“I became a Red Crosser for life after Katrina.” Ten years ago, Dan Hoffman, from New Brighton, Minnesota, was one of 245,000 Red Cross disaster workers who responded to Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Dan recently sat down with Red Cross intern Vivi Engen to look back on his experience.
Tell me about how you got involved with Katrina.
Katrina was my first national deployment. At the time, I was an employee for the Red Cross at the St. Paul Chapter and a trained disaster volunteer. I got a phone call on the day the storm hit asking if I wanted to deploy, and I accepted. I was on a plane later that afternoon headed down to Houston. From Houston, I was assigned to work at a 6,000 person American Red Cross shelter at the Convention Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
What was it like to be at the shelter?
The first few days I would describe as organized chaos. Buses and helicopters unloaded a steady flow of scared, mud-covered people just pulled from disaster. We knew what we needed to do–what the Red Cross always does–everything from setting up portable showers outside the convention center, to providing clothes and hygiene kits, and registering people and contacting other shelter locations to find lost loved ones. We did this for 12 hours a day, and just like the refugees, slept on cots. We saw, and lived it all. I knew that I was part of something big and wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
Tell me about what you did there.
I think a better question is what didn’t I do. I worked the floor so I did whatever needed to be done. I did everything from giving teddy bears to kids, diapers to moms, to taking down names of people sleeping on cardboard boxes because we ran out of cots early on and pushing people around in wheelchairs who couldn’t walk. But more than anything I would just listen. These people were hurting and needed to tell their story.
What were some of the stories that had an impact on you?
I’ll tell you a few of my favorites…
Miss Evelyn was one of our shelter residents. Her home had been destroyed by the storm, and when the rescue crew came to save her, they told her she had to leave her dog, Pepper, behind. Pepper was Miss Evelyn’s only family, and she was heartbroken without him. There was a pet shelter set up at Louisiana State University, and a couple of days after talking to Miss Evelyn, I stopped over there while on a supply run to see if I could find her dog. I found a Red Cross worker and asked her if she had seen Pepper and she said she would be in touch. A few days later, I received a few photos of different dogs at the shelter. I showed them to Miss Evelyn and, wouldn’t you know, there was Pepper smiling back at her in one of the photos.
Another woman, Hattie Mae, came to the Red Cross shelter unable to walk, and unable to fit into a wheel chair. A day later I stopped by the local hospital and “commandeered” an over-sized wheelchair to lend to Hattie Mae because she needed something to get around in. I will never forget the look on her face, or the hug that she gave me, when I came back with that chair.
Miss Amelia, another refugee, who was a kind of matriarch over a large family community, introduced me to her family. “This is Mr. Dan, he’s Red Cross, so listen to him.” It sure gave me instant credibility. Then she turned to me and said “You came all the way form Minnesota to help us, you must be an angel.” I am no angel, but I do share the gratitude that the refugees had for my work, for the experience that they gave me. The people at the shelter who had lost everything were so gratified, so appreciative for the smallest things that it changed the way I see life today. And that’s something I will never be able to repay them for.
How did this experience transform your commitment to the Red Cross?
After Katrina, I realized that the work that the Red Cross does is my calling. Once I came home, I shared all of the incredible stories I had been told, what the Red Cross did and how the Red Cross helped all these people. Just like the stories of the shelter refugees needed to be shared, so did the Red Cross’.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to finish up with a woman named Misty. While working at a shelter as a volunteer, you half adopt people while you are there, meaning there are certain individuals that you go in to check on or eat with them on a regular basis. Misty was one of those people for me. Misty is a poet, and on the day of the storm she wrote a poem that was angry. Angry at Katrina and all of the destruction it had caused and how it impacted her–she lost her dog and everything she owned. A few weeks after I got home, I received a letter in the mail. It was another poem from Misty titled “Thank You”. The last line of the poem read “memories of you will never leave my heart.” Now I ask you, how could an experience like that not change your life?
To learn more about how you can volunteer with the Red Cross, chick here.