We’ve all seen pictures of the destruction and dislocation caused by the hurricanes along the gulf coast last year. Very early on the morning of Sept. 6 some of the chaos caused by Katrina came all the way to the Tri-Village area.

“I got a call the Friday before Labor Day from the State of Illinois,” said West Suburban PADS Director Lynda Schueler, “saying that the governor was welcoming evacuees from Hurricane Katrina into Illinois and that they were going to be housing them in the state mental health facilities. They said a busload of them was going to be arriving in our area on Sunday and could they drop them off at our door and could we take care of them until they move into two pavilions at Madden Mental Health Center.”

Schuler explained that PADS, which has administrative offices in Forest Park at the St. Bernardine Convent, didn’t work that way. PADS guests sleep in churches and synagogues throughout the western suburbs, she explained, and the program wasn’t even up and running for the season yet. After hanging up, she decided to call Kate Wenzel at the United Way to organize a meeting after Labor Day with area providers to prepare for whatever was going to happen.

On the day of the meeting”Sept. 6″Schueler received a frantic message from Fred Nirde over at Madden saying that they were going to get Katrina evacuees that day and they really needed help.

Part of the challenge was that the people from Madden didn’t have much information. They didn’t know if the people coming were families, children, people with health issues or the elderly.

Alan Arbuckle, a volunteer who came on the scene as a volunteer the following day, and who was eventually hired as the coordinator of the whole project, recalled how chaotic it was for the evacuees.

“When they got on the plane,” he said, “they didn’t know where they were being taken. All they knew is that it would be either Memphis or Chicago.”

“Madden didn’t have anything,” Schueler continued. “All they had was two empty pavilions that could house 28 people each. “They were asking us to supply everything. So Sheri (a PADS staff member) and I packed up what supplies we had on hand and were at Madden at 3 a.m. when a CTA bus comes around and 57 people get off. It was a mix of singles and couples and families and pets. They just wanted to go to bed. They’d been poked and prodded all day.”

The PADS office put the word out by e-mail to their network of volunteers that same day, but not many were able to respond right away, so five PADS staff members shouldered the burden of tending to the needs of 57 people in distress for the first three days. Then at the first organized staff meeting, West Suburban PADS was told they were not only responsible for getting volunteers but were in charge of the whole operation as well.

Vigilante volunteers

Particularly problematic, according to Arbuckle, were what he called “vigilante volunteers.” These were people who were not assigned a time by PADS or by the Volunteer Center in Oak Park but would just show up and demand to see the evacuees.

The PADS volunteers found themselves trying to manage all these “visitors” at the same time they were trying to meet just the basic needs of the evacuees. Arbuckle was especially critical of the politicians who came. Without naming names he said, “We had politicians who would come in with photographers. They didn’t talk with the people. They just said to them, ‘Welcome to Illinois,’ had their picture taken, and left. They never came over to us volunteers and asked us what we needed.”

This was unprecedented. There was no system in place for dealing with a situation like this. No one knew who was in charge. PADS somehow had to come up with everything from toilet paper to refrigerators, and was given no funding with which they could make the purchases. The cooks at Madden suddenly were asked to feed 57 more people with the same budget they had before the people from New Orleans had arrived. Government lawyers took a month to complete the contracts with outside vendors to bring in meals. It took two weeks for professional case work to be put in place. The Red Cross never showed up, and FEMA didn’t arrive until many days later.

Arbuckle said the lack of basic systems impacted the evacuees, some of whom had been taken out of their homes in New Orleans at gunpoint by the military. One woman at Madden had a son in Atlanta, but without phones, she was unable to talk with him. There were problems with people getting checks they needed from FEMA. It turns out that Madden has a Hines (V.A. Hospital) address with separate zip code, so checks mailed to Maywood did not get to them.

Many of the people, of course, did not have birth certificates, so they had trouble proving their identity. Without a birth certificate or a social security card, it was difficult to get a job that would allow them to move out of Madden and into an apartment.

Creating a system

“It was so chaotic. It was a zoo,” was how Schueler described the situation.

John Dede, a 56-year-old resident of New Orleans until Sept. 5, was one of the 57 people who got off the bus. He had survived the flooding for eight days when the National Guard forced him to leave his home. “I had prepared myself for the flood with food and water,” he said. “The flooding was only about ankle deep when the trucks started picking people up. They took us to the airport. They could have brought us food and water long before that. They put us on an airplane, and it was only 45 minutes before we landed that we were told that our destination was Chicago.”

