The School of Social Work provided many volunteers during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. At the Austin Convention Center they did assessments, helped people pack up, completed applications and organized donations. Read some of their personal recollections.
Dean Barbara White appointed a Katrina Relief Point Committee to coordinate and provide collaboration with community organizations. Read more about Clinical Professor Jean Avera chairing Katrina committee.
By Charlene A. Urwin
My volunteer efforts with both the American Red Cross and the city of Austin involved attending training, answering phones, sitting at an information and referral desk, and completing assessments on evacuees at the Convention Center. The city called them “guests,” which I liked. What stands out in my memory are the personal stories, offered as part of the conversation, yet, compelling and poignant to me.
Chuck was a man happy to be in Austin and ready to begin his life again, in a new place. He had skills in construction and already was looking for a job. He said he rescued six neighbors and friends who could not swim and made sure they stayed on his roof until help arrived. Chuck said he had to ignore the bodies and debris in the water. He waited to learn about services until the lines were shorter and others more desperate had the help they needed. He couldn’t believe how friendly people had been to him. He believes “attitude” makes the difference.
Dorothy was a grandmother who survived on one of the overpasses, in “pure hell,” with her granddaughter protecting her. She couldn’t believe that people could be so cruel to one another. She saw guns and knives and heard about rapes. She said she had raised her children “right” and that the hurricane was god’s retribution. She said that although she lived her entire 74 years in New Orleans, she never really liked it. She looks forward to living in the outskirts of Austin, out in the country in peace and quiet.
Labelle spent five days in the Superdome. She was identified by a volunteer as “belligerent,” and I was asked to talk with her. She wasn’t that way at all—just frustrated because she wanted to go home. She said her father had built her a solid house, and it was dry when she left. She heard a rumor that the mayor would allow residents back in to New Orleans in a week or so. I took her street address and zip code, obtained contact information for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans from the Red Cross, and called them. They confirmed that residents from Labelle’s area could go back home on Sept. 26, and they thanked me for helping take care of their residents. Labelle’s face lit up when I returned to tell her that news. Unfortunately, that plan changed with the advent of Hurricane Rita.
Shirley was with five other family members at the convention center in New Orleans for five days. She was scared, they positioned themselves near a doorway, and together they made sure that there were always three of them awake at one time to provide protection for one another. Wherever they went, they would be together. And they thought they had been abandoned. She couldn’t believe how kind and attentive people in Austin were. She liked the shelter, and she was leaving for an apartment the next day.
Marvin was at the shelter with his cousin. He described days in his two-story condo, with the water rising and bringing as much as possible upstairs. His uncle, cousin and friend came to stay with him, thinking they’d be safe there. They heard about the chaos at the Superdome and the convention center, so decided to stay in the condo until they were rescued. He felt lucky.
Gerald said he had been through a lot, as had everyone else. He wondered what the volunteers went through, hearing all the stories. And he was worried about another guest who hadn’t slept or changed clothes in weeks. He felt the man was in trouble and needed help. Gerald was leaving the next day, and he wanted to be sure someone would be there for his friend.
There were few complaints and a great deal of appreciation among the evacuees. Many said they had no idea how wonderful people in Texas were. They had not been to Austin before, but they were glad to be here. I left being struck with the resilience and strength the evacuees showed. I hoped I could conjure up such grace in the face of a similar adversity.
Note: All names have been changed.
I wanted to share with you the amazing field experience that I had with my class. I arranged to take my class to the Austin Convention Center so that we could volunteer with the city of Austin to do assessments on the evacuees.
I was a little wary leading up to the event because I wasn’t sure if this work would be too overwhelming for my students.
I was also concerned that we’d get to the center and no one would really need us or they would be terribly disorganized. After a few bumps in volunteer registration, though, we were off. My students were given a choice to either do assessments paired with an experienced social worker from various community agencies or to be a “runner.”
The runner’s job was to help the clients get to the various locations within the convention center to complete applications for services (like FEMA, social security, housing and so on). Most of my students paired with a social worker to do assessments. The assessment form was very clear and easy and they were also given a brief script to fall back on if they felt they needed it.
The social workers that the students were paired with were great field instructors. I observed many processing with the students after an assessment was completed about what happened and what their thoughts were. I also observed the social workers letting the students have more pieces of the assessment as their confidence increased.
For the most part the students encountered motivated individuals who were simply stuck because they lacked understanding about the roles of the various agencies. Some encountered individuals in a mental health crisis, but they were able to quickly access help through representatives from the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR) in those situations.
None of the students commented on being overwhelmed emotionally by the experience. Most felt inspired. The runners had a great time building rapport with the clients and learning about the roadblocks they face as they move through the various agencies set up to help them.
I paired up with one of my students in the afternoon to do some assessments and my experience was profound. The organizers for this volunteer group did a great job debriefing us at lunch (and they provided sandwiches) and at the end of the day. They were very supportive and affirming. But, without a doubt, the most satisfying moment for me was when one of the community social workers stood up (at our final meeting) and said to me that my students were outstanding learners and a great asset. Then, everyone in the room applauded them.
All the social workers commented on how eager the students were to jump right in and talk with these clients in an appropriate and respectful manner. I had 100 percent participation from my practice class—some are going back to help over the next couple of days. In some ways I feel like I got lucky that everything worked so smoothly, but I also feel the students deserve a huge amount of credit for being able to step up to the plate so professionally.
Please let me know if you have any questions for me about this experience—I can be reached at email@example.com.