POST-KATRINA SERVICE LEADS TO LIFELONG FRIENDSHIPS FOR HAVERFORD ALUMNUS
When it comes to community service, Kyle Smiddie ’04 has never been one to sit on the sidelines. During his Haverford days he was active with 8th Dimension, served as a counselor for the summer day camp Serendipity, and interned with the Michigan Land Use Institute through the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. Post-graduation, he was a Haverford House Fellow, lending his time to Philadelphia’s Friends Neighborhood Guild.
So when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in September 2005, Smiddie wasted no time in joining the volunteer efforts of the Red Cross. “I was in between jobs at the time, and living with my parents,” he explains, “so I was in a financial position to do this.” After three weeks of training, Smiddie was assigned to a high school turned makeshift shelter in the town of Slidell.
Smiddie and his group of 25 Red Cross volunteers stayed at the shelter for 19 days with 250 displaced residents of the town. Each volunteer had been trained in specific categories such as maintenance, food management, and child care, and mental health workers provided their services to the traumatized residents: “In fact,” says Smiddie, “the shelter manager was a school psychotherapist in New York City who had dealt with the aftermath of September 11.” Every evening after dinner, the manager organized a meeting to give residents up-to-date information and answer their questions.
“The communication lines were excellent,” says Smiddie, who recalls the residents’ extreme frustration at FEMA’s mishandling of the disaster, and their confusion as to what they were entitled from the government.
Nights were the hardest, when Red Cross volunteers often found themselves sitting with tearful, sleepless residents, listening to their grief and fears. “It was the most valuable service we could provide,” says Smiddie.
Smiddie started out on the shelter’s maintenance crew, emptying the trash cans, cleaning bathrooms, fixing broken cots, and dealing with the influx of 100 new residents courtesy of Hurricane Rita. He spent his available moments with the children, and it soon became his primary responsibility to plan their activities. One special evening they prepared a dress-up party, complete with toasts and a fancy dinner table, with the help of a resident who had once taught etiquette classes.
“Most of the children had never experienced this kind of meal before,” says Smiddie. “They were sitting there eating ravioli off of these fancy plates, and one 14-year-old turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t this the most wonderful meal you’ve ever eaten in your life?’”
At the end of those 19 days, Smiddie returned to his home state of Ohio both physically and emotionally exhausted. He joined AmeriCorps, working for the Appalachian Mentorcorps, but found it difficult to re-adjust to his regular life. He had forged strong bonds with hundreds of the Slidell residents and kept in touch with them, sending their children birthday and holiday presents. “To be so attached to them, and then to just leave...it was hard,” he says.
Six months later, on March 18, Smiddie returned to Louisiana, this time with AmeriCorps. They partnered with an organization called Emergency Communities, which aims to feed the residents of New Orleans who lost electricity, whose neighborhoods were defiled by oil, and whose homes were submerged in 20 feet of water. Emergency Communities set up a tent city for volunteers and fed 2,200 people per day at a kitchen dome in St. Bernard Parish, adjacent to the Ninth Ward.
Smiddie and other volunteers assisted with cooking and serving meals, and in the afternoons they helped the residents—many of whom were living in FEMA trailer parks—to clean out their houses, removing furniture and gutting drywall. Because his work in Slidell had kept him indoors, this was Smiddie’s first real opportunity to witness the havoc Katrina had wrought.
“It was unbelievable,” he says. “It’s incredible how massive the damage was. Nothing was untouched. There were collapsed buildings, trucks underneath houses, lots of furniture, garbage, drywall between the houses and the roads.”
The former political science major also discovered, through others’ comments and his own observations, that no military or government vehicles had ever been seen in the affected areas. “It’s sad that there was no government presence.”
At St. Bernard Parish, Smiddie encountered folks from the Slidell shelter, including his friend Lester, who enlisted volunteers’ help in clearing debris and salvaging possessions from his house. Clad in blue suits, goggles, and breathing masks, the volunteers needed four hours to finish the job. “It was tough pulling out the refrigerator that had been spoiling for seven months,” says Smiddie, “and to see that Lester wanted to save some things but realized he couldn’t, because they were too damaged.”
Many of Lester’s fellow Slidell evacuees had been transferred to a FEMA trailer park near the town, consisting of 400 white trucks in a gravel parking lot. There are no trees, parks, or playgrounds for the children. “The residents are happy to be with the people with whom they’ve bonded, but the quality of life is pretty awful,” says Smiddie. “There aren’t any jobs opening up, and many of these people are uneducated, with no driver’s licenses, and they’re in an isolated area off a highway.”
Despite the grim circumstances, the Louisianans awed Smiddie with their kindness and gratitude. “Lester wanted to personally thank us, so the night before we left he brought us 20 pounds of live crawfish to cook.” The volunteers and residents joined forces to whip up a Cajun feast of crawfish with ham, potatoes, corn, and Louisiana spices. Smiddie also learned the proper way to eat crawfish: break the tail, then suck the head.
Smiddie received substantial financial support for his March volunteer trip from several Haverford professors, including political science’s Steve McGovern (Smiddie’s senior thesis advisor) and general programs’ Kaye Edwards, the most recent director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. Their contributions helped purchase gas for the volunteers’ van, supplies, food, and a few extras: A local 70-year-old man broke the window of his car (the only place where he could safely store his belongings) when his lawn mower dislodged a rock, so Smiddie and the other volunteers purchased a new window for him.
Smiddie remains in contact with the friends he made in both Slidell and New Orleans, all of whom are still attempting to reassemble their broken lives. Lester is from a neighborhood where houses must be lifted eight feet from the ground in order to be rebuilt; as he has no means of accomplishing this task, he stays with friends while the government decides whether or not to pay him and his neighbors for their properties. Another older couple from Slidell cannot return to their house because it has yet to be inspected by FEMA, due to a hole in the roof that caused Rita to flood the place. “They didn’t realize they had to file again with FEMA,” says Smiddie. “There are so many people who don’t understand the rules of the system or why it takes so long.”
Back in Ohio, Smiddie gives presentations about his New Orleans experience to AmeriCorps’ financial supporters throughout the state. He hopes in the near future to return to Louisiana where, thanks to the connections he’s made, he’ll always have a couch on which to crash. “I’ve gone from being a volunteer to a friend,” he says.
— Brenna McBride