From the Hurricanes Katrina & Rita Call Center, Bakersfield, California
We don’t receive the call confirming our Red Cross assignment until the day after the Owl is freed. It is almost Mabon, the autumnal equinox, and the vineyard that borders our home cascades plastic netting, strung to protect the grape harvest from the peck of the birds. A young Owl has caught her talons in the web, and then in her struggle, has bound her wings to her frame in a synthetic stranglehold so that every movement squeezes the life from her chest. The ranch manager Hector holds her while I slice across the net’s rigid lines with a knife, Owl’s enormous eyes boring into me, her beak screaming silently, the choke at her throat severe until we loosen the wings that must expand. The last of the net is loosened and she flies high into the eucalyptus grove, the vast light of her gaze a clutch in the mind I cannot dispel.
The trip is cancelled. There are no ready assignments in the time we have asked for vacations from work. And then there is a telephone call, at mid afternoon, the day before we are asked to depart, an invitation to DR303, the Hurricane Katrina Call Center in Bakersfield, California. I’m miffed at both the sudden urgency and the administrative task-minding the assignment appears to be. We had wanted to be in the action, to be called to my native South, to work with the people face to face, like our friends who were hiring pilots and renting trucks and zooming in with supplies, heroically rescuing families from rooftops and whisking the ill and elderly from the Convention Center. Instead we learn that our job will be helping people get access to emergency money from a phone bank in a town in the middle of nowhere. The next day, as we drive through the mountain desert’s oil fields I remember that it is the second anniversary of my husband’s surgery and chemotherapy for cancer, a treatment that nearly ended his life and completely altered his personality. “We said we would do whatever assignment came,” I say to him, mostly to reassure myself, “We said we would do it as an offering for the new life we have been given, right?” He looks at me sideways, oil pumps tipping behind him as far as I can see, nodding his head, clearly along for the ride.
At four o’clock we walk into a room of such cacophony that it automatically causes my heart to pulse faster, my skin to flush with heat. We’ve been escorted through two security checks, been given visitor’s badges and ushered into a room pounded by rows of florescent lights that shine onto long tables covered with white plastic, over which lean sleek laptop computers and slate telephones that pulse with the luciferous light of the technological. Four hundred operators hired by the Red Cross mock-speak from scripts designed to appear friendly and professional: “How were you affected by Hurricane Katrina?” We join a group of employees and volunteers training in the use of the Red Cross’ database system, which we learn was developed to track victims of mass disasters, their household members, and residence histories as well as the assistance that is given. In a couple of hours we’re considered system savvy, and we’re taken to meet the director of our shift, Bill, a military man who prizes organization and hierarchy, and our team leader, Ken, a straight-laced Iowan who has worked similar set-ups in Guam and Florida. This call center operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and we’re assigned the graveyard shift and sent to a nearby motel at midnight to check-in and hopefully rest a bit until we report for the next night’s duty. We try to stay awake all night watching CNN from our soft bed, thinking of the volunteers sleeping on cots, the shelters without cool air and hot showers, and the food that when it does come, is cold and tinny.
The Red Cross volunteers are middle-aged and finally child-free, like ourselves, or they are young, twenty-something, the age of our children, taking leave from school and jobs to help the one-million people who have so far, been affected by this disaster. We’re introduced to Jay from Seattle, Brynda from Wisconsin, John and Matt from Minnesota, and a handful of Californians who have driven in, like us, though they really wanted to be flying to Louisiana. This Call Center was set up in a matter of days, and is an experiment in providing massive and speedy cash assistance to Red Cross ‘clients’ the usual method being sending teams out in the field to do assessments of property, injury, illness and the means to afford recovery. It is three weeks into Katrina’s first strike and the first wave of volunteers is a well-trained, disaster-proven team while we, the second wave, are a rag-tag band of newcomers, mostly having been propelled into action by the pictures from the Superdome and the Convention Center. We’re to do client case work, though we barely know what that is; we’re to troubleshoot and provide support to the operators, who when they need assistance, raise red flags for case managers, and blue cards for mental health professionals and makeshift cards with duct tape on them for the nurses. We run from operator to operator, every five to ten minutes, assisting in verifying the identity of a client, talking to distraught victims, unthreading problems in sending the funds to Western Union. For nine hours each day we will stop running from operator to operator only once, when our supervisor insists on a fifteen minute break in the cubicle in the back office, where we scarf nuts or cookies or early Halloween candy before we return to the warehouse of raucous screech.
