Tuesday, September 13, 2005

From the First Shelter

This is an excerpt from an earlier column. This was when we had a shelter at the Burger Center, and I was covering it as a reporter - before I volunteered at the Convention Center.
Who would have thought that we would have hurricane refugees here in Austin? And not even from the Texas coast but from Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states? It really is still incomprehensible to me, even though I have seen it, and it is reality.
I sit here writing utterly exhausted, with bloodshot eyes and a fuzzy head - just from covering the story of the refugees, which is not even comparable to experiencing it. I cannot imagine the exhaustion and fear and worry the evacuees must be experiencing, and that propels me to forge on, trying to put words on to paper even though it seems I have no more words left to share.
I walked in to the shelter at the Toney Burger Center on Wednesday prepared to cover a press conference. What I was not prepared for was to walk in the door and be faced with a sea of faces looking lost and confused and very, very sad. I could not bear to take their pictures as they sat there. Perhaps that says I am a bad journalist, but I could not do it - it seemed like too much of an intrusion to add to their misery.
I almost cried at that moment, seeing all of their faces, the situation suddenly becoming very real - but I did not. Instead, I found a child, a girl who was sad and innocent and yet so very happy to be talking with me. Children can be angels on Earth, and she was my angel that day. She allowed me to do my job.
I made my way through the shelter seeing family after family. Most people were reluctant to talk with me at first, and they appeared shell-shocked. But, before long, they became comfortable with me and began to share their stories, even allowing me to take their pictures.
Do you know how jarring it is to ask someone to repeat something, only to hear it again as an unfathomable misery?
The next day, I went back to the shelter, and I saw the little girl again. She sought me out to tell me hi, and did it with the same optimistic and loving look as the day before. A young boy I also had spoken with shouted hi to me - “See, I’m still here!” he said.
I am always amazed by the resiliency of children. Hours and hours away from homes they likely will never see again, these children already had found something familiar - a friend. Until then … Caroline.

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