Working in a Katrina Shelter-a Personal View from an LDS Mom

By Maurine Jensen Proctor

Editor’s Note:  If you want to help the people at this shelter contact Denise Allbee at [email protected]

Denise Allbee, an LDS mom in San Antonio, Texas is making an extra big batch of chili and corn bread this morning to leave with her seven children still at home-along with many notes of instruction taped to the refrigerator door.  Since last Friday, she has been working 10 and 12 hour days at a shelter for refugees from the Katrina devastation in New Orleans-and her children, who are independent, mature and capable, are learning a lesson about sacrifice and service they’ll never forget.

The shelter, called Kelley USA, is on the site of the Kelley Air Force base, and consists of a warehouse building the size of four connected football fields. Now the warehouse has a sea of cots, line upon line of them, filled with a swell of disoriented and traumatized people who have been bused here-most of them from the New Orleans Superdome.

These are the victims who have seen their lives smashed in the last few days by a toxic brew of relentlessly rising water.  They are people who can’t receive mail because they no longer have addresses.

Stories to Tell

If Denise asks, they have stories to tell, but they are slow to complain-and slow to laugh.  Not in the Kelley USA shelter is their much social chit chat.  Post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression is beginning to set in.  But also courage and stoicism and a sense that they are being well cared for.

Though national news stories dwell on needs unmet and a murky government response, that has not been Denise’s experience. The American Red Cross is running the facility but sheriffs, troopers, and motor cycle cops have come from cities and towns all over the region to help in 12-hour shifts.  The recruits from Lacklund Air Force Base and the National Guard are on hand. 

Denise walked into a room where 500 troops were receiving instructions from an officer.  “You work.  You work hard. You put in twelve hours.  You put in 14-even if you don’t sleep.”  They were answering “Yes sir.  Yes sir.” 

The shelter already offers an array of services from Social Security, WIC, Health and Human Services, chaplains and emergency response teams.  Refugees are pouring in every day.  

“It makes a big difference that the military is here,” she said.  The shelter is run with surprising order.  “The kitchen is wonderful,” she said.  “We have showers.  Smaller offices are designated for a personal hygiene room or a shoe room.”

Denise has been trained as a Red Cross shelter volunteer and so was placed immediately working with the intake of refugees, a procedure involving sitting with people and finding out about their lives pre and post disaster, evaluating their needs and sending them on for services.

Nothing Could Have Prepared Her

“I met a lot of people that way, ” she said, and though she has seen numerous films on how to do mass care, she admits, “I don’t think I was prepared.  I don’t think any briefing could have prepared us to see what these people have been through.  The suffering of the children was really bad.”

The refugees arrive filthy, often wearing garbage bags with holes cut out for their heads and arms, having lost their clothing in the floods.  Duct tape holds the bag in place.  Some people are in paper scrubs. “Maybe 20% have shoes,” said Denise. “A lot of the footwear are surgical booties. Nobody has socks and they are hard to come by.

“Some have arrived here by bus, having waited in the parking lot of the Astrodome for six hours hoping for admittance there.

“One little girl caught my eye, and she asked, ‘Can you get me some drawers?’  I answered that I could get her some. She just pulled those clothes on so fast because she was so glad to get out of that garbage bag.

Denise said, “I found one lady, probably of 69 or 70, sitting on the curb, and I asked her if she could come over to intake so I could give her a wristband. 

“She said that she just couldn’t walk.  I went to get her a wheelchair and learned they are impossible to find, so instead I brought back an office chair on wheels to take her where she needed to go.

“Only then did she tell her story to me about why her feet hurt so much.  She had stayed on a roof, where all the shingles had blown off, for five days and the nails cut and slashed her feet.  When she was rescued, the helicopter took her and others to a railroad track where they had to walk ten miles to find shelter in the Superdome.”

Another woman told Denise, “I’m 91 and I’m just going to sit here for awhile.”

“Do you want me sit with you?” Denise asked.  Then the woman told her that her husband fell off into the water and they are still trying to find him.”

Denise said they tell these horrific stories in a matter of fact way, without whining or self pity.  “It’s almost like they don’t want to talk about it,” she said, “and then what has happened to them only comes out as they talk.

Ask for Nothing

They ask for almost nothing.  Denise said in the days she’s worked she’s heard few requests, “Ma’am could you get me a towel?” some boys asked.  “Let’s feed you first,” Denise answered.  “You haven’t eaten in two days.”

“Oh but, we haven’t showered in five days,” they answered.

 “Are telling me you’re going to take a shower before you eat?” 

“Yes Ma’am,” they replied.  Denise quickly found a bar of soap and some towels.

