With the ringing of bells and a few blurred eyes, Southeast Louisiana Red Cross Chapter employees, volunteers and supporters commemorated the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina outside of their former offices on Canal Street in New Orleans. The devastated building is still boarded up, so the gathering took place under a white tent in the back parking.
American Red Cross employees, volunteers and supporters gathered outside of the former offices in New Orleans. The ringing of the bells symbolized ringing out the old and bringing in the new.
(Photo Credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross)
After a year when 21 of the chapter’s 42 employees left the Red Cross and its volunteer base shrank from 1,700 to a few hundred, the bell-ringing was designed to ring out a year of painful change and welcome a year of new beginnings.
Before the ringing, New Orleans community leaders shared their memories, tinged with sadness over the past year’s events, but marked with hope for a better New Orleans.
“We had confidence, but then on Aug. 29, our confidence turned into chaos,” said Reverend R. L. Palmer Jr., referring to Katrina. “But this chaos is opening doors—revealing through them what needed to be addressed...out of this chaos is rebirth.”
Kay Wilkins, executive director of the Southeast Louisiana Red Cross Chapter, recounted her recent visit with a group of school children who survived Katrina.
“I can’t wait for the world to be theirs,” she said. “They won’t forget what they’ve gone through.”
After the ringing, employees were allowed into the building. For many, this was their first chance to visit inside their former workplace since it stood in six feet of water for nearly three weeks after the storm. The first floor was virtually unrecognizable, but the upper floors still resembled how they looked on Aug. 27, when the staff evacuated.
Amanda Davis and Lynette Roberson look through Roberson's former office space for momentos.
(Photo Credit: Amanda Mark/American Red Cross)
“The building is almost the same as when we left,” Wilkins said. “It’s an indication of what we’ve all gone through. How different our lives are now, but you can turn a corner and it’s like it was yesterday.”
Amanda Davis, development director, and Lynette Roberson, the former public relations coordinator who is now in law school, wove through the dark, humid interior to find their desks.
“All this stuff that I thought was so important,” said Roberson as she rummaged through her office and looked at receipts, forms and media clips. “Now I don’t need any of it.”
Support and Partnerships Guided Chapter Leader
Wilkins is a slim, blonde woman, but she leaves no doubt the weight that she is capable of carrying—and has carried for the past year.
“I had a lot of people who were depending on me to not fall apart,” Wilkins said. “These fine people had been through hell. I did everything I could to ease their pain. I couldn’t take the pain away away, but I could help.”
Wilkins arranged for counseling for all of her employees.
“I worked very hard to bring in support, but then to also give back their responsibility when they were ready for it,” she explained.
Wilkins also needed support and she found it through a colleague about a thousand miles away. A few weeks after Katrina, Linda Mathes, executive of the National Capital Area Chapter in Washington, D.C., called to offer assistance.
“She said, ‘I’m really worried about your chapter—we’d like to adopt you’,” Wilkins said. “She sent their emergency services director down for three months, an aquatics director, mental health workers...she has been a true friend.”
Hurricane Season Arrives as Chapter Continues Recovery
As the chapter worked to help Southeast Louisiana in its recovery while it grappled with its own, the 2006 hurricane season arrived on June 1. Wilkins realized that she had a lot of staff who were still fragile and worried about what they would face during another storm.
“We developed programs to talk about sheltering and how it would work,” Wilkins said. “We talked a lot about how we can help ourselves physically, emotionally and even spiritually.”
Wilkins also took every staff member out to a small, private lunch in groups of four to five.
“We’d take two hours and we’d talk about how Katrina had changed our lives. I’d tell them about my life; we’d talk about how hard it was for our families,” Wilkins explained. “And then we transitioned to this season—about what scared us and how we were moving forward.”
Through these conversations, Wilkins recognized their fears and instilled confidence in her employees.
“We’ve made some great plans that have made us feel empowered,” she said.
As the Southeast Louisiana Chapter continues to rebuild its employee and volunteer base and strengthen its hurricane preparedness plan, Wilkins is heartened by the diligent work of her colleagues here and around the Gulf Coast.
“We had some of the worst days of our lives and some of the best days,” she said. “But we’re still here.”
Closing the bell ceremony, Wilkins encouraged her listeners: “Keep your bell ringing all year long.”
The American Red Cross has helped people mobilize to help their neighbors for 125 years. Last year, victims of a record 72,883 disasters, most of them fires, turned to the nearly 1 million volunteers and 35,000 employees of the Red Cross for help and hope. Through more than 800 locally supported chapters, more than 15 million people each year gain the skills they need to prepare for and respond to emergencies in their homes, communities and world. Almost 4 million people give blood—the gift of life—through the Red Cross, making it the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The Red Cross helps thousands of U.S. service members separated from their families by military duty stay connected. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a global network of more than 180 national societies, the Red Cross helps restore hope and dignity to the world's most vulnerable people. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.