When Hurricane Katrina came calling at the Gulf Coast a month and a half ago, she brought more than devastating winds, a catastrophic storm surge, death and utter chaos.
She also brought along love bugs.
And when the Medical Reserve Corps volunteers arrived to help a couple weeks after the disaster, the bugs were still there.
“The worst thing was the love bugs,” said Medical Reserve Corps volunteer Nancy Woodrey of Coeur d’Alene, who recently returned from three weeks in the hurricane-hammered region.
“They look like an earwig,” she said. “They don’t bite or sting, but they land on you all the time. …
“That’s how people really knew we were there for them. We were drenched in sweat and had these bugs all over us.”
Woodrey is one of 17 volunteers with the North Idaho contingent of the Medical Reserve Corps sent to help with the hurricane disaster relief. Corps members were deployed to help the American Red Cross and later the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explained Kerren Vollmer, the corps volunteer coordinator in North Idaho.
It’s the first time since the corps was formed in July 2002 that its volunteers – who number 1,140 in North Idaho – have been involved in a national incident, Vollmer said.
After the hurricane struck, volunteers were contacted to see if they were interested in going. Woodrey, a family consultant with Mountain States Early Head Start, jumped at the chance.
“I’d been to the trainings, and we always said, ‘What if?’ But I didn’t know how I would respond,” she said.
Woodrey wound up in Columbia, Miss., and Bayou La Batre, Ala., where she helped distribute hot meals, commodities and basic necessities to hurricane victims. She “camped out” on the floor of a church in Mississippi, helped scrub down another church in Bayou La Batre for a feeding station and spent a lot of time outside, enduring love bugs and accepting thanks from evacuees.
“We were handing out things to get them through the day,” she said. “Some people were living in their cars, some with family … One family lived in half their trailer, because they lost the roof in the other half.”
Dr. Norman Dubiel, a retired family physician from Kellogg, wasn’t a member of the Medical Reserve Corps before Katrina, but signed up when he learned that was how he could go to the Gulf region to lend a hand.
He left Sept. 21 to spend two weeks at a Red Cross shelter in a Folsom, La., community center north of New Orleans.
“It was a huge gymnasium that housed 150-plus evacuees,” Dubiel said. “They were all sizes and shapes and colors, youngsters, from babies all the way up to 70- or 80-year-old people.”
The 20 volunteers slept in a meeting room in the center, “cheek by jowl on cots, snoring,” he said. They had no showers until the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought portable decontamination communal showers, designed for chemical attacks and modified to deliver hot water.
Dubiel was disappointed when he arrived to learn that, despite his credentials, he wasn’t to do anything more than basic first aid and triage, because of Red Cross protocols.
“Our immediate problem was how to get people who needed prescriptions filled,” he said. So he made an arrangement with an overwhelmed local doctor who offered to sign for the medications that Dubiel prescribed.
The shelter had no problems with communicable diseases, no outbreaks of dysentery or cholera, and its occupants got along reasonably well, considering the conditions, he said.
“I learned that people can get along when they’re thrown together and they have equality,” he said. “Everyone is equal when it comes to recovery in a disaster.”
Barbara Russell, a registered nurse from Sandpoint, left for Montgomery, Ala., Sept. 13 as a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and expected to be deployed to an outlying shelter or service center.
But when she got to the abandoned Kmart store that served as a Red Cross headquarters, she learned that a nurse there had left after having a “meltdown.”
“They needed a volunteer to take over her position,” Russell said, so she took it, and spent three weeks putting together medical volunteer teams to send out to hurricane-ravaged communities and shelters.
It was a stressful job, she said.
“Everyone who came had their own agendas,” she said. “To unite them as a cohesive team to go out in the field and do great work was a great experience. I learned about myself and about group dynamics.”
She said the headquarters at times had 1,000 people crammed into the two-thirds of the building not filled with donated supplies. It was a huge change from North Idaho.
“Coming from living in Sandpoint, and living a very quiet lifestyle, close to the earth, and going to Montgomery, Ala., and being with hundreds of people in a Kmart for three weeks was amazing,” she said.
Nonetheless, Russell, like Dubiel and Woodrey, said she would do it again, no question.
“We were all there because this disaster had spoken to our hearts,” she said. “There were so many thousands and thousands of people who were evacuated and lost everything, everything.”