Monday, September 12, 2005

Another Tough Day

[Note: I’ve changed the names of the friends mentioned in this email, to
preserve their privacy and because I’m living in such a terribly
homophobic culture. I know many of you are sharing these emails with
friends, too, so I wanted to make sure you could continue to do so.]

Dear family and friends,

No email last night. I was too tired, after waking at 4am and then
having a very tough day.

After getting up so early, I managed to get a fair section of my article
on using technology in times of disaster written for the Herald. Helen
and Maureen and Maryann had gone off to mass, while Lillie was up north
in Tallulah visiting her sister Jane, who has been lent a house there
for a short time.

I’d thought all my friends were okay since Katrina, but we hadn’t been
able to contact our friend Martin. Martin’s a friend from New Orleans
who moved to Mississippi almost two years ago after his partner, Gerald,
died from cancer. I had assumed Martin was okay because he lives in a
trailer just north of Pass Christian in Mississippi and because of his
vulnerable position he has always packed up and evacuated early when a
hurricane approaches. I assumed he’d done so this time.

But we hadn’t heard from him and his contact details were one of the
things I lost in our own evacuation. So I asked around other friends and
although no-one had heard from him, one person had a phone number. He’d
tried several times and got no answer at all.

So I tried the phone number and got the same result, but looking at the
number one of the digits didn’t seem to match my recollection of his
number. So I started substituting digits and although I didn’t get an
answer, one of those numbers clicked in my memory so I sent a text message.

About an hour later I got a call from Martin. He was in dire straits. He
hadn’t evacuated, and as soon as he said so I recalled that last time he
evacuated it had been a nightmare because he has numerous dogs and two
cats and two rabbits and he took them all with him, but then could not
get accommodation because of the animals. So he spent a couple of nights
beside the road in his little pickup with the animals before returning
to his trailer. This time, he just couldn’t face evacuation and by the
time he knew he should have gone, it was too late.

So he was in the direct path of the storm with the eyewall going over
him. One of the dreadful things about hurricanes is that the right front
quadrant of the storm spawns tornadoes. So, on top of 120 mph sustained
winds in Katrina there was terrible danger from 200-300 mph tornadoes.
Two tornadoes went straight through the land where Martin had his
trailer. There’s also a metal barn on the property, so when he realised
the storm was getting really intense, he ferried his dogs and other
animals into the barn, grabbed the jar containing Gerald’s ashes, drove
his pickup into the barn, closed the door and weathered the storm in
there. He said that 45 minutes after he got into the barn, the tornadoes
had passed through and his trailer wasn’t demolished, it was completely
blown away. He found it later about 14 country blocks distant wrapped
around a tree.

Martin has had a really hard time since Gerald died. He used to own a
business and live in one of New Orleans’ characterful old
neighbourhoods. After Gerald died, he was left in bad financial straits
and, being gay, received no benefits or assistance. He sold his house,
bought the trailer and moved to Mississippi. He is himself not well, is
on a disability benefit and unable to work, so his world has become
increasingly narrower over the past two years.

When he rang, he was suicidal. Not only had he lost almost everything he
possessed but he’d also seen a person’s body hanging in a tree as well
as numerous dead animals in the trees after the storm had passed.

I talked with him for a long time, gave him some contact numbers for
support organisations (he rang while I was researching my article on how
the Internet helps in times of disaster and I had the National Suicide
Prevention Service’s web page open in front of me when his call came in)
and said I’d get some cash to him as soon as I could get to the bank.
When he hung up, he sounded a little calmer.

Helen and Maureen arrived home from mass shortly after and as soon as I
told Helen, she said let’s pack up the car and take him some supplies.
So that’s what we did. We collected water, juice and canned food for him
(most of it the supplies Lillie and I brought with us from New Orleans),
pooled together our cash, and then grabbed a bunch of other stuff from
the house: clothes from Charlie, a hurricane lamp Lillie and I had
evacuated with, batteries, blankets and towels. We put together an ice
chest and a pot of Maryann’s gumbo and French bread so he could have
some real food. I texted him that we were coming and to hold on. Finally
got a call back from him and we agreed to meet just past the
Louisiana/Mississippi border on I10 (Interstate Route 10).

The trip over took about 90 minutes. The roads are open all the way
through to Mississippi, but not heading south from I10 to New Orleans.
The further east we got, the worse the devastation. Whole swathes of
large trees were snapped in two. Pine trees were simply bowled over by
the dozen. Massive power and lighting towers were lying beside the road.

We met Martin at a truck parking stop about 10 miles across the border.
I think just the knowledge we were coming had calmed him. We transferred
all the stuff over into his truck. It was boiling hot and no shade, so
we followed him down the road looking for a place where we could sit and
talk out of the sun. At one point, we turned off I10 southwards, and
then suddenly realised we were on the road to Waveland, a town totally
obliterated by Katrina’s storm surge. There were a bunch of service
stations just near the turnoff and they were crumpled flat. At first I
thought the concrete on their driveways had been ripped up, but then
realised it was mud all over the ground. The storm surge had carried it
inland five miles to this point.

We got back on I10 and eventually stopped at a closed rest area, walked
around the barricades and sat down amidst the rubble in a shelter.
Martin couldn’t stay long because there’s a 5pm curfew in his county, so
he had to get back home before then.

It was heartbreaking to be with someone who already had so very little
before Katrina came, and then lost it all. And he was so upset about our
house. He kept saying “You and Lillie. Your poor beautiful house. I’ve
lost so little in comparison.” It’s awful seeing someone in so much need
who feels his loss is less because it’s not the same in monetary terms.
And his devotion to his animals makes him more vulnerable, as does his
being gay. All his medical needs were being met in New Orleans, which
doesn’t share Mississippi’s general homophobia. So he’s now without a
doctor and a clinic.

We left him in a more hopeful mood. We’re working to organise some good
connections for him in Baton Rouge, so he can plug into a community, and
we’ll get an alternative source for his medications. And Helen is
getting her fundraising connections on the boil trying to get the money
for a replacement trailer (FEMA told him they’d give him $1000 for the
loss of his trailer!).

When we got back to Baton Rouge, Helen started putting out feelers to
people who can hopefully offer him help. That’s one of her many, many
strengths. If something needs doing, she gets it done.

I phoned Martin again today (Monday) because it is the second
anniversary of Gerald’s death and I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel
completely alone. Helen was going to phone him, too, and we’d organised
another friend to call him. He sounded much better. He said that because
of us today was not hard, and that going through all the boxes of things
we’d delivered to him had made the previous evening like Christmas. He’d
been so pleased to meet Helen and Maureen and the gumbo had been his
first decent food since Katrina.

Today I’ve been doing work for the Death Penalty Discourse Center,
trying to get their new email and Internet arrangements working
adequately before I leave on Wednesday. Helen has left on another
speaking tour, and so I may not see her for a long time. Maureen and I
took her to the airport this morning and it wasn’t until I hugged her
goodbye that I realised this was the first of many partings from people
who are normally in my everyday circle. It is so hard to be moving away
from friends and family at a time we most need them.

Thanks for all your emails and phone calls and support. I know it’s hard
to get through to me on the phone; hopefully that will be a little
easier when we get to Houston. And I love to hear how you’re doing, even
if I don’t reply to emails promptly.