When the Water Rises

In the fall of 2005, our oldest son, Greg, moved out of his basement bedroom and started college. When we returned home from the emotional day, our younger son, Tony, immediately moved his belongings downstairs – the best bedroom in the house was now his!

Though I had prepared myself for Greg leaving home and starting his college career, I would find tears falling from my eyes over the least little thing. The college had given every mom a box of Kleenex as we left campus, and I kept mine nearby to dry my tears.  

But then, I turned on the news, and my tears would not stop. I sat on the couch with my box of Kleenex and sobbed uncontrollably as I watched live coverage of people – citizens of the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, citizens of my country, The United States of America – standing on the tops of their roofs trying to escape rising waters resulting from Hurricane Katrina. People standing on their rooftops – screaming, waving rags, holding signs – all crying for assistance. People standing on roadways and bridges with nowhere to go but into the rising water. People. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children. People. My people – our people.

I was stunned. How? How in the name of The United States of America, in the year 2005, could we not be better prepared to rescue people? How could levees have been built with substandard materials? How could we expect the staff and patients of full hospitals and nursing homes to stay put and pretend the end was not near? How could CNN get their helicopter within viewing distance and not zoom down to rescue the elderly woman on her rooftop?

Nonprofits sprang into action like never before. The Red Cross and Salvation Army started funding and product drives. Locally, food, water and clothing collections were started in every community. I channeled my energy into figuring out what I/we could do – send money? Help load trucks?

A small group of people in Minneapolis started a nonprofit with the sole purpose of driving a bus to the Houston Astrodome, where over 60,000 Katrina survivors had sought shelter. On the local news, the nonprofit posed this question: Were there any people in Minnesota willing to take in a family for a few days while New Orleans was still in disrepair? Yes! I thought. This is how we can help! I called the number immediately. After a brief vetting, we were put on a list as possible hosts for a small family.

My heart took me over – pumped not only blood, but an urge to act, throughout my body. I could FEEL it inside me – and I couldn’t turn it off. When I provided a young family with furniture after a fire, John loaded it all up and hauled it all into their apartment. When a family was in need of meals for a month due to an illness, my boys watched as the homemade food went out the door, while they made themselves macaroni and cheese.

My husband, John, voiced some concern over the idea, but together we decided to go forward. After all, how hard could it be to host a small family for a short period of time?

As Labor Day Weekend got underway, we received a call – would we be willing to take in a young couple instead of a family? Their home had been destroyed and they wanted to come to Minnesota for shelter. We were one of two Minnesota families that would be taking in survivors through the nonprofit.

When we arrived at 11:30 p.m. on Labor Day to meet the bus, we were surprised to find the local media there as well. When the bus arrived, and the doors opened, you would have thought Prince had arrived. The dark night sparkled with the flash of cameras, mimicking the stars that were shining in the midnight sky. Questions were asked first of the Louisianans, then of the Minnesotans. All of us were equally camera-shy and our collective answers were short, and humble. Finally, we headed home with our young couple.

As we drove, the couple shared a tiny bit about their experience. They had gone to her mother’s house at the height of the storm. The electricity had gone out. Water was entering the house, at first slowly, then faster. By the time they realized the house wasn’t going to absorb the rushing water, the roads were flooded, and they had no choice but to climb to the rooftop. It was a bit unclear how they got from that rooftop to the Superdome, but both of them told us over, and over, how thankful they were to be able to come to Minnesota for a short period of time.

The next morning began what could be described as an indoor hurricane.  The early morning news – which I hadn’t watched – had aired the arrival of the bus, and our guests. Instantly, our phone started ringing. By the time Tony left for his first day of tenth grade at 7:30 a.m., I had fielded about fifty phone calls, all from people wanting to donate money to the couple. While talking to one person, another three or four were leaving messages on the voice mail. Minnesota Nice, as we know it here, had kicked into high gear. At 9:00 a.m. I called my mom to come and help answer the phone. By noon, Mom had tabulated at least $1,500.00 in donations and taken dozens of messages. It was about that time that the young couple woke up for the day.

As our temporary houseguests emerged from the bedroom, I realized they were not a young couple after all. She appeared to be around forty, he closer to twenty-five. I also noted the woman was ill. Utilizing my astute nursing assessment skills, I determined she most likely had strep throat and needed to see an M.D. They did not have any money, and she did not have her Louisiana Medicaid card. I started by calling every clinic and doctor I had ever worked for – and, once that was exhausted, trying every clinic in the metro area. Due to the lack of insurance, we were turned away from all. Finally, I found a free clinic in St. Paul that was willing to see her.

While we were at the doctor, Mom continued taking calls. In addition to more donations, two of the major local media outlets requested to interview the guests as soon as possible. WCCO, our local CBS affiliate, was set to come that evening. During that interview, the couple surprised all of us by announcing they planned to stay in Minnesota. In the second local media interview, they announced their engagement.

