Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day 2008 And A Sack of Food

He was tall, frail and speckled with gray….he approached me as I was leaving the diner. “Excuse me, ma’am – do you know when the hurricane is supposed to hit?”

This was exactly a year ago – Labor Day weekend – and I was leaving a truck stop in-between Baton Rouge and Alexandria. I had been in Baton Rouge for several days, deployed by the American Red Cross, in anticipation of Hurricane Gustav. That morning, several of us volunteers had been told to evacuate Baton Rouge and head north – to Alexandria – for our own safety, as well as the protection of the Red Cross vehicles we were driving.

Waiting until the day before expected landfall to evacuate is never smart – as I found out – nor is it speedy. My partner and I had been crawling along the highway, moving only a few miles every hour, as the highway was a virtual parking lot of vehicles all attempting to do what we were doing – head north.

After driving for several hours, we were getting increasingly hungry. I had been squirreling away snacks for the last few days – a package of cookies here – a bag of chips there – and storing them in an empty Walmart bag in the truck. I had learned from previous disaster volunteer work that food can become scarce after an event; it’s best to have a surplus of food stored away in advance – a “just in case”, if you will. However, my partner and I were hoping for one last hot meal before landfall – but the prospects of getting that meal were growing increasingly smaller – as every store, restaurant and gas station we passed along the way were all closed and boarded up – letting employees be at home with their own families, preparing to “hunker down.”

We were about to give up on a hot meal when we saw a crowded truck stop off the side of the highway – and we quickly pulled in. The diner was a zoo – there was a sense of desperation from all the weary & hungry travelers, all hoping to get that last meal before the storm. The frazzled waitress told us they were cleaning out their freezer and therefore our only choices for dinner were a cheeseburger, or chicken tenders. Hey – that sounded good to me – I was just thankful there was anything at all to eat, and that they were open. No complaints here. I ate half my tenders and quickly boxed up the rest – thinking they could serve as a future meal during the storm. I’ve learned – you don’t throw any food away before a storm hits.

We were leaving the diner when the elderly gentleman approached me in the parking lot. “Do you know when the hurricane is supposed to hit?” he asked. I replied that it would be coming within the next 12 hours. I then asked, “Are you from around here? Do you have shelter?” He replied, “No, ma’am…I’m from New Orleans – and they told us to evacuate from there. I didn’t evacuate during Katrina – and ended up breaking a hole in my attic roof to get out – and I ain’t taking chances on this one. I got in my car and just started driving north.” I asked, “Are you heading to a Red Cross shelter? There’s several of them open on up the road.” He said, “No, ma’am…I plan on riding out the storm over there in my car.”

I looked across the parking lot and gulped. His small car looked like a puff of wind would blow it over…no protection from an expected Category 4 hurricane on the way. I tried to convince him of the need to head to a shelter, but he said he was “old and tired” and he’d be “just fine” in the car – “God would watch” over him.

I asked him if he’d eaten – if he had food – because the stores & restaurants would probably be closed for several days, especially if there were power outages. He said no, he had no food – but he’d be fine.

Without thinking, I handed him my box of leftover chicken tenders. “Here, take this – please,” I said. He fussed and tried to refuse, but I insisted. He took it and said, “Oh, bless you, child. Thank you.”

I then said, “Hang on.” I jogged over to the Red Cross truck and got my Walmart bag of snacks – along with what few bottles of water I had – and gave it all to the gentleman. He choked up and said, “Oh Lordy – thank you. You’re an angel.” I told him I’d give him more if I had it – but our Red Cross truck was empty and we wouldn’t be able to load up with more food until we reached Alexandria. I again tried one more time to convince him to head to a safe shelter, but he shook his head, hugged me, and walked back to his car.

“I’ll be fine,” he called out over his shoulder. “When I got God and angels like you watching over me, what can happen?”

As I got back in the truck and drove off, he was sitting in his car, reclining his seat to settle in to sleep. I didn’t feel like an angel, for sure – but I did pray to whatever angels were listening to watch out for him and protect him during the storm.

I’ve often wondered whatever happened to him. Hurricane Gustav hit the next day, and after it was over, 48 people in Louisiana alone were killed – so it was a storm to be taken seriously. I spent almost 3 weeks in Louisiana, working 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week…I passed out hundreds and hundreds of snacks, meals and water to thousands of people affected by the storm.

The meal that made the biggest impact on me, though, was the leftover chicken tenders and the Walmart sack of snacks that went to that old man in the parking lot…somewhere along a highway….in rural Louisiana. God bless him, wherever he is.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.


Anonymous said...

Sherri, you make all of us proud to be associated with you and the American Red Cross. Thanks for sharing this inspiring story.

Sharon said...

This was a great story and very inspiring. I'm sure that guy is doing fine.