Last Friday afternoon I made a call from Cincinnati to Sister Helen Vinton on her cell phone. She's a Sisters of Providence nun and staffer with Southern Mutual Health Association (www.southernmutualhelp.org), a decades-old rural anti-poverty agency in New Iberia, La., about 100 miles directly west of New Orleans.
She and Lorna Bourg, SMHA director, were most of the way to Memphis, Tenn., to the closest vacant motel room they could find, with literally millions of people from Louisiana and Texas grinding north over log-jammed highways to escape the area's second life-threatening hurricane in a month.
Ironically, three weeks earlier Sister Helen and Lorna evacuated west from Katrina to a casino hotel room in Lake Charles, La., which as of this morning — I'm writing this early Saturday morning — Rita was pounding with 100 mph winds.
Three weeks ago I traveled back roads with Bourg and Vinton southeast from New Iberia as far as Grand Isle, about 50 miles due south of New Orleans, to tour the aftermath of Katrina and join them in helping document its devastation to the area. By making periodic reports back to Springer on the Radio (WCKY 1530 AM), I solicited donations to help the rural poor there regain their livelihoods.
We stopped to give food and water to several fisher families who were quietly cleaning their small boats from storm debris. Charles Borne and his dad, Gary, who, with the region's other independent fishers, catch about one-third of America's shell and fin fish, were trying to start their boat's diesel engine after righting it, its net poles still covered with mud from the channel's bottom.
"We lost between $5,000 to $6,000 and we won't be able to fish from now until December when this season ends," Gary Borne said.
To them, that was a sizable chunk of their year's income.
What they didn't know at the time was that the contamination pushing back out into the gulf from a flooded New Orleans would make their fish undesirable to restaurants for months to come, maybe years.
What we all didn't know on that sweltering, sunny afternoon was that Rita would come their way several weeks later, flooding the area again.
On Monday, Sept. 26, Louis Beck, chairman of the board of Cincinnati's Union and Guardian Savings banks, and I will board his helicopter and head for the region to help move people, supplies and tree limbs and seek ways for Cincinnatians to help our southern neighbors.
During my one-week trip after Katrina hit sections of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, I saw a boat the size of a small warehouse sitting in the middle of a dry road near Grand Isle, cast there by a huge storm surge. I camped with eight members of the Rimkus family, from severely flooded St. Bernard Parish, below New Orleans, who not only couldn't find some family members but were sure they'd lost everything they owned but the clothes on their backs and the two old cars they fled in. Kind people from a church next door to our KOA campground near Baton Rouge daily brought them food, water, clothing and camping gear.
I offered them help from Cincinnati's Union and Guardian Savings banks to relocate here with jobs, schooling for their kids and logistical support; but after an impromptu family meeting around their picnic table, they expressed fear of traveling so far from familiar surroundings. That night they slept in their cars and a donated tent with other hurricane evacuees crowded in the area around them.
I met with other families outside the Houston Astrodome, as they held handmade signs to buses pulling in that would be home for up to 25,000 people until Rita would push them north. Weeping people looking for relatives was the first story in this tragedy.
I talked with John Travolta as he walked through the shelter at the River Center in Baton Rouge with a gaggle of Scientologists in tow wearing bright yellow T-shirts that said "Volunteer Minister." I would see those people sweeping shelter floors and holding crying babies throughout Texas and Louisiana.
In each shelter, I saw the same phenomenon: Families pulled donated cots into small islands as if to say, "This is the Jones family's house." In the middle of a cavernous, impersonal structure, they claimed space for their own, although privacy really was nowhere.
What was plentiful was love. People from Texas, white and black, offered help and lodging to evacuees from Louisiana, white and black. How ironic that several weeks after I saw this remarkable hospitality, those same friendly Texans would themselves be running from Rita.
I stayed two nights in the same motel in Beaumont, Texas, once on my way from Houston to New Orleans and a week later driving back to the Houston airport. It was packed with Katrina evacuees from New Orleans. By the time of this writing, those evacuees and motel employees had been evacuated for Rita.
I had never been to New Orleans before this trip, so instead of seeing partying and dining tourists being served by the largely poor black residents, I saw sick, dark water sitting in empty streets with floating cars. Where it was dry, power lines lay in snarled piles that looked like huge iron pasta. The few people there were in airboats, still pulling people from their attics, or cops and military moving about with a seemingly vague plan. Everyone but me had a pistol strapped on.
Sadly, what they cleaned up would flood again as Rita pushed in more surge and rain.
America got an unprecedented one-two punch. It's testing our civil defenses and we're often failing. It will cause ugly, absurd comparisons, such as "Republicans governed their disaster better than Democrats" and "Whites did better than blacks." Look, Rita responders studied Katrina.
President Bush missed his "bullhorn" moment with Katrina. Will he get one with Rita to rescue his sagging poll numbers?
One thing's for sure. Nature does what she wants to. And so do we. We're our best when we do it with humanity in mind. Let politics wait.
PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.