It was hard to be in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the biggest natural disaster in our history. I had some previous Red Cross training, and, with some additional fast-track prep on disaster response, I was on my way to Louisiana -- first by plane to Houston, then by car to Baton Rouge.
Lodging on one of the first nights was the floor of a church gymnasium. At times, I felt like I was part of a sad "Amazing Race," hurrying throughout Louisiana to provide some assistance to some of Katrina's victims.
Then, when teamed with a fellow mental health professional from Utah, I felt like a modern-day civil rights' worker, driving through such small towns as Bunkie, Mansura and finally to Marksville, La. Marksville, in the heart of Avoyelles Parish in central Louisiana, hardly has a downtown. There's a WalMart and two gaming casinos -- one on Indian property -- on the neighboring highway.
As the first on-site Red Cross volunteer workers in the Marksville area, we had to do some of everything. Initially, we checked on several local shelters to make sure the needs of evacuees were being met. Then, we were able to concentrate on our main focus -- to provide counseling to the hundreds of displaced families from New Orleans and surrounding communities who were staying in these shelters.
Most of those staying at the local shelter were extremely poor, and were so even before the hurricane. Some literally had no money, no place to go, with all their belongings in a box by their cot.
Many originally had no idea of the magnitude of the disaster. When they left their homes -- and some only did so reluctantly -- they believed that they would be able to return after two or three days.
One tearful older couple blamed themselves for taking only the family truck and little else. Most were dealing with shock, loss, sadness and gradually with the reality of the magnitude of the situation and what to do next. This reality was accentuated when families were encouraged to register their children for school in the cities where they were sheltered.
One wonderful lady had recently retired to take care of her elderly mother. Now she has no home -- and no city.
"I thought I had the rest of my life all planned out and quite well," she told me. "Now I have to start all over again. And I don't even know where I am going to end up living."
One man I met was more concerned about finding a place for his two dogs than for himself.
Some evacuees expressed frustration and anxiety over the slowness in getting FEMA-type assistance, but they seemed more universally outraged at the looters who further destroyed their homes and terrorized their city. Instead of waiting for government assistance, many of these storm victims have already begun trying to find housing and jobs. They are striving, as quickly as possible, to leave the shelter and become self-sufficient again.
I was struck by an incredibly strong sense of family -- this included the sadness of not knowing whether loved ones were still alive, and the struggle to reunite with loved ones who sometimes ended up at shelters in different states. I also couldn't help but notice that some young mothers were little more than children themselves.
The outpouring of support from the people of central Louisiana to maintain these shelters is heartwarming and even amazing. They know the true meaning of tzedakah (charitable giving).
I met one dentist and his wife who were working day and night to tend to almost 200 shelter residents, even though they both have full-time jobs. One minister in Tennessee contacted a shelter and offered to sponsor two or three families, letting them live with or near his family as he helped them get jobs.
With the help of local citizens, these shelters have become full-functioning communities almost overnight. One shelter took an empty warehouse and turned it into a temporary home for almost 450 people.
There are doctors and nurses who come in on a daily basis to tend to medical needs and provide medications. Barbers and beauticians provide haircuts, children get trips to the zoo and adults are ferried to the library.
I was struck by the resilience and indomitable spirit of the shelter residents. One woman who works full time at the shelter was herself displaced from her home in New Orleans and was trying to locate her husband. When I asked who was helping her, she just smiled and said that she wanted to help others first.
"The Lord will take care of me," she said.
So many of the homeless echoed the confident faith of these words. So many say they feel blessed that their lives were spared.
"They're going to build a better New Orleans," one man said.
People are making do with humor and hugs. At one point, I pulled up an aluminum chair to sit near a woman's cot.
"This is my office," I told her.
"And this is my house," she replied with a twinkle.
These hard-pressed people face many trying months, but they showed me they have the strength and determination to rebuild their lives.
Richard Sherman, a clinical and consulting psychologist in Tarzana, is president of the L.A. chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition and past president of the L.A. County Psychological Association.