Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mennonite Girl in a Hummer--Hurricane Katrina & Rita

Tonight, Hurricane Irene is rolling up the eastern seaboard, and I'm having flashbacks to the only hurricane experience I know--Katrina and Rita in 2005. I can still hear the wind howling through my memories!

I was privileged to be part of the medical team sent with Operation Hoosier Relief, sent by Gov. Mitch Daniels to help after Hurricane Katrina. We went with a multidisciplinary team made up of doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, pastors, Indiana State Police, pharmacists, Indiana Health Department workers, epidemiologists, and the Indiana National Guard. We slept in army tents on the parking lot of the Coliseum in Biloxi, Mississippi--just a short walk from the beach. We spent 18 days there providing free medical care and maintaining and supporting the infrastructure. There were checkpoints, curfews, and looting. The devastation and debris I witnessed cannot be conveyed anymore than conveying the actual beauty of the Rocky Mountains to someone who's never seen them. The people were grateful.

But one of my most memorable experiences there was surviving Hurricane Rita--in a tent! Friday morning before she rode in, we heard the levies had broken again in New Orleans, tornado warnings were issued, and flood warnings were issued for all coastal counties--especially those in trailers and tents, like us. As Rita bore down on the coast, we were told since we weren't in the direct path, we wouldn't evacuate. We had two types of tents, those with inner frames and ours that was more the circus type with just poles, ropes, and stakes. We were told by the National Guard that our tents could sustain winds of 30 m.p.h., but the people in the frame tents should go to the four corners of the tent and hold the tent down if the wind was too intense. For us with stake tents--well, we just prayed, but were told if the weather was too bad, we could run from our tents to the Coliseum--which was totally destroyed from the 30 ft storm surge of Katrina and now hauntingly empty and growing mold everywhere--plus, it was about 150 yards from our tent.

The Guard pulled big guard trucks on both sides of our tents and tied guide wires to our poles to reinforce our tents for the night. During the day and early evening on September 23rd, everyone was on edge, so we all piled into the recreation tent to play games in order to take our minds off the coming storm. Not only were we tense, but that day in clinic we could feel the tension rising in the local people who'd already been traumatized by Katrina. Looting increased again. The Indiana State Police began patrolling at night every 15-20 minutes on the perimeter of our camp--Camp Indiana. The first wave of "storm band" winds came in the late afternoon and evening when I happened to be in the framed tent. We did as we were told and hung on for dear life to the frame while the wind gusted and the driving rain came. The storm bands last about 10-15 minutes but feel like forever! By the time it went through, we were standing in about 2 inches of water.

Then came the longest, scariest night in my life. We went to bed in our pole and stake tent--us women had dubbed it the "Orphan Tent" since there hadn't been room for us to join the other women in the frame tent when we first arrived at camp. Our tent housed all the women doctors and nurse practitioners and was on the perimeter of Camp Indiana, next to the guys tent. We slept on cots and had intermittent electricity that lit one or two light bulbs and let us charge our cell phones. We went to bed at 11:30 p.m. and were awakened at 12:30, 2, 3:30, 5, 7, and 9 a.m. with severe wind and rain. I just prayed all night long that God would put angels at all our tent stakes to keep them in and keep our tent up. I've never in my life heard such howling as the storm bands approached, then hit our tent with a blast, flapping the canvas of our tent ferociously.

After each band passed, all us women in our tent, and the guys next to us, piled out of our tents to check the stakes. The guys had hocked a mallet from the Guard and went around each tent to pound the loosened stakes back into the ground. We also made a mass trip to the potty johns in the middle of the night--everyone gathered around the potty john while someone went--to make sure it didn't blow over while we were in them! Good thing too, because by morning many potty johns at our camp lay on their sides!

We never had to run to the Coliseum during the frightful night, but our Command Center told us the next morning they had clocked winds of 71 m.p.h.---and our tents were rated for only 30 m.p.h.--yet none had collapsed but the empty recreation tent.

I'll never forget serving after Katrina, but Rita holds a totally different spot in my memory. In all my life I've never felt such a clear calling and unbelievable open doors to go serve as I did when Katrina hit. I had no idea I'd live through a hurricane when I left my husband and children at home. When we answer God's call, and we are sure we are on His path, all is well with our souls. It was nothing short of God's hand at work.

So, dear writer friends, when you set out on a path to publish your books, know that God might call you to be an "edge walker" and walk a path that is stormy.

But if you know it's Him who calls you, then walk on.

(and yes, I'm Mennonite--nope, no bonnet!)

What storms of life challenge you? 
Let us pray for all involved with Hurricane Irene.


  1. Hi my name is Nicholas Hamilton. I am one of the soldiers that was there in support of Operation Hoosier Relief. I am actually the one in the bottom pic walking away from the pallets of ice. When I came back at the end of our orders I had lost my SD card for my camera. I have been scanning the Internet lately for pics from our activities and came across your post here. I was wondering if you had any others that you could share with me. My email is Thanks for this post, it brought back many memories.

    1. Nick! Great to hear from you! I'll forward you some pics this weekend.