In the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s devastating romp across the Gulf Coast region, millions of Americans sat transfixed in front of their television sets and viewed scene after scene of the storm’s destruction. Many of these people felt compelled to help in whatever ways they could, and Ric Carley was no exception.
“I sat in my La-Z-Boy watching TV and my heart went out to these people,” Carley said. “I’ve been extremely blessed, and I felt the need to go down and talk to them and cheer them up.”
At first Carley, a member of St. Mary’s of the Lake Parish in Ontario, didn’t know what to do to help. Several days after the hurricane hit, however, Carley received a phone call from a member of the Salvation Army in Rochester. The caller wanted to know if Carley would be able to travel to Louisiana and help with the Salvation Army’s relief efforts for a few weeks.
Carley is a member of the Salvation Army of Rochester’s advisory board and has been involved with the organization’s Red Kettle Campaign but had never before worked with the organization in a relief capacity. Even so, he readily agreed to help and planned to leave for Louisiana from his home in Walworth on Sept. 5. The trip was postponed, however, and Carley and his family spent the next two weeks in a kind of limbo because Salvation Army representatives had told Carley he could be sent down South at any moment.
On Sept. 17, Carley and Capt. David Hernandez drove a Salvation Army emergency canteen truck to LaPlace, La., which is right outside of New Orleans. A canteen truck is a large, self-contained food unit complete with stoves and refrigerators, and it looks like a cross between an ambulance and an ice-cream truck, Carley said.
After driving for two and a half days, Carley and Hernandez, who is a minister with the Salvation Army, arrived in LaPlace, where they stayed and served meals to local residents for more than a week. Sometimes they parked the canteen next to Federal Emergency Management Agency tents and served meals at base camps scattered throughout the hurricane-relief area. Sometimes they ventured into New Orleans and served the construction workers, police officers and soldiers who were working there, and other times they drove the canteen from house to house in the neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.
“It was a reconnaissance mission to go and find the places where the people needed it the most,” Carley said. “We ended up serving 5,503 meals just out of our truck.”
Carley said he often got out of the truck and struck up conversations with the people receiving meals. Many of these people had lost all of their material possessions and some had even lost family members. It will be especially difficult for the elderly to rebuild and recover, Carley said, recalling one elderly woman he met who told him, “I just couldn’t care less if I didn’t go on another day.”
The majority of the people he met were fairly optimistic, however, Carley said. Although they certainly weren’t happy about what had happened to them, many people accepted their new situations and were determined to get through the tough times with the help of God’s grace, he added.
“I see a strong belief in God down there, which I think is helping a lot. It helps these people get through this. The New Orleans spirit is just so strong,” Carley said.
Carley and Hernandez drove through many neighborhoods where the hurricane’s damage was obvious, and many homes were destroyed or had been crushed by fallen trees. News coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath had prepared Carley for the destruction he would see, but it was still strange to view such out-of-place things as three stray boats sitting on a highway next to an overpass, he said. Hundreds of construction workers had flocked to New Orleans to try to restore the city’s electricity quickly, but the areas without these workers were completely empty.
“Try to imagine … the City of Rochester with nobody in it,” Carley said, trying to explain what the city’s emptiness felt like. “It really is just very eerie, and I can tell you it’s going to be years before they recover from this.”
Carley arrived back home on Sept. 30, but said he will never forget what he experienced and saw in Louisiana.
“To go down, feel it, touch it, smell it, help the people firsthand … it really brings it close to home,” Carley said. “It was very gratifying. You were touching people that were going through hell. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”