When pictures of the Louisiana Superdome, with its roof damaged by Hurricane Katrina, flashed across television screens, Alex McIntosh FOR ’05 said it opened his eyes to the disaster.
“It was as if someone had peeled back the roof in order to expose us to the fact that there are a lot of people in our society who couldn’t afford to leave and had no place to go,” he said.
Rather than simply change the channel, McIntosh said he decided to take action — he said he realized his place was on the ground, helping the victims whose images had jarred him.
After training in Connecticut, McIntosh spent two weeks volunteering with the American Red Cross in Louisiana. He said conditions were so chaotic that the Red Cross advised volunteers to bring their own two-day supply of water and food. Despite the disorganization, a mere three hours after arriving, McIntosh was given the keys to a Red Cross vehicle and transferred to the northeastern Louisiana town of Monroe.
“I felt like there was something I could do individually to compensate, to show the people affected that they deserve attention and care,” he said.
McIntosh worked out of a large shelter, delivering food, water and emergency supplies to evacuees who had settled in shelters, churches and campgrounds around Monroe.
After his first week of work, McIntosh became a supervisor of several delivery trucks and also contributed to the management of the Monroe shelter, but not before he was exposed to the appalling, and sometimes inspiring, conditions on the ground, he said.
“A lot of the victims were still in shock and angry,” McIntosh said.
Yet he said he was impressed by the bravery of many citizens, from a Baptist minister who sheltered 30 families in his tiny church to stoic blue-collar families living in their cars as the temperature soared.
McIntosh said he has noticed the media playing up the fact that many of those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were poor and African-American, something he saw first-hand.
“[At first], it was a cross-section of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas,” he said. “Really quickly, the people who could afford to stay in hotels, move or had other options disappeared from our radar screens. What I was struck by was it seemed like the segment of society least able to deal with a disaster of this magnitude was hit by it.”
McIntosh said these victims were generally disillusioned by the government’s response and bewildered by the daunting amount of paperwork they faced, and they doubted that the Bush administration would help them rebuild their lives. Though he said those affected by the hurricanes were understandably afraid and therefore somewhat riled up, based on his experience, McIntosh said he agrees that the American response was sub-par.
“At every level, but particularly at national levels, there was a failure of imagination, not just planning,” he said.
After Sept. 11, McIntosh said, the government and other relief organizations should have realized the inadequacy of their conception of a disaster and redefined their definition to include much bigger, unexpected occurrences.
On a smaller scale, McIntosh said he hopes his experience will inform Yale students. The Yale bubble can be difficult to penetrate, McIntosh said, but he said he thinks his vivid recollections, just like the images of refugees in the Louisiana Superdome, will be enough to incite Yale students to act.
Jane Wasyliw, the director of communications at the Red Cross in Connecticut, said if a similar disaster were to occur in New Haven, there would be a great need for volunteers to do work comparable to McIntosh’s. She said the Red Cross is $50 million in debt, which has led to a cut in funding for Connecticut programs. Still, she said Yale’s monetary contributions are substantial.
“On the fundraising end, Yale has done a tremendous job,” she said.
But despite the importance of financial donations, McIntosh said the value of hands-on help is immeasurable. He said he thinks the Yale community needs to realize that the same socioeconomic segment of the population victimized by the hurricanes is present in New Haven.
Some Yale students have responded to this call to action by organizing a variety of on-campus fundraising events.
“I think people know what their own skills are,” said Julia Simon-Kerr LAW ’08.
She and her housemate Anna Stirgwolt ENAS ’10 decided their time would be best spent organizing a Latin dance party for professional school students, Simon-Kerr said. The event raised more than $9,000 for the American Red Cross and Bush-Clinton Foundation.
As stories of the hurricanes start to fade from media attention, hurricane relief efforts on campus have continued. McIntosh said he hopes the hurricanes have highlighted the need — both in the Gulf Coast and New Haven — to raise awareness of poverty issues and to reorganize disaster response methods.
“I would really encourage, almost despite the crime that’s been happening, that we stay engaged with that population because in the end, we’re really not that different from New Orleans,” he said.