In this town of 35% unemployment, the operators are mostly African-American, Latino or Asian, and many of them work two jobs, leave the graveyard shift to take children to school and then go on to a day job in order to make ends meet. Many of them are the same working poor who are only geographically separated from the folks who were hardest hit by the disaster. They can answer up to 12,000 calls a day. There are 1.4 million who try to reach us every twenty-four hours, often waiting all night for six hours to get through. I hear the operators whisper ‘honey’ and ‘baby’ over the telephone, commiserating when they detect the truth, and frowning when they suspect a fraud. Every so often an operator yells “Red Cross!” over and over into the microphone, trying to wake up a person sleeping on the other end of the line. When the client requests a supervisor we’re put on the line to provide a place for venting emotion, and to discuss solutions. “Is she a sister?” asks J. when I plug the headset into the phone; she wonders if we will be sending the needed cash. Another time K. slips me a note in girlish script: “You are a wonderful person and great speaker” which makes me cry because I’m not expecting the young ones to see the threads we are making from our voices, strands from volunteer to client that make me feel as if I am singing solace. Each night, though we barely know each other’s names, the operators and volunteers watch over each other, making a practice of listening, of noticing the cues and impulses and inflections that can inform a choice, perhaps save a life. C. has tears in her eyes when I ask if she’s having a good night. No, she’s not, she says, her boyfriend went into a coma just before the shift began. I pat her back, guide her to meet with one of the mental health counselors, keep an eye on her until the morning. Later, B., a young man working his way through college eyes me when I approach his red flag, and sternly advises as he hands me the headset: “Listen to her. She’s in trouble.” Meaning, break the policy – I have found an exception to the rule.
One of the rules is that we will not give out client information. At midnight the first woman I speak with is looking for her sister and she is not showing up on any of the missing persons lists. As I gather the details of the places the family has been, the operator locates the missing sister in our database. When I tell her we have a phone number, the woman screams on the other end of the phone, and I hear the people near her rouse from their sleep and shout back. In my mind, I can see the dimly lit shelter where a long line of people stand behind the woman; I feel them resting and waiting as they will be asked to do every time they want something. This phone will be handed from person to person, finally to twenty families before it is cradled at daybreak.
Midweek I talk with L. who is in her late twenties, living in a shelter in Texas with her two children. Her landlord has called to tell her the apartment building in New Orleans is being razed, and she has a few days to move her things, which she hasn’t seen since the flood, so she doesn’t know if she still has things, or a sodden mess of clothing and furniture she’d have to haul to the corner to go to the dump. L has no money for gas, much less a U-Haul, and she had no savings to help her with the evacuation, which has already cost her a hundred dollars just to get to a shelter. “You don’t understand m’am,” a phrase I’ll hear dozens of times each day, as they press their stories toward me, ‘Look, look, this is what it is to be poor, to be without options.’
In the shelter in which she has lived for three weeks she sleeps with her children ‘wrapped around her legs,’ she tells me, because she’d heard a story of a woman whose eleven-month-old baby had been taken from her in the night and sodomized. Only she doesn’t say those words, but instead, “They killed that baby, m’am, they took him out back by the dumpster and they poked his bottom with knives and whatever else they could get their hands on. I’ve got to get out of here. My babies can’t sleep in here…”
I can’t hold this possibility; can’t imagine it; it cracks my world to believe that it is true. I ask if I can place her on hold for a moment and I breathe, trying to force that story from my body but it won’t leave. I try to imagine that it is a stretch of the truth, that it is one of the rumors that made the rounds, like the rapes in the Convention Center, the murders in the streets that were reported on, then discounted for lack of police record. I try to remember the caution from the supervisors to avoid personalizing the client’s pain. I try to think of what the counselor told me about people being off their medications, and the hallucinations that swirled in these places they gathered – maybe this was someone’s vision and it was passed from person to person, as if it were a memory. It’s too late – it’s her truth and it has already sunk into my belly, where it will live.
Every story is going into me, and I am feeling connected to each of the voices -- the woman who can't find formula for her baby and who has no work and is living out of her car; the soldier who flew home from Iraq so his wife could go to war, and had to walk his three young children out of the Superdome and through the floodwaters out of the city in order to keep them safe; the old man who waited for days to get through and is sleeping, snoring softly on the other end of the line; the grandmother who is living amongst raw sewage and whose grandchildren have high fevers; the student whose daddy took off with the FEMA money to smoke it, abandoning her with only the clothes on her back; the estranged father who calls to claim his four children whom he hasn’t seen in a year, then snaps up the emergency funds and leaves the children and their mother without a lifeline; the woman who had a stroke and was dragged through the infested waters by her daughter, only to miraculously recover and walk out of the city herself.
