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From disaster relief to rebuilding lives

Stories from the shelters

by Tom Walker – 

In San Antonio, Texas, evacuees from New Orleans are being housed in four mass shelters run by The Salvation Army. Former air force base hangars, a former office building and an old Montgomery Ward’s in an abandoned mall currently serve as a temporary “home” to the displaced flood victims. Though I cannot really know their suffering, I was able to walk alongside of them for a time. Below are a few of their stories:

Joe had escaped the flood by floating on a shed door that had blown off. I found him in the hallway of the shelter, somewhat disoriented. He was searching for his ID wristband; together we found a replacement. His family is in a Dallas shelter––when he hears from his daughter, The Salvation Army will give him a bus ticket to Dallas.

Miss Amelia, in her 80s, managed to bring out pictures of her great-grandchildren. Her spirit is very strong, though she is in a wheelchair. She has not spoken with her family yet, and doesn’t know if they made it out. But, she “feels it in her bones” that they are OK, and that they will find her eventually.

Angela, age 64, was the first person I met who was in the Superdome the week of the hurricane. It was hell; she, her son-in-law and her daughter huddled in a corner, fearing for their lives. She has blisters on her feet from wearing wet slippers there––she had to wash them every time she visited the overflowing rest room. Still, she is so grateful for San Antonio; her faith is strong. “God helped me through,” she says.

Thomas stayed at the convention center in New Orleans until Thursday night after the hurricane. He was “just tired––tired of promises, promises that didn’t materialize. “They said ‘Buses are coming, buses are coming’ but they don’t come, they don’t come.” Knowing he was wary of being told something that might not pan out, I walked with him to The Salvation Army’s bus ticket desk. Later, he had a big smile and a voucher for Greyhound, his ticket to leave and start over.

Hollis shuffled down the hallway in a wheelchair and readily accepted my help to get to the dining room; he hadn’t eaten all day, having just arrived today from a local hospital. When he was evacuated to San Antonio by helicopter from the Tulane University hospital in New Orleans, he was very ill with a high fever and pneumonia. He is still very weak, but took both my hands to thank me. It isn’t me; we are one in the Spirit.

An elderly lady was looking for FEMA signup. I took her there. She embraced my hand with tears in her eyes. “Thank you so much.” “Do you have family?” I asked. “No, I’m by myself, but I have made friends,” she answered. “I guess we’re all family now.” And holding my hand tight, she said, “God bless you” before I could say it.

I was reminded many times of the opening verses in the Bible––God’s Spirit is brooding over the face of the deep, a symbol for chaos. God eventually separates the waters and creates the world, out of nothing. That’s how God works, and that’s how God is working in the lives of these people, parting the waters and the chaos and creating in them new hope, new possibilities and new life out of nothing. Their belongings are gone, but their spirits, for the most part, are intact. Though the storm was tragic, these people are not.

And my favorite encounter of the day:

A man with a cane, walking slowly, singing, “Precious Lord, Take my hand.” I know the words, so I walked alongside and sang it with him. Big smile. Perfect words for this situation. Strong voices singing together, very slowly, feeling the truth in each phrase:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, help me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, Precious Lord,
Lead me home.

Amen.


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