We drove home from Hospital City on Friday evening, and I am still emotionally wiped out. It has taken me this long just to sort it all out. I guess I should start... at the beginning, hmmm?
Hospital City was one of the early destinations for those brought out of New Orleans. Before Katrina had even struck, it was full of families fleeing before the storm. Now it has doubled in size in less than a week, strained to the breaking point to provide basic services for all of the survivors relocated here.
Hospital City is overwhelmed. The hotels are full of families, some of whom had evacuated ahead of the storm with their pets. They are shaken, to be sure, but they are safe and dry; they have their own vehicles, they have suitcases full of personal belongings.
Then there are those who arrived on the buses. They are sheltered all over the city - in churches, private homes, motels, civic buildings. They arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their back, and what few meager possessions they could carry. They left behind homes, pets, cars, clothing, everything. Their sadness and desperation is palpable in city - we felt guilty laughing, decadent in our happiness.
In the meantime, there are no available hotel rooms in the city; those who normally do business and visit Hospital City are finding that available hotel rooms are very scarce. We were lucky; because we have stayed so often at the small hotel across the river from The Hospital, the staff held a room for us that had been vacated just that morning by a family that was going to try and go home to south central Louisiana. Because there are simply not enough hotel or motel rooms available, more than half of the Shrine Temples that bring children to Hospital City have had to cancel the children's appointments for the foreseeable future.
Katrina: the storm that just keeps on "giving"...
So, we had another reason to be grateful; not only did we have our home waiting for us - safe, dry, clean, the pantry and fridge full - but we had a hotel room in a quiet little corner of the city, so that Twinkle could go to The Hospital. I felt like we were truly among the luckiest people in Hospital City that night.
We met many of the families that were staying at the hotel. Some were still clearly in shock; others were trying desperately to create a sense of normalcy for their children. One mother had gone to the local dollar store, and had bought a blank journal. She showed me her "book"; she said it was now one of her most precious possessions. Every page had something at the top - the name of the mortgage company, the insurance company on the next page. Employer information, vehicle insurance information, utility companies, each had it's own page. She was reconstructing her whole life in this little journal. She told me that it gave her a sense of purpose; it made her feel like she was doing something.
The last half of the book was left blank. The page just before had one word written at the top:
We knew that the hotel was full of families, and had brought games and puzzles and videos and glowsticks for the kids. The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and local churches had beat us there - the hotels breakfast room, ordinarily used only in the mornings for the "complimentary continental breakfast" was full of toys, clothes, and food - food for the families to eat after the free breakfast service every morning was gone. Bread, peanut butter, jelly, soup, chips, microwave popcorn, snack cakes, candy bars, juice boxes, soda pop and bottled water - enough bottled water to create a stack of cases the size of a dumpster. But the most touching sight for me was the pet food. Big, huge, enormous bags of dog food, cat food, and cat litter for the pets that were now living in the hotel. The hotel had tried to place all of the families with pets on the ground floor, so that they could walk the dogs easily, day or night. A small thing in the middle of a big crisis, but just another example of thoughtfulness that was clearly appreciated by those families.
Thursday evening, one of the families pulled out a treasured item that had been grabbed on the way out of the door - a digital video projector, along with a portable DVD player. The children made colorful posters from the crayons and construction paper that a local church had left, and posted them all over the hotel:
"Movie at 8:00 pm! Come and see The Movie called National Treasure! In the breakfast room at 8:00 oclock pm!
At 8:00 pm, the movie began, projected onto a bed sheet that was borrowed from the hotel laundry. The breakfast room was crowded with people that were creating a new community in this little hotel; the children sat on the floor, and for a while they forgot about going home, about friends lost and not yet found, about where they were going to live and go to school.
We watched from the doorway for a while, reluctant to intrude on the families temporary escape from a reality that is too horrific to contemplate.
We retreated to our hotel room, amazed at the people we had met, the outpouring of love and help and comfort from the residents of Hospital City for these people who have been displaced.
Friday morning, we arose early; 5:30 am. We quietly packed our suitcases into the van, and made our way back across the river before 7:00 am to The Hospital, where we hoped all would finally seem "normal".
The Hospital was right where we had left it.
But it wasn't "normal" at all, either...