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Santa Monica Volunteers Tell Tales from the Gulf

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

September 22 --The first wave of volunteers to leave Santa Monica for the Gulf Coast have been gone several weeks now, and their stories are starting to filter back to town – stories of loss and grief, of gratitude and dignity.

These self-selected few who couldn’t stay home have seen first hand what the rest of us can only imagine.

“News cameras don’t even begin to describe it,” Tom Browne told his friend, Debra Krizman, after he reached his hometown of Slidell, Louisiana just outside of New Orleans.

Browne and Krizman – who are natives of the Gulf Coast and Franklin Elementary School parents – helped organize a grassroots effort that sent six large trucks of locally donated goods out to help the victims. Browne went along, driving one of the trucks himself (see story).

“It was worse than he had imagined,” Krizman said he told her, “The stench, everything rotting, decaying, god knows what things are lying dead under the water.”

Browne’s convoy was greeted by two police escorts as planned, but when they got to Slidell, the sergeant in charge at the local police station didn’t know who they were.

“It’s total chaos, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing,” Krizman reported. “The right finger didn’t know what the right index finger was doing.”

But Browne was overwhelmed by the gratitude of the people, some of them in tears, as he delivered supplies to local charities and churches.

Registered nurse Karen Donoho conveyed a similar sense of the chaos to Santa Monica Red Cross spokesman Bill Bauer, as she trekked from Montgomery to Mobile to Picayune, Louisiana on her charitable odyssey.

Conditions are “very primitive,” she told Bauer. Hot water is in short supply, the only bathrooms are porta-potties and relief workers are sleeping on cots in dorms. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to know someone staying in a hotel room who will let you in to bathe, she told him.

The local Red Cross bought five generators from WalMart to use in Picayune – “not the way we normally do things,” Bauer said. But “if you go with FEMA, the requisition goes in tomorrow, and it will come through in three or four weeks.

“Let’s just make it happen,” Red Cross officials decided, Bauer said.

While nurse Margaret Ecker echoed Bauer’s dismay at the government’s response, she had nothing but praise for her employer, Saint John’s Health Center’s parent corporation, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health Systems (SCLHS),

From left Miss Lois Barnes, nursing home resident,and nurses Margaret Ecker, RN and Paula McCloy, RN from Saint John's Health Center

Ecker, who works in Santa Monica, was sent with a team of four nurses for a week to reinforce the staff at Pearl River County Hospital in Poplarville, Mississippi.

“It was chaos on the ground,” she said, made worse by the “complete and utter inability of the government to respond in a meaningful way.”

SCLHS organized rotating teams of nurses and is sending them to the small hospital which doubled its patient load since the hurricane, taking on evacuees from hospitals and convalescent homes on the Gulf Coast.

“Health care providers are stretched thin, but they made this happen,” Ecker said.

Delia Owens, the Executive Director of the Board of Nursing in Mississippi set up two phone banks in her office, one for people who need help and one for people who wanted to help, Ecker said. Owens manned them 24 hours a day, putting the two groups of people together.

“She called me at home,” Ecker said. “She told me it would be incredibly primitive. We may have to sleep on the floor, there may be no water, it may be rank.”

But, while Ecker was struck by the depth of the devastation in the rural town, the patients at the hospital, most of whom were elderly, were scrupulously well-cared for.

“Nursing homes are often depressing, and we were expecting the worst,” Ecker said.

“We were knocked out by the care these people were getting,” she said. The region, even in the best of times, is “really low-income – they didn’t have much.”

The elderly patients were sheltered from the storm by the staff. They were wheeled into the hallways during the hurricane so they wouldn’t be frightened by the terrifying windstorm.

They couldn’t bathe or shower for a few days, which is “very distressing for elderly people,” Ecker said. But they showed no signs of damage from the experience, a testimony to the conscientious care of the nursing staff.

“In most nursing homes, you see skin breakdown,” she said, “but it smelled fresh and clean, and we didn’t see skin breakdown.”

The “incredible hospitality” of her Mississippi hosts touched Ecker. “They wouldn’t let us buy our lunches at the hospital cafeteria.”

The nurses from California felt badly because the rural southerners made so little money, so “we started lying, saying ‘we work here now.”

Their subterfuge got back to one of the local nurses.

“I’m not kidding. This is very offensive,’ she scolded them. “This is one of the things we can do to show our gratitude.”

Still, in spite of the courtesy and dignity of Poplarville’s residents, Ecker said there’s a deep “pervasive sense of loss and grief. You could cut it with a knife. Everywhere you turned you heard a bad story. Nobody didn’t have a bad story.

“Every tiny little aspect of life that you look at has been changed,” Ecker said. She told the story of how the Saint John’s nurses had gone out to a local restaurant that had just reopened.

“Maybe there were 100 people, and they were all talking about the same thing – ‘the 40 cows you lost’ or ‘you got the roof back.’ It was all they talked about.”

The little town of 2,000 was “tremendously affected” by the storm. Power and phones were down, and many homes, barns and crops were destroyed. The roads in and out of town were “completely impassable.”

While they had been given detailed driving directions to Poplarville, “within a few miles of the town we realized it was impossible because all the road signs were blown down.”

Lawanna Moran, a nurse working a shift in Poplarville this week, described the damage to the hospital.“(T)he roof of the building actually lifted off during the hurricane and the rain came in and the roof came back down, so there is much water damage, paint peeling, mold etc.,” she reported.

Even with the extra staff at the hospital, “we were still really working short” because “local staff’s lives were in such disarray. People were so discombobulated,” Ecker said. “Something as simple as not having electricity made it hard.”

She told the story of “a very reliable nurse” who “didn’t come in, and didn’t come in. It turned out she was diabetic and couldn’t call out,” to the hospital, so somebody had to go to her home and find her.Local TV is on cable in the remote rural area, so getting out notices about food stamps or Red Cross relief becomes impossible, Ecker said. “You think ‘put it on TV,’ but you can’t. You can’t deliver mail to homes that have been trashed.”

Many of the children have been sent up north to states like Tennessee to stay with friends and family so they can go to school and “get a calm life,” she said.

The teams of nurses will continue to fly to Mississippi as long as they are needed, Ecker said.

Ecker is enthusiastic about a plan they have to teach a certified nursing assistant class in Poplarville to “provide new staff for the hospital and jobs for the displaced. I believe this will happen, using one of our system nurses to teach the class in Poplarville in mid-October.”

“We are eager to provide a bridge between now and some stability,” Ecker said.

photo of notes from Katrina victims
Notes on a red cross shelter in Picayune, Mississippi, near Poplarville

But for now, the future of Poplarville is uncertain.

“All is well in Poplarville at this point, there is a lot of fear/concern related to hurricane Rita and the potential hit to New Orleans and Poplarville if the hurricane hits,” Nancy Kallem, an SCLHS employee wrote to Ecker Wednesday as the nation held its breath watching Rita approach landfall.

Still Ecker remained optimistic. “The news is essentially good news, in that care goes forward, smoothly,” she concluded.
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