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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Texas Cleanup Part 4: Registration

On the way back home...
How long did it seem?
3 days or 4? snow glazed all the trees

 

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When we arrived at the client shelter which had one tent of about 80 clients.  The shelter was on the grounds of an unused elementary school and in the middle of a torn up neighborhood.  The night shift Red Cross people were showing us the ropes and everything seemed manageable.  The clients were the people who had their homes destroyed by the hurricane and we were there to simply help them out in anyway possible.  This shelter had showers, laundry, 3 meals a day, and air conditioned tents.  For some people this was better than what they had before the hurricane.

At first, 80 clients didn't seem terribly daunting but they were erecting another tent that day.  Apparently there was about 500 clients from Galveston who were bused to other cities in Texas before the hurricane hit.  These people were going to come back at some point.  Of course this rumor took off on it's own because some people mentioned 800 people, some mentioned 1,500, and some said that there were no buses.  This next tent pretty much guaranteed at least another 200 clients so we were going to be put to work.

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Janet and I were mostly at the entrance of the shelter area handling registration.  Registration was not my strong suit but there always seemed to be action there and the information seemed to flow through the registration desk.  We had to make sure that clients signed in and out of the shelter, register new clients, handle all the weirdest questions that one could think of, be the gate keeper for any of the numerous organizations that wanted to "take a look" or "spread their word", and look for people who were sick mentally and physically. 

The first few days at the registration was okay.  Problems seemed to find a way to being solved and we had our very own woman who was 'all about' registration.  We called her the 'registration nazi' because she was on top of everything and would work 14 hour days making sure everything was filed to her liking. 

The next couple days we had more clients at our shelter and they were building another 200 person tent with yet another in the works.  At this point things were starting to get crazy at registration and everywhere for that matter.  Those 6 guys from Florida who everyone was worried about were damn near a god sent.  These guys busted their ass making cots, unloading trailers, and doing any kind of grunt work that was asked.  What was even more impressive is the interaction they had with the clients.  They made everyone seem like best buddies and were not afraid to sit down and shoot the breeze with any of them.  Despite being understaffed I do believe that without these guys, we would've had one hell of an uphill battle.  I think back now and laugh at how worried some people were about these guys. 

Eventually we housed more clients and by this time we had 3-200 man tents, police officers on the grounds at all times, and a parade of departments who all wanted to enter the shelter on a daily basis.  Registration was becoming rough because of all the questions, looking for people, and registering people.

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When clients came to register they would walk up to our table usually with wide eyes and somewhat stunned.  They would sit and a lot of times, just start talking to you about what they lost, where they've been, and all the damage at their house.  At registration we heard a ton of stories and after a couple days these stories start to eat up at you.  I remember after the first couple days of registration I would get ready for bed and sit in my cot completely stunned due to some of the stories that I was told that day.  Sometimes clients would sit down coughing or showing signs of an infectious disease.  One guy had a huge scab over his entire left hand with one band-aid tied around his finger.  Turns out it was a bite of some kind and our shelter doctor had to take him away to look at it closer. 

After a typical day me and my team would find some sort of nice restaurant (whatever was open) to sit and talk about our day.  The Red Cross gave us $33 a day to spend on food and with the contracting outfit already giving us good meals, we were finding it challenging to spend $33.  Spending time with the team was very therapeutic for us because we were all able to laugh off whatever craziness we had that day.  One day Janet had a person trying to register who was an admitted sex offender, which is enough to cause a certain level of discomfort in anyone.  The four of us sitting in the restaurant at the end of the day were some of the greatest moments of the trip and we would laugh so much.  I was also able to watch TV at some of the restaurants.

