It bears repeating what Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf Coast of the United States last year. On Aug. 29, the hurricane's 145 mph sustained winds and 28-foot storm surge brought death and destruction to parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The storm killed more than 1,000 people and forced more than 1 million residents to evacuate the region. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
In Mississippi, most of the buildings along the coast in Biloxi and Gulfport were damaged or destroyed. Huge casino barges and small fishing vessels alike littered the shore. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out, and many roads and bridges were impassable or completely washed away. In New Orleans, several levees broke open or collapsed, and water from Lake Pontchartrain and area canals flooded most of the city. In some areas, the water was 20 feet deep, stranding residents on rooftops.
The day before the storm, correctional staff in Mississippi evacuated 531 inmates near the coast and sent them to other facilities that were out of harm's way. In Louisiana, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) evacuated more then 900 inmates before Katrina hit. The subsequent flooding, such as that seen in New Orleans, forced the
evacuation of 7,350 more inmates from various parishes of Louisiana. On top of that, DPSC staff provided security and food to emergency shelters and assisted the National Guard with law enforcement duties.
Correctional Workers Spearhead Massive Relief Effort
Correctional staff in Mississippi and Louisiana acted heroically in the face of widespread disaster. But with much of the region's population left without food, water and electricity, and with more than 1 million evacuees, they were stretched far beyond their means. Almost immediately, volunteers from corrections departments around the country poured into the region, bringing food, water, emergency supplies and any other help they could offer. Many assisted with specific professional duties such as security and law enforcement. Others pitched in wherever disaster relief was needed by managing food banks, distributing clothes, transporting supplies and easing victims' suffering any way they could. Relief volunteers also provided basic health care, counseling services and assistance with reuniting family members.
Volunteers from the New York City Department of Correction brought truckloads of supplies from warehouses on Rikers Island. Over a 46-day period, 130 New York City correctional officers went to work at seven Louisiana correctional facilities. In New Orleans, they helped set up a makeshift jail and courthouse in a Greyhound bus terminal. Some volunteers stayed for the entire 46 days.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections sent 37 volunteers to Louisiana, including correctional officers and psychological staff. They worked 12-hour shifts for two weeks in 100-degree heat. For the first few days, there was no electricity. They lived in temporary dormitory-style quarters in a training building. Volunteers relieved the Louisiana employees, which allowed them some time to tend to their own pressing needs. Psychological staff helped counsel employees and inmates, many of whom were still trying to contact family members.
Mike Bobella, a psychological services specialist from Pennsylvania and a volunteer, said that the conditions were extremely stressful. "During the hurricane, the prison had to maintain security," he said. "Officers continued to work in the towers with 160 mph winds whipping all around them ... Many employees experienced great trauma, either while on the job or while off duty." Bobella met a mental health employee who had 16 people living in her house with no water and no electricity. She had to have a path cut with a chainsaw to get out of her house to get to work.
On the trip back to Pennsylvania, the volunteers' emergency assistance was unexpectedly needed again. While driving through Alabama, they came upon a car that had flipped over an embankment, ejecting the driver. They located the driver and provided first aid until medical crews arrived.
Evacuees from Louisiana who were brought to Texas were met by employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Many of the evacuees were housed in Ford Park, an entertainment and sports event complex in Beaumont, where, safe for the moment, they received donated clothing, food and other supplies gathered and distributed by TDCJ volunteers from area correctional facilities. The volunteers kept children occupied by playing games and doing crafts. They organized meals, and tackled the mounting problem of cleaning laundry. TDCJ had a new set of problems when almost three weeks later, Hurricane Rita slammed into the Texas coast, forcing the evacuation of much of that region and inflicting heavy damage on Port Arthur and Beaumont. Many evacuees found themselves evacuating again.
Within days of Hurricane Katrina, a team of employees from the Arkansas Department of Correction headed to Louisiana with generators, flashlights, batteries and other supplies. Some of the volunteers had family members in the area. During the trip, Industries Administrator Jerry Campbell asked Cpl. Michael Smith (whose son was serving in the military in Iraq) when his son was expected to return home. Smith said, "About 20 minutes ago." A stunned Campbell asked him why he did not mention his son's return before leaving for Louisiana. Smith simply said, "Boss, this had to be done." Campbell said his team's morale never wavered for an instant, even when they were severely exhausted. "I was totally impressed with the dedication of each of these employees," he said.
Private corporations also assisted greatly with hurricane relief. When Larry Pettey and Ray Wagoner, correctional officers with the West Virginia Division of Corrections, drove a truckload of donated supplies to Baton Rouge, La., the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation donated the truck rental fees and the costs of fuel, food and lodging. In addition, Wal-Mart donated a gift card, which was used to purchase drinking water, and a local bank and Kmart allowed Pettey and Wagoner to set up donation boxes at their locations. Vicki Lang, an administrative technician with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, helped load a truck with goods to be shipped to Louisiana. She also acted as a liaison to connect people with family and friends in the hurricane zone. To help with that, Cingular Wireless gave her 100 free daytime minutes on her cell phone.
Christopher Epps, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), said that Katrina was a "historic natural disaster" that devastated parts of the state. He said it was "amazing to witness the love, compassion and devotion that correctional professionals from around the nation have offered." Epps said, "I have talked to many of our fellow citizens on the coast, several of whom are still living in tents. They have told me that depression is widespread and some people have lost hope." He would like to let them know that although Mississippians still face a difficult journey ahead, "we will not have to venture alone, as our friends in corrections from around the nation stand firmly beside us."
Richard Stalder, secretary of the Louisiana DPSC, was also moved by the outpouring of emergency relief that his state received during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "We lost lives, homes, entire communities. We continue to grieve over lost memories and dreams," he said. With the support of correctional communities around the nation, however, "we have realized as never before that we are not alone in confronting these challenges," Stalder said. "I hope that no other agency will experience what we along the Gulf Coast have experienced and continue to deal with," he said. But if it does, Stalder said, that agency will have the full support of his and many other correctional agencies.
In addition to the many volunteers and donations that correctional agencies across the country sent to Louisiana and other states affected by the hurricanes, the American Correctional Association, along with other correctional organizations such as the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, and the Association of Women Executives in Corrections, organized relief funds for the hurricane victims. "Our profession is a family ... and I could not be prouder of our family and our response," said James Gondles Jr., executive director of ACA.
ACA wishes to express sincere thanks to all those who rushed to the aid of their brothers and sisters in corrections in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including the individuals named below. This list is by no means exhaustive, and we know that there are far more unsung heroes who selflessly put aside their own concerns to help people in need.