Diapers were in such high demand at the shelter that they started handing them out one at a time.  A new refugee asked for a diaper-because her child had been in the same diaper for two days.

Often, the people arrive in big families-and even though the shelter offers special care for the elderly or there are some with conditions that may require intense medical care-nobody wants to be separated.  The aged grandmother will opt to stay with her family and forego special care.

“I’m an interpreter for the deaf,” said Denise.  “A gentleman who was deaf, blind and mute came in who needed total care. We suggested that he could go to a nursing home where he could receive total care and round-the-clock nursing..  His family wouldn’t hear of it.  They wanted to stick together at any cost.”

“We hear a lot of plans for the future,” said Denise, “and there is talk about housing and jobs.  We had a man show up on Friday saying that he could hire some plumbers. Yet, she said, “I can’t get these people to put one foot in front of the other. We get them fresh off the bus.  It’s almost like the first time their feet have been on land.  They are wondering, Is this actually a stopping point for me?

“They just don’t have the power right now to address any more.  All they need is for someone to minister to them, to meet their physical and spiritual needs.

  They know that the shelter can’t be forever, but they are so burdened, you can’t even ask them what they want.

“They came through with a bullhorn asking for any volunteers who wanted to go to a shelter in West Virginia on some buses to be closer to any family on the East coast.  They had to cancel the buses because nobody wanted to leave.

“A cruise line was planning to send a ship to Galveston that would hold 4,000, but they had to cancel because nobody would leave the Astrodome.

“The majority of them,” said Denise, “want to put their feet on the ground and their head on the pillow and not think about it for awhile.  They want comfort.”  That’s my job.

 “I make them laugh, because I don’t hear a lot of that.”


Stirred with compassion as she works at the shelter, Denise has learned to hold back her tears.  She said if she wants to cry she’d go to a closet or back out to her car.  Yet, one time she couldn’t stop the flood.

“Friday, when I did intake,” she said, “I met a mother with five small children who was deeply distressed because she had become separated from her 13-year-old niece who was holding a 5-month old baby.  They never showed up where they were supposed to be.  I wrote on a piece of cardboard their information with a plea ‘Please, please find them.’ “

Since the Red Cross has put together a comprehensive computer database to help people find missing loved ones and there are other ways to check on the lost, Denise began a search, leaving her name as the contact person.  “I called every name, called every number looking for these children,” she said. “I asked if anybody found them to call me. I really, really tried.”

The response was silence.  Their names appeared nowhere, and it was with a sinking heart that Denise approached the mother to tell the bad news.  Instead, the mother exclaimed, “Guess what!  I found my baby.  She just showed up with her father.”

“She jumped over the cot and kissed me and said they were going to stay in an apartment in Houston.”  Yet, Keanna the 13-year-old was still missing; her name appeared nowhere, and on Sunday, said Denise, “I was walking by their cots and said, ‘Here are some of my favorite people,’ and I heard the aunt call Keanna’s name.  She had been found.

“At that point, I could hold back my tears no more.  I just broke out crying.  I couldn’t control it.  She hugged me and I said, ‘How in the world did this happen?’

Apparently they went to the Astrodome and you had to be 14 to go in.  So this little 13-year old sat on the curb with the baby.  This is where a nurse found her and took her to the hospital because both of the children were so dehydrated.  The authorities there saw Denise’s name on the computer trying to find the children and the nurse insisted they be allowed on the bus to San Antonio because they were in medical need.  The baby’s father just happened to be on the bus and took the baby and Keanna came on the next bus.

Picture Album

The following are pictures that Denise has taken in the shelter with her descriptions.

“Friday when the evacuees started to arrive, after several hours I made it a point to walk the sleeping area and talk to the people. Gary, in his bright orange shirt, was resting on his cot when I went over to visit with him. He didn’t have a story to tell and I never ask. I just wanted to make sure he knew what services were there for him.

“Later that day I noticed a very long line in the hall. I decided to walk the hall and ask what everyone was doing. I spotted Gary with a few friends and asked him what the line was for. He told me it was for clothes, clean clothes for everyone.

“It looked like a 2 -3 hour line, and I tried to make light of it. I told Gary not to give up because he really needed a new shirt. I didn’t want the security to think he was a prisoner, since the prisoners on work patrol just showed up and they were dressed in orange too!

“He laughed and his friends got a good laugh also. I told Gary I would come by his cot and say hi everyday.

“Saturday I went to eat dinner and I could hear someone laughing in line and it was Gary trying to hide from me. I ran up to him and said, “Oh my, I didn’t recognize you without the prisoner shirt! He grabbed my neck and hugged me so hard.

