Red Cross first responder recalls joy amid chaos

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As a member of the American Red Cross Mental Health Disaster Team, and living in the Washington, D.C., area, I was a first responder to the Pentagon attack site. Four years later, and living in Northwest Indiana, I was asked to be a first responder to the new attack on the United States, and in particular, on New Orleans.
 This time it was a natural disaster. The big one hit the Big Easy: Katrina.

New Orleans had been special to me for several years. My eldest daughter had gone to school there. I loved the place – its history, architecture, the food, of course, but mostly the people. So when the Red Cross called, of course, I immediately agreed to go as a first responder. So off I went.

I boarded a flight out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and a couple of hours later, landed in Baton Rouge. Landing in Baton Rouge, with Red Cross vests on, we were greeted with cheers and welcomes. We heard, “Thanks for coming to help us.” As one of many doctors, nurses and other volunteers, we were met by a Red Cross representative and shuttled to the shell of a big box store, which was now command central for the Red Cross. We were given our respective marching orders and then sent to a shelter for the night to sleep before we were sent our separate ways the next morning.

My duty station would be New Orleans, whereas others were sent to other Gulf Coast locations. My billeting would be in Kenner – the Kenner jail, to be precise. “Cellblock Purple” would be my home for the next 10 days. There, I would be assigned areas to cover, either with police or the military, as homes in the carnage had to be searched for survivors or, God forbid, for the bodies of those who didn’t make it through the storm.

Writing numbers and codes on houses searched is one experience I didn't expect. Counseling the young soldiers and even young police officers, as they, too, reacted to a task for which they were not prepared, was a challenge. Fortunately, as a Navy psychologist during the Vietnam War, I had first-hand experience in crisis intervention. But, experience is one thing; getting used to it is another. Candidly, I don’t want to have to experience either event again.

I thought I had seen enough tragedy doing crisis interven- tion during my Navy years, but seeing what I consider as being the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – pestilence, war, famine and death – shook me to the core.

Seeing houses submerged in water to the roofline and the roof on fire, I could only imagine that I was seeing hell. Shaking off those sights, I focused on working with the people, and in particular, the children, inasmuch as my specialty was pediatric neuropsychology.

While handing out MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), I passed out toys and stuffed animals I had brought with me. Later, I was able to buy more once Walmart opened. Seeing the eyes of children light up after having been so frightened and sad was worth any discomfort I experienced in my 10 days there.

And, in the solitude of Cell- block Purple of the Kenner jail, I prayed. I prayed for the children, for the adults and for the city. I think my prayers were heard.

In times of crisis many people, myself included, rely on faith, and New Orleans certainly has that. New Orleans has a patroness, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, who has been involved many times in the history of New Orleans, and I believe she heard the cries of the city once again. 

New Orleans lives.

Dr. Tom Bellino was a member of the American Red Cross Mental Health Disaster Team that responded to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as well as the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. His recently released, best selling book, “Bac Si: A Novel,” was written mostly in New Orleans.

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