With open arms: Area responded to Katrina's call

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Sgt. Kevin Pollock of Ironton, Mo., trimmed tree limbs from a neighborhood street in New Orleans as the 1140th Engineer Batallion of the Missouri National Guard began its Sept. 13, 2005, disaster relief work in the hurricane-stricken city. (Don Frazier)

New Orleans might have been our dearest neighbor.

Southeast Missourians responded to Hurricane Katrina's devastating strike on the Gulf Coast with the compassion of an open-armed family member.

In fact, the ties to the tragedy were close for many local people, some of whom had family and friends in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Within 24 hours, local emergency volunteers were on their way to the disaster area, and charities had been set up in Cape Girardeau.

"I've been in the disaster business here for over 15 years, and I've seen repeatedly how the people of Southeast Missouri just jump at the chance to hold out their hands to touch another life," said Mary Burton, former director of the Southeast Missouri chapter of the American Red Cross. "This was no different than any other disaster."

Katrina was more difficult to manage, said Burton, because clients came from outside Southeast Missouri into the chapter's coverage area.

"It was absolutely awesome how our community responded in our neighbors' hour of need," said Burton. "But I was in no way surprised because I've seen this behavior exhibited over and over throughout many years of disasters."

By Sept. 2, three days after the hurricane hit, local schools and churches had become involved in the fund-raising effort. There were car washes, drop-offs for emergency supplies and other donation opportunities. With no vacancies at hotels in the South, evacuees made their way to Cape Girardeau, where they booked hotel rooms or stayed with family. Those who did not evacuate also ended up in Southeast Missouri when shelters in Texas and Arkansas ran out of room.

An emergency shelter for hurricane victims opened at a church camp near Benton, Mo., and local schools began enrolling students from displaced families. Another camp opened Sept. 5 in Kennett, Mo., becoming temporary home to 175 Katrina survivors.

On Sept. 6, the National Guard's 1140th Engineer Battalion based in Cape Girardeau prepared for departure to New Orleans to help with cleanup and security.

By Sept. 8, some $200,000 -- $100,000 through the local American Red Cross chapter -- had been raised locally to aid in the disaster relief efforts. The local Salvation Army also worked overtime, collecting money and supplies.

That same week, members of a local church volunteered at the Benton and Kennett camps, marveling afterward at how the survivors coped with the disaster.

"My experience has been truly humbling," Shari Stroup, who leads the outreach ministry for La Croix United Methodist Church, said at the time. "Their stories are incredible, and their level of faith has astounded me."

Many Cape Girardeau churches, including La Croix, later adopted families, helping them get established in better housing and find jobs and transportation.

On Sept. 14, local churches opened their doors for a national day of prayer for the Katrina victims and emergency workers. Two days later, local bands performed a concert to raise money for the relief effort. The Student Alumni Association at Southeast Missouri University used Homecoming as an opportunity to raise $6,500.

Local residents like Saundra Blankenship watched the tragedy unfold on TV and were compelled to help. Residents were still helping months after Katrina struck.

Blankenship was among the local people who opened their homes to evacuees at Christmas.

"Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Helping people makes me feel good, and after what I saw I'm proud to be an American," said Blankenship.

Kristi Thurman, director of emergency services at the Red Cross in Cape Girardeau, described the generosity this way: "The people just couldn't get the shirts off their backs fast enough. As soon as there was a wish list, it was immediately filled."

cmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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