, chronic arthritis, John Dede is applying for disability. He spends his time “helping a lot of people” who are fellow evacuees or neighbors or those among his new friends. “It’s my way of thanking the people who helped me.”