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Now for me, sitting out the last two weeks of the Twins playoff run wasn't as maddening as I thought it was going to be.  We had no news at all on Galveston Island so we couldn't tell what was going on with debates or economies crumbling, or anything.  I had H and Hog both texting me scores and giving me running updates of whatever important games were going on while they were being played.  I rarely ever missed a game on tv, radio, and certainly not a boxscore the whole year now I was missing the best part of the season!  As it turns out the Twins and White Sox ended the season tied and in a one game playoff.  This was also the day that the Red Cross put us in a hotel, so I was getting psyched to actually watch it.  I ran up to my room and immediately turned on the TV to flip through the channels.  As it turns out, TBS was the only channel that didn't come in due to some weird cable issues but I think it was a horrible joke from God.  Janet was nice enough to let me follow the game from her fancy pants phone but as it turns out the Twins lost due to a solo shot by Jim Thome.  How do I know that was a joke from God?  Well we actually had a Red Cross staff member who also went by the name Jim Thome at our shelter.

Tom:  Is your name really Jim Thome?
Jim:  Well yes, why do you ask?
Tom:  Because you killed my club the other night.  I just want you to know that I'm going to be bitter towards you from now on just because of your name.

After spending all that quality time with my team I had to wish them farewell because their time in Texas was up.  I was a bit sad to see them go because we created a nice family-like bond between us.  I was always amazed at how someone who has traveled the world and who is very outspoken like Vicki could find a way to meet a guy like Vearl who had never been on an airplane before this trip.  We all seemed to have a very good team dynamic and there wasn't any drama between us.  I even had Vearl talk about "hotties" and "women with big boobs" on the last day of their trip.  I was very proud of Vearl.

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As it turns out, it seems like nearly half of our staff left with the rest of my team.  At registration it was just me and the new supervisor, Diane, who was left.  At this point registration was turning grueling because we were so incredibly busy at the desk.  It wasn't just at registration either because the whole shelter was greatly understaffed at this point with as little as 5 staff people in charge of a client base of over 300.  Staff became stressed, clients became stressed with the added numbers, and the workload was increasing more and more.

I talked to a bunch of people who worked with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and they all told me that there is always one point where something gives from a mental standpoint.  Either you become emotional or angry or depressed but something always makes its way through.  For me it was when just me and Diane were at registration.  I remember seeing these 3 bags of garbage about 40ft in front of us at the desk.  These bags had flies buzzing around and it looked nasty.  I would make a mental note to take these bags back to the dumpster but I would always be caught up in something.  I would then make another attempt only to drop the bags and go to something more important.  Finally I started to take out the trash when the wind kicked up and blew some of the registration papers off the table.  I could feel that flame of frustration growing and that was when one of the clients threw a half full bottle of Gatorade in the unlined garbage container I just emptied.  I simply told Diane that I had to leave for a half hour, right now.  It was probably the first and only thing I demanded in months.  Diane also had to take a break because she was on the verge of going insane.

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(Same hotel.  Notice the chunk taken out on the top corner of the hotel.)

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Meanwhile the client number rose above 500 and things in the shelter were getting uglier with sickness breaking out and people getting frustrated with other people.  People were drinking the hand washing water instead of using the bottled water that we provided and becoming ill.  Sometimes the police would kick people out of the shelters for various reasons.  Luckily we had more Red Cross volunteers who came and rescued me and Diane from the madness that we were encompassed with.  Tom and Penny both came from New Jersey and we had Laurel and Brian who showed up wearing their UCLA garb.  So we now had 6 people in registration and things were actually manageable at this point.

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I hate to give everything a negative connotation because it wasn't like I was living in hell for a 12 days.  I actually loved being down at the shelter and Galveston and simply being part of something so huge.  All of the teams that we came down with fused into one large family and we would always give each other breaks throughout the day.  The guys from Florida, the Seattle couple, and the UCLA twins (even though they made fun of whatever northern accent I have) were so much fun to work with that I really felt guilty for leaving when I did.  When you start out a shelter that only had 80-some people and it grows to over 500, you feel like your a part of the place.  There was something to be said of working at our shelter because we were so understaffed but whatever staff we had were very good. 

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