Hurricane Katrina brought out Oklahoma's giving spirit
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.
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.