“We waited in line for dinner and the actor Tommy Lee Jones was serving dinner that night. Sunday I looked for Gary for a few hours, and  then I spotted him watching the news on one of the several big screen TV’s someone brought in. We talked and laughed, I told him I would come by and say good night.

“This is how I found Gary a few hours later on his cot reading Revelations in his newly- acquired bible. The lady next to Gary told us that we should read Revelation because we were living through it and we wouldn’t be so afraid. Wise woman.

“I took some much needed time off today and had Family Home Evening with the family.  I bought Gary some books and both of them a rare commodity CANDY! Everyone wants a copy of their picture.

“Here is Gary, reading a Bible.”

“Here is my new friend, Destiny, in the cafeteria.  I went to get dinner late Sunday night and Destiny came up and stood by me. She asked me if I was hungry and waiting to eat. I told her I was, but I thought they closed the kitchen. I took two styro-foam containers and told her that we should hold them up to our chins and look hungry every time someone looked at us.

“She giggled and wiggled and could not keep a straight face. But we got the attention we needed and the much-desired dinner! I asked Destiny if she would sit by me and eat and she directed me where to sit.

It was a long needed break for both of us. A DJ was playing Jazz and Louisiana music while we ate with about 500 people. Destiny could not sit still and started to dance in her chair between bites of sausage and potato salad.

I started to dance too and she would say like this, like this, and so I followed her lead and we ate and danced and talked. She told me her aunt’s name was Denise, her favorite color was pink, she was 10 years old, in the fourth grade, she was from New Orleans, she rode a bus to Texas and it was too far!

“This is Destiny on her cot in the sleeping area, with a doll and toy we found in the donations.

“Destiny and I wandered around for about an hour checking out the new computer area being set up, the shoe room, the phone room and the toy donations.

We finally made our way to the sleeping area where she asked me to take care of her blistered lip.

“We went over to the volunteer nurses at the tables designated “Over the Counter Medicines.” They offered me a popsicle stick dipped in petroleum jelly which I applied to her lips.

“Then she showed me her foot with a cut on it and very water-logged toes. I applied a band-aid and some ointment on her toes, and when we went to put back on her much coveted new socks one was missing. The clean up crew must have picked it up. She wanted to make sure that I told her mama that I lost her sock! Destiny followed me around sleeping area one while I said good night to some of my new friends.

“Here are two sleepy children in one cot.

“Grandpa was in the next cot hoping they would soon fall asleep, while their mother went to the showers. I’m not sure how 700 plus people, all in one room, fall asleep. I love talking to the people.  The sleeping room is my favorite place to be.

“Here is a picture I could not resist! Several young men set up a makeshift ‘Barber Shop’

I walked over to this young barber who was taking his job very seriously and asked him what he was charging for such a great haircut. He laughed and then got this look in his eye like, “Hey that’s a great idea.”

“They had taken two chairs and stacked them together to make a high enough chair and I assume that was someone’s bedsheet for a drape. They told me the clippers were in the donations room in Personal Hygeine, along with the brush and powder. The only thing missing was a mirror. I took several pictures of previous clients as he wanted to show off his work. I told them when I return in a few days I was going to put a sign out front that read “Barbershop Sleeping Area One, $5 haircuts.”

“Today I did buy a large handheld mirror and I will ask my daughter to make me a sign to put up. Anything to see them smile, and laughing is a great bonus.”

“Make that three sweet sleepy children. As soon as I snapped the previous picture this little guy on the left popped his head out. Grandpa came running over and said I thought you were asleep! 

Help from the Church

The local bishop’s storehouse has recently supplied 150 cases of formula, diapers, and shampoo for the shelter.  Each week the Church will be supplying an order for the shelter from the local bishop’s storehouse and they have made their trucks-including a refrigerated truck-available for use in transporting goods. 

Denise said that a local member has a frozen fruit business in Mexico, and he is sending shipments up that will be transported in the Church’s refrigerated truck.  “It may be strawberry shortcake soon for the refugees in the shelter,” she jokes.

If You Want to Help

“The planes don’t stop coming and the buses don’t stop coming,” said Denise.  They told us we were going to take 25,000, and the other day we heard that we were going to take 90,000.

“I’m just going to take care of them,” Denise said.  “I don’t think it is appropriate that children come to the shelter.  There’s a lot of airborne diseases. Everybody’s getting typhoid and tetanus shots.  I’m very careful and I have asked for health blessings so that I can continue doing the work I need to do.

Those who would like to help can contact Denise at [email protected].  There is a need, among other things, for pictures of Christ, Bibles and pass-along cards.