Once the interviews aired, the hearts of Minnesotans were filled with pure joy. It seemed the entire state had adopted the couple as their own, and, collectively, we had a wedding to plan! Over the next two days, donations for more than anyone could dream for poured in. A prestigious wedding dress purveyor offered a wedding dress at no charge. A wedding cake was donated by one of the finest bakeries in Minneapolis. Someone wanted to donate money for a venue. Two car titles were signed over, the cars proudly parked in our driveway. A motorcycle club drove up from southern Minnesota to personally deliver the $500.00 they had collected. Employers called wanting to know what kind of work they were looking for. Furniture, bedding, groceries – all graciously donated. By the end of the second day, my ever-organized mom had about a dozen legal pads spread out on the table, each one labeled with a category, each one with at least ten donors listed.

As the winds of generosity swirled around us, John and I tried to get to know the couple. The only family member they mentioned was her mother, who had decided to stay in Louisiana. Neither had a driver’s license – apparently the young man never had one. It appeared that neither had ever worked, or used a computer for any reason. When I took them to the bank, it was clear neither had ever had a checking or savings account.

Meanwhile my close friends sprang into action. Meals were arriving at our home so that I wouldn’t have to cook. Someone took our dog for walks. I remember someone vacuuming the entire house. Bottles of wine showed up on the counter. I’m sure there is much more they did that I will never know about. 

After they had been with us for about a week, the St. Paul Red Cross hosted an event for the refugees that were still in Minnesota. The main purpose of the event was to give each survivor their FEMA money. A store had also been set-up where the survivors could obtain free clothing and furniture. While the couple proceeded into the building, I attempted to meet with a social worker, or other representative. I wanted to know what resources were available for the host families. The event, however, was only for the survivors; host families were not allowed inside.

John and I waited in the car for almost three hours before they finally emerged. They were over-the-top happy with how well it went. “We got extra money!” The woman announced. And, sure enough, they received an extra payment due to the fact the young man reported that he had a son. “You never mentioned a son to us,” I said. “Where does he live?” “Somewhere in Texas. I think?” he replied.

The next day, they both started working. She had been hired by Twin City Federal (TCF) as a greeter at our local branch. He had been hired as a fork-lift operator at a nearby factory. Both job offers came as a result of the media exposure.

The financial donations, as well as furniture, continued in non-stop fashion. Where once they had been drowning in rainwater, they were now deluged with couches, dining room furniture, clothes, etc. My aunt, an administrator at a school, called to say the students were organizing a collection of household goods for the couple. At one point the couple had enough to furnish a two-bedroom apartment, and I told my mom to decline the offer of any more furniture. After all, they still didn’t have a place to live.

The woman was quite upset with me over this decision. How could I turn donations away?  “What would you do with three dining room sets?” I asked. Her answer broke my heart. “Sell them. We could make a lot of money!” I suggested they start looking for an apartment. I knew that my morals were dictating one course of action, but theirs were dictating another. Plus, it had been ten days and we were simply exhausted.

While they were at work the next day, I visited a variety of apartment complexes and found a few that met their needs.  That evening, the couple met with one of the apartment managers and signed a lease. I took a photo of them shaking her hand, all were smiling.

On the way back to our house, the young man indicated that I had forced them to sign the lease. As we pulled into the driveway, the woman queried “Yeah, I mean what if we don’t want to stay in Minnesota?”

The next morning, I informed the couple to head to their apartment after work. I told them they were no longer welcome in our home, and that all of their stuff would be in their apartment by the time they got there. I called a friend of mine who had a trailer – surprisingly he was available. Next, I called my brother-in-law to see if he could take the day off. By 10:00 a.m., the three of us were on our way to the various residences to pick up all of the donated furniture, and by mid-afternoon their apartment was move-in ready.

A few days later, I received a call from TCF – the woman had not reported to work for two days, and she was not answering her cell phone. About a week after they moved out, I received a call from the wedding dress lady – she wanted to make sure the couple knew that the free wedding dress came with the requirement that the woman be pictured in a particular bridal magazine so that she could get “credit” for the generous donation. Calls with donations continued coming in. To all, I simply explained they no longer lived with us and left it at that.

We have never heard from the couple, and truly, that is probably for the best.

This experience taught me that sometimes, even though my heart is in the right place, my helpfulness can be misdirected. That said, as I watch the devastation resulting from Hurricane Harvey, I am conflicted as to what TO do. I care about our fellow citizens so much, but what, other than donate money, can I do? I don’t know the answer, but I think it lies in doing what I can for the people that are in my life, in my own community – and building from there.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how you go about caring for your community – perhaps something will come my way that I want to get involved with. Also, to anyone reading this that came to help during those ten days – if I didn’t say it then let me say it now: THANK YOU!