Hur­ri­cane Katrina brought out Ok­la­homa's giv­ing spirit

Tulsa World - - News - By Deb­bie Jack­son Hi­lary Pittman con­trib­uted to this story. Deb­bie Jack­son 918-581-8374 deb­bie.jack­son@tul­saworld.com Twit­ter: @Sun­dayTW

Ex­hausted, hun­gry and trau­ma­tized, the Hur­ri­cane Katrina evac­uees ar­rived at Camp Gru­ber around 9:45 p.m. on Satur­day, Sept. 3, 2005.

Red Cross vol­un­teers — some gag­ging from the stench from over­flow­ing, clogged toi­lets — boarded the buses to find pas­sen­gers slumped over, non­re­spon­sive and too tired to move, as Tulsa World re­porter Michael Over­all wrote later. A 58-year-old wo­man died shortly after ar­riv­ing at the camp.

The 1,500 evac­uees, some of whom had sur­vived har­row­ing es­capes from flooded out neigh­bor­hoods and days in­side the Su­per­dome with­out suf­fi­cient food, wa­ter, med­i­cal care, elec­tric­ity and san­i­ta­tion, had rid­den vir­tu­ally non­stop for 30 hours, pass­ing through Hous­ton and Dal­las after leav­ing New Or­leans.

“To th­ese peo­ple, it will be pretty close to par­adise,” said Nel­lie Kelly, spokes­woman for the Tulsa chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Red Cross. “Ev­ery­body has a bed, a locker, sheets, a pil­low and a towel.”

Hur­ri­cane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in Au­gust 2005, killing nearly 2,000 peo­ple and caus­ing $108 bil­lion in dam­age.

Camp Gru­ber is an Ok­la­homa Army Na­tional Guard train­ing fa­cil­ity, not a lux­ury ho­tel, but the new tem­po­rary res­i­dents found clean beds, kitchens and bath­rooms.

“I want the peo­ple of Ok­la­homa to know this. My fam­ily has never been treated nicer than we were treated here. I don't think peo­ple re­al­ize what they've done here. They have saved hun­dreds of lives, and I will never for­get it,” said Leroy Saxon, who had spent five nights on a rooftop after his Louisiana home was flooded.

‘Help when I needed it’

“Gru­ber­town” was the name some lo­cals be­gan call­ing the camp, which is lo­cated east of Musko­gee near the town of Braggs. Its ameni­ties in­cluded am­bu­lance ser­vice, a med­i­cal clinic, po­lice pa­trols, a li­brary, day care, a din­ing hall and a post of­fice.

The evac­uees' num­bers soon dwin­dled. With fed­eral ben­e­fits and cash from the Red Cross, some headed to bus sta­tions and air­ports. The shel­ter closed on Oct. 5.

Martin Gwin planned to catch a bus to Ten­nessee for a con­struc­tion job.

“Peo­ple have treated me right, here in Ok­la­homa,” Gwin said. “You gave me clothes, gave me food, gave me a bed. You gave me help when I needed it. Now it's time for me to get back to work.”

Oth­ers de­cided to stay, rent­ing apart­ments and en­rolling their chil­dren in school. A year later, the Ok­la­homa Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­ported that 653 stu­dents dis­placed by Katrina had been in en­rolled in state schools, in­clud­ing 106 in Tulsa Pub­lic Schools.

In ad­di­tion to wel­com­ing the new­com­ers, Ok­la­homans reached out to help in other ways.

Mayor Bill LaFor­tune an­nounced that Tulsa was adopt­ing Long Beach, Mis­sis­sippi, a coastal city of 18,000 that was dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Katrina. Teams of Tulsa fire­fight­ers headed to Long Beach for weeks to as­sist emer­gency work­ers. They re­sponded to fires and med­i­cal emer­gen­cies and dis­trib­uted food to res­i­dents. Tulsa churches also sent vol­un­teers to help any way they could.

“It's just gut-wrench­ing and heart-wrench­ing, but re­ward­ing to meet th­ese peo­ple and do every­thing we can to lift them up and help them re­build — lit­er­ally,” said LaFor­tune, who vis­ited Long Beach to see for him­self.

Build­ing new lives

In ad­di­tion, more than 2,000 Ok­la­homa Army Na­tional Guard mem­bers de­ployed to New Or­leans to help with re­lief and re­cov­ery ef­forts. They worked in the Gar­den Dis­trict and ar­eas of down­town in­clud­ing the Su­per­dome.

Med­i­cal teams from Hill­crest Med­i­cal Cen­ter and Tulsa Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter also headed to the Gulf Coast, re­liev­ing weary hos­pi­tal work­ers in Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana, and Hat­ties­burg, Mis­sis­sippi.

“They are my an­gels of mercy,” said the staffing co­or­di­na­tor at the Ba­ton Rouge hos­pi­tal. “They have been a god­send to us.”

In Au­gust 2006, a group of Katrina sur­vivors hosted a re­union on the first an­niver­sary of the dis­as­ter.

“It's not the hur­ri­cane that we're cel­e­brat­ing,” said Mon­ica Burns, who set­tled in Tulsa. “It's the new lives that we have built for our­selves.”

Burns, who had rid­den an over­crowded bus with other evac­uees and stayed at Camp Gru­ber, said the event at An­ti­och Bap­tist Church was not only for hur­ri­cane sur­vivors but for Red Cross vol­un­teers, Na­tional Guard mem­bers, church­go­ers who sent dona­tions, High­way Pa­trol troop­ers who pro­vided se­cu­rity and any­one else who helped.

“We went through a lot to­gether,” Burns said. “It's go­ing to be al­most like a re­union of war vet­er­ans.”

Lo­cal char­i­ties es­ti­mated that more than 800 peo­ple from Camp Gru­ber re­lo­cated per­ma­nently to the Tulsa area, many with help from lo­cal churches and or­ga­ni­za­tions.

TULSA WORLD FILE

Nel­lie Kelly with the Tulsa chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Red Cross chats with Hur­ri­cane Katrina evac­uee Keith Brown of New Or­leans while Brown was await­ing a bus ride to the lo­cal Wal­mart from Camp Gru­ber near Braggs on Sept. 19, 2005.

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