Volunteers in awe of destruction, survivors

Juneau residents return after helping hurricane victims

Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2005

Writing a check wouldn't have been enough, say some of the Juneau residents who have returned home after helping victims of the worst Atlantic hurricane season on record.

They say they were compelled to reach out to those who have suffered.

"You don't do it because you're expecting something in return," said Leslie Antolick, who was granted leave from Riverbend Elementary School, where she works as a computer technician, to distribute supplies to people returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "All we have is each other."

George Briggs, Southeast regional director for the American Red Cross of Alaska, said a lot of people in the area continue to be generous with their money and time. Tuesday, four more left for Florida to help victims of Hurricane Wilma.

Briggs estimated that Southeast Alaskans donated more than $100,000 to help victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Meanwhile, 47 people have gone from Southeast Alaska - about 35 from Juneau - to assist with relief efforts. Still more have volunteered but haven't been deployed, he added.

"You don't go alone," said Janice Gray, Bartlett Regional Hospital's nurse manager for the critical care unit, emergency department and cardiac rehabilitation. She worked as a nursing supervisor for nine shelters in the Baton Rouge area.

"I got to go because people let me, the people I work with," she said.

Linda Wahl, who works part-time at Annie Kaill's and has two young special-needs children at home, said it was "her time." She went to a shelter in the Gulfport-Biloxi area of the Mississippi coast.

"I wanted to go to work in whatever way God was going to use me - whatever could be done in God's strength," she said.

Steve Iha, a paramedic who retired from Capital City Fire and Rescue in May, said he talked with his wife, Ursula, and their two sons before he set up a clinic in Monroe, La., for hurricane evacuees.

"What they were really hurting for was medical expertise," Iha said.

Wahl said flexibility was important. The shelter was in a hockey rink, with cots set up for 200 people in the skating area.

"These were people who lost everything," Wahl said. "They needed to talk. You spend a lot of time listening."

She saw a casino barge that had leveled everything in its path and landed a quarter-mile inland. The tornados spinning out from the hurricane turned homes into debris.

Some mailboxes were standing untouched, she said. But she drove past a man sweeping steps to a house that was no longer there.

Pictures don't illustrate the destruction, Gray said. She visited New Orleans at midday, when it was eerily quiet. There were no birds, streets were deserted and everywhere was a fine, gray mud.

"The smells were horrible," she said.

"Just the sheer destruction was not what I expected," said Antolick, who delivered supplies through six relief sites.

The displaced were coming back to homes without electricity or potable water, in an area where they wouldn't be able to buy food. What wasn't destroyed had flood damage. Many returned home to black mold.

Antolick said she was impressed by the people's strength and resilience. She worked in a park shelter that had been taken over by gangs before the hurricane. A man told her he hoped the gangs never come back.

She knows her efforts were appreciated. Many told her they wouldn't have been able to come home without her help.

"I was blessed more in two weeks than the entire time I went to Catholic school," she said.

Iha ran a clinic in a shelter 100 miles north of Baton Rouge and 300 miles from the Gulf Coast. The center was carved out of a 9-acre building that had once been an insurance company's national processing center.

Because it had once been an office building, there were no showers. People were bused to a local high school to wash, before portable showers were brought in by truck.

The clinic cared for people with a variety of health problems. Many had pre-existing conditions.

"There were no medical records," Iha said. There were large numbers of diabetics and people with high blood pressure. Flu cases, upper respiratory ailments and infections among "people immersed in the yucky water" became common.

"We got three (kidney) dialysis patients," Iha said. Many people had gone without their normal medication.

The Red Cross is good at supplying immediate disaster relief to people's needs in the first 24 to 72 hours, he said. To do what needed to be done, "we stretched the guidelines," he said, tracking patients and keeping ongoing files that normally would be closed in an emergency response operation.

Wal-Mart brought in pharmaceutical technicians to set up a satellite pharmacy, and both Wal-Mart and Walgreens donated medications.

There was so much to do, Iha said, likening the task to eating an elephant. "It doesn't even seem like you're making a dent."

Gray recalled one day among the long 16- to 18-hour days.

"On the 10th day, I couldn't stop crying," she said.

So many people needed so many things, she said.

"I thought if I worked harder I could get more things for more people," Gray said. "The more I did, the more needed to be done."

On another occasion, she got her "best gumbo ever," thanks to evacuated master chefs who were tired of eating shelter food.

Wahl said that after she came home, her 5-year-old daughter prayed before going to bed, asking God to "help Mommy's heart because she cares so much for those people."

She's hoping to return to the area with a church group as the rebuilding continues. It will take a long time, she added.

"My fear is that people will forget these people are there," Antolick said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com

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