September 28, 2008

R.I. Volunteers Struck By Ike’s Devastation

By Amanda Milkovits

"I've been to a lot of hurricanes, and this is the worst I've ever seen," says Brooke Lawrence, of West Greenwich.

Joanne Ramsey inched the emergency response vehicle down roads narrowed by hurricane-strewn debris and looked for survivors of Hurricane Ike along the coast of Texas.

Behind the driver's seat, there were tubs filled with baked beans, sausages, apples, peaches and cookies. People from a Southern Baptist church in North Carolina had made the meals under tents in the parking lot of an abandoned Kmart in the hurricane disaster zone. Ramsey had enough food to feed hundreds along her route in Baytown, Texas, just 40 miles north of Galveston.

The former Pawtucket schools clerk had been volunteering 14-hour days, delivering 750 meals twice a day, when she spoke with The Journal by cell phone last week. When she'd first started her deliveries in Baytown, "one woman grabbed my hand and was crying and crying, kissing my hand," Ramsey said. "She said, 'I haven't eaten in two days. Thank you so much. You don't know what it means to me.' "

As Ramsey talked, she scanned the streets for anyone waiting for meals from the truck. This vehicle from the American Red Cross of Rhode Island had soon become a welcome sight among the people trying to rebuild their lives.

"Oh, there's 10 people there," Ramsey said, as she stopped the truck and greeted the people waiting for her and her crew. "You're a lifesaver!" a woman shouted, her voice carrying over Ramsey's cell phone.

The national economic storm and presidential campaign has all but swept news reports of Hurricane Ike off the front pages of newspapers and out of sight on television. But to Ramsey, and to other Rhode Islanders who've been volunteering in the recovery effort, the devastation rivals anything they've seen before.

Buildings were crushed by the storm surge, and the debris washed into massive piles of smashed wood, glass and construction materials. The backwater channels were clogged with crushed boats and debris from destroyed buildings. Sailboats and fishing vessels were tossed into houses and onto streets, "like a little child was playing with them and got mad and kicked them," Ramsey said.

Loose and abandoned pets roamed throughout the devastated landscape. Livestock lay dead and bloated among the debris. Early on, when a team of 34 doctors, nurses and medical professionals from Rhode Island arrived to help run the emergency room at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, they were warned about a lion and two tigers that had escaped from a private home.

The Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team had driven in slowly to the area, carefully making their way into Galveston on roads still strewn with debris, said Brooke Lawrence, of West Greenwich, who led the team on its two-week assignment. "I've been to a lot of hurricanes, and this is the worst I've ever seen," he said, shortly after returning to Rhode Island last weekend.

Vincent Marzullo, the Rhode Island director of the Corporation for National & Community Service, flew down to Austin on Friday to oversee 300 AmeriCorps members who'll be distributing meals, assessing damage and removing debris. So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has fielded 600,000 requests from people who need assistance -- the second-highest demand for assistance since Hurricane Katrina, Marzullo said yesterday.

More than two weeks after Hurricane Ike came ashore in Texas, it has left behind long-lasting damage. Areas of Houston, an hour from the coast, are still without power, and FEMA is still housing about 10,000 people in hotels because their residences are demolished, Marzullo said. Tent cities for thousands of volunteers and responders from all over the country have sprung up on an airbase in Galveston and other areas.

After the storm, an Iowa medical team worked days, and the Rhode Island medical team worked the overnight shift keeping the emergency room open at the 1,000-bed University of Texas Medical Branch hospital on Galveston Island. The first-floor had flooded, but the hospital generator kept power running to the second-floor emergency room. The team had a cache of medications to run the pharmacy for the hospital and for hurricane survivors who needed medications, Lawrence said. During their busiest day, the teams saw 150 patients in 24 hours, he said.

At times, they were seeing people who had lost everything they owned. "You just remind them that they're still alive, everyone they love is still alive, and property can be replaced," Lawrence said.

Those were the same words of comfort that another Rhode Islander was offering to evacuees at a shelter in a Baptist church in Corsicana, Texas, about 3 1/2 hours north of Galveston. Jody Fazzano, of East Providence, was in the Red Cross shelter as a mental-health worker, helping about 165 evacuees, some with special needs and some elderly, who'd been brought in from La Porte, down by the coast.

"The despair was in the undertone at the shelter, until people knew the circumstances of their homes," Fazzano said. Once people knew for sure what had happened to their homes, they began to accept, she said.

One woman who'd lost her home decided that she would stay in Corsicana, and she soon found a school for her daughter with Down syndrome, Fazzano said. Another woman who worried about her 14 cats at home settled gratefully after Fazzano found someone in the town who checked on the felines and found they were doing just fine. Some cried, some were resigned. All were grateful to be alive.

For Fazzano, who'd been inspired to volunteer for the Red Cross after seeing the destruction from Hurricane Katrina three years ago, serving the evacuees was a humbling experience.

"I left full of blessings and gratitude for the life I have," Fazzano said. "And I think, there but for the grace of God go I."

A former Hooters Restaurant is now a pile of rubble in Galveston, Texas, where Rhode Island volunteers have helped clear debris and care for hurricane victims. Courtesy of Brooke Lawrence, Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team

Hurricane Ike left behind a broad swath of damage in Texas. Courtesy of Brooke Lawrence [email protected] / (401) 277-7213

Originally published by Amanda Milkovits, Journal Staff Writer.

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