Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Other Flood

Sam Kille, our region’s Senior Director of Marketing and Public Relations, was down south last week as part of the Red Cross’s Advanced Public Affairs Team, reporting on the response to flooding along the Mississippi River. Below is a candid look at his week-long deployment.

It was on I-20 East, midway between Vicksburg and Jackson when a tear ran down my face. Now, besides my four-plus years with the American Red Cross, I spent over a decade in the Marine Corps. I’ve witnessed many sad situations but I’m not one to get emotional. Yet for some reason, this was different.

My journey began just before the Mississippi River approached near-record flood levels in Memphis, Tennessee. There, I watched hundreds of Red Cross volunteers file in and out of the relief operation headquarters. They came from places like Wisconsin, New York—even Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Like any disaster, supplies were received at warehouses and then shipped out on trucks and emergency response vehicles to shelters and aid stations.

As a member of the advanced public affairs team, I was directed to take a video crew throughout the region to document the Red Cross response. It was exciting at first—there’s always a bit of an adrenaline rush during a disaster operation. I even had the opportunity to tape a public service announcement with Lionel Hollins, the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. The team was in the midst of the NBA playoffs—a bittersweet feeling for the team as their excitement was tempered by concern for fans and employees who were in harm’s way.

I had the opportunity to view the walls downtown that were doing all they could to hold the “Mighty” Mississippi. It was leaking and I hoped it would hold. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for every area along the river. A little less than an hour south is Tunica, Mississippi. Besides the homes that have been flooded, so to are the casinos that employ thousands.

Trying to get ahead of the river, my crew continued to make its way south into Mississippi. For some communities, it was a tale of two disasters as some were still recovering from tornadoes that destroyed property and took lives in places like Yazoo County. During an interview with teachers there, they told of the anxiety their students felt. One has to wonder how they will get through this.

I then had the opportunity to follow Red Cross volunteers into the impending flood zone. They were going door-to-door, business-to-business, trying to get the word out about Red Cross services and encouraging people to heed any evacuation orders. At one business, named Shake on the Lake, water was already lapping at the steps. The owner was doing all she could to save her possessions.

In Yazoo, I also met a 71-year-old woman who said she would ride it out. We tried to convince her otherwise but she was concerned about her daughter who was not only wheel-chair bound but unable to speak. “If she could talk, maybe …” but she was afraid to think of her being put in a corner unable to communicate her needs. I can only hope they survive.

I saw a lot of Mississippi in a short period of time, small towns like Greenville and Lambert. I saw many positive things like the Red Cross working with the NAACP in Jackson to train shelter volunteers. I’m sure the rental car agency was none too happy about the miles I racked up. My work ended in Vicksburg—a hotbed of excitement for the media. A record-level crest was expected and water was beginning to flood low-level areas downtown.

Now, I’ve been through Vicksburg before so I knew how impressive the Mississippi River looked, but this time from an overlook by the bridge, I saw just how wide the river was becoming. Yet what I wasn’t prepared for was what I saw on the outskirts of the town in a community called Kings. There was a church that was nearly surrounded by water. Two teenage girls were foolishly splashing round the water, ignoring warnings about snakes and alligators until a police officer sent them on their way.

Though the church looked safe—maybe a few prayers were being answered—the same couldn’t be said for the neighborhood next to it. Dozens of homes were flooded. Based on the mailboxes and street signs, you could see where the roads once were. Of course now, you would need a boat to get around.

At first, I only shook my head. Sure, I thought it was sad but it still seemed unreal—that is until something caught the corner of my eye. Within inches of the rising water was one of those battery-operated, ride-on toy Jeeps. My gaze began to focus on it until I started to feel the sting of fire ants which were now climbing all over me. Distracted, I rushed to the car and quickly forgot about what I had just seen.

That is until I was on I-20 that afternoon. I was headed to the airport and was looking forward to getting back home to Long Island, New York, and seeing my family. There wasn’t much to see on the ride to the airport and my thoughts soon drifted back to the week I had spent along the Mississippi River. Maybe it’s because I’m a father, but one image overshadowed them all—that little Jeep. I couldn’t help but to think of the child who probably spent countless hours driving it, imagining that it was real—as real as the home that was no longer going to be there.

It was then that I had to fight back a whole other flood—a flood of emotion. Yet what I was feeling is nothing compared to the “floodwaters” that tens of thousands will have to fight back in coming days and weeks—in some places, maybe months. And as I try to hold back my own tears, I can only hope that my experience will encourage others to lend a hand.

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