The people are sad and angry and heartbroken and insanely poor, and a hundred stories each night pour into each of us in that harshly pulsing room, and it is as if we are not separated by physical distance, the survivors and ourselves. They sit at their kitchen tables, and they walk their dark streets and they stand at pay phones in the church halls, and they cry and tell us that they haven’t told anyone this yet; they’re asking us to witness what can’t be said in the daylight, what hasn’t been told in the news. We’ve become the Owl, circling in the night, watching, encoding.
One of the counselors calls us the ‘second disaster,’ a term coined by mental health professionals to define the myriad red tape debacles that await every disaster survivor. There’s FEMA and the insurance companies and the unemployment agency and even the Red Cross, who as a large organization, survives on policies and criteria that don’t always benefit the person whose life doesn’t fit neatly into the box. ‘Use your good sense,’ we’re told when one of these people comes our way, and I take the team leaders at their word, offering to help many who do not meet the agency’s condition for most-in-need – severe home damage.
One night it is the fisherman who calls needing cash to pay for his wife’s funeral. On the eve of the hurricane he’d gone out to protect his investment – the shrimp boat that provided for the family’s income – and left his wife in a nursing home where he thought she’d be safe. He returned to find her drowned inside the building, and he with no funds to offer her a ‘respectful burial’ he said. The operator and I share a long gaze, write notes back and forth while he talks, figuring a way to help with his wake.
Now Hurricane Rita has come and gone, and we’re already receiving the frantic calls from Texas and Mississippi and Alabama. The Red Cross has not yet made a damage assessment, and we’re awaiting the announcement of the zip codes in the newly affected areas, which will legitimize the need for funding. Their homes are under water they are telling us; their towns without power and food they are telling us; they have lost everything they are telling us, and they’ve used the last of their funds on expensive gas that burned in long waits on stalled freeways. They don’t have money for food or hotels or more gas, they’re telling us, and they’re out there, running out of cell phone minutes while they wait for someone to realize they are just as needy as the first wave of hurricane victims. We wait all night long but the new zip code list never arrives. Most of us are one disaster away from ruin, I think, pretending we live lives safe from interruption, pretending we are insulated from catastrophe.
We have passed the early phases of the disaster, the stages that according to the book, “Disaster Mental Health Services” are oriented to exhilaration, to heroism, to acts of bravery and compassion beyond the ordinary. We are now ensconced in the disillusionment phase, the one where people are angry and tired, and fed up with how the system works or doesn’t, and who just want things to be back the way they were, or at least defined, clear. The Call Center has served almost a million households in a few weeks, offering cash assistance or scheduling visits from volunteers in the field, who will meet with each family to help set up a plan. Still, the people want more. They can’t understand why their neighbor with such little damage has been given so much while they’ve had to wait, to suffer through endless busy signals while the promised assistance vaporized into future appointments they will have to wait for once more. Each night we volunteer to listen to people who yell at us, who threaten us, who promise they will take our names to the radio stations, to CNN, to the President, and even to God. We are told we are going to rot in hell because the cash is not provided immediately, we are told our souls are without mercy because we ask them to wait for what we hope will be a few more days for a Red Cross volunteer to show up and assess the damage in person. We do not tell them that the Red Cross is out of money, that we are borrowing cash based on pledges from the American people, as this disaster rockets past a billion dollars in emergency funds given. We learn to soften our voices, and to avoid taking it personally, and to hear them out with compassion; we ask ourselves to meet the screaming and swearing and desperation with clear seeing, with clear listening. We try to remember that we would be in the same despair too, if this were us. We know that they are fighting for the survival of their families, their communities, the place they used to call home. We observe without expectation, ask ourselves if this is someone who requires an intervention, whose hope might be restored through one small act we can make in this moment. We recall that their stories are saving us, that we are being restored through seeking to understand their truth.
We breathe and we remember that when we have finished our shift, we can walk out into the breaking sunlight. In our mostly dependable and comfortable lives, we can lean into each other for a moment and realize that our true needs have been met, that weeks before what we thought were needs were only desires masquerading as requirements.