Dede lived through the “chaos” Schueler described but is not planning to return to New Orleans. The reason he intends to remain in the apartment he found in Forest Park is the way he was treated by the volunteers. It was the volunteers who found ways to meet the needs of their “guests” even though the needed systems were not in place.

“Since I’ve been here,” he explained, “I’ve met a lot of good people. I want to stay and thank the people who have helped me. Besides, it will take two years to get New Orleans back in shape. I’m going to stay here.”

First on the scene to assist Dede and others were Schueler and Sheri Hackett, another PADS staffer. They quickly evaluated the situation and realized that all Madden was able to provide were two empty pavilions. Faced with the daunting challenge of meeting the basic needs of what would grow to 60 guests and seven pets (four dogs, two cats and a guinea pig), PADS had four assets which helped them:

 A network of 800 volunteers

 A staff which could be on site for the first few days

 Connections with resources

 Experience in dealing with homeless people.

“We put the call out to our volunteers,” Schueler said, “and we got a pretty good response back. We were having to staff not one shelter, like we were used to doing, but two. We were needing 37-40 volunteers per day. We established eight-hour shifts with shift leaders from among our more experienced site captains who knew how to run a shelter, organize and delegate.”

The PADS volunteers not only had experience but had been working in a organizational culture in which the homeless who slept in PADS shelters were referred to as “guests.”

One volunteer, Doug Wyman, shared the story of a conversation he had with one of the evacuees. Wyman asked the man if he planned to return to New Orleans. The man replied that he was going to remain in this area, explaining his decision by saying, “I’ve never been treated so well by white men in my life.”

“By Thursday or Friday,” Arbuckle remembered, “we were inundated with doctors from Loyola, nurses from Cook County and mental health care professionals from Pro Care on Lake Street. They all came and did thorough evaluations.”

He was impressed by the doctors who were “humble and did whatever needed to be done.” He told of highly educated people who had never volunteered before in their lives, who had life-changing experiences as they cared for evacuees.

Arbuckle recalled the chaos in which the volunteers were working. “We didn’t have any equipment. Each agency kept its own files so we had no unified file for each guest. I didn’t know from moment to moment what was happening.” So he decided to step in and try to create some order. He was rewarded with what amounted to a field commission for his efforts, being appointed as director of the program at the end of September.

People were better than the system

“All my life,” he said, “I’ve dealt with volunteer situations: the Special Olympics, outings for disabled kids, and, of course, PADS. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done, sometimes fighting to get the bare necessities.”

Gradually, other agencies and businesses came on board. The Volunteer Center in Oak Park took over the bulk of the work of answering phones and scheduling volunteers. The United Way kicked in money to help buy supplies. Local restaurants began supplying food to supplement the heroic efforts of the Madden kitchen staff which was given no extra money to feed 60 extra people. Catholic Charities provided lawyers and case workers who helped the evacuees recover the money they lost when FEMA checks and vouchers were mailed to the wrong address. The mayor of Maywood, Henderson Yarbrough, invited 40 of the evacuees to St. Eulalia Catholic Church for Christmas dinner.

For one who had to deal with the lack of preparedness on a 24/7 basis for three months, Arbuckle was extremely sympathetic to the people who work for state and federal agencies. “People from FEMA, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Madden did a terrific job of making do with what they had. I have nothing but high things to say about the Madden staff. People performed better than the system.”

“It wasn’t some disaster preparedness plan that came from the state or federal government,” Schueler concluded. “It was a grass roots effort, people pulling together at the local level. It was the insight and experience of people who had come together and knowing that you wouldn’t have to do this alone.”

By December all of the evacuees had left Madden. According to Arbuckle, only a quarter of them returned to New Orleans. Half chose to remain in this area and 25 percent moved on to other areas. He said that most who stayed around here were hooked up with congregations which could give them rides to go shopping and help them furnish apartments.

Because he has severe, chronic arthritis, John Dede is applying for disability. He spends his time “helping a lot of people” who are fellow evacuees or neighbors or those among his new friends. “It’s my way of thanking the people who helped me.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...