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A Season of Storms
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A Season of Storms

In September of 2005, Hurricane Katrina took its place as one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history, leaving a path of devastation across the Gulf Coast.

As the region struggled to recover from Katrina, the American Red Cross marshaled human and material resources to provide the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter for the millions of displaced victims. According to information from the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Response website, over 219,500 relief workers were sent to the region. Among them was Mary Ellen McGuigan Coneglio ‘74.

As Executive Director of the Ashtabula County Chapter of the Red Cross, she and her staff work in support of the national headquarters of the Red Cross. Typically, they deal with military cases, provide C.P.R. and first aid training and prepare for and respond to disasters in her region of Northeast Ohio. In the event of a national disaster, they raise funds and recruit volunteers to provide assistance.

In August, the chapter began its work to assist with the needs associated with hurricane season. They began with fundraising and finding volunteers, but as the impact of Katrina was realized, they started working with other Red Cross chapters to prepare for the possibility of receiving evacuees in Cleveland.

On Labor Day, in the midst of these preparations, Coneglio was notified that the Red Cross was sending executives to serve as public affairs officials and that she would be going to the region. After working for the Red Cross for 20 years in a variety of roles, the time was right to serve in a large-scale operation. “I felt that I needed to see what goes on that we don’t see at a smaller-scale event.”

She was assigned to work in Louisiana and reported to Baton Rouge, which served as the main headquarters for the relief effort. Upon arriving, she was struck by the massive amount of damage. “I would get in a car to drive to shelter sites and for 50 miles see more and more destruction.”

Absorbing the human impact was particularly difficult. “It was hard driving past buildings where officials put a mark on the door,” she recalled. “They would put the date it was inspected, mark if it should be demolished and if they had found a body inside. You would think of it being a person’s home and now it was marked if a body was found inside. It was very sobering.”

At her first assignment in Lake Charles, a city near the Texas border, it struck Coneglio how much hurricanes shape the culture of the region.

“Everything in their lives revolves around hurricane season. Newspapers list how many days left of the hurricane season and track when the next storm is coming. They have slang for these storms. They aren’t Category five, but rather Cat five. They even have places in grocery stores where you walk in and it’s like hurricane central. It has things you’d need to purchase to have at home to prepare for the hurricane.”

In an ironic twist, as Coneglio worked with the Katrina relief effort, Hurricane Rita began to gather strength in the Gulf of Mexico, at one point becoming a category five storm, and appeared to take aim at the region. “I think that was the hardest thing for me to watch; the fear and anxiety of the people. They would burst into tears when they thought about Rita being as bad as Katrina.”

Although Hurricane Rita did not impact the area as Katrina had, Coneglio recognized that the situation was still difficult. “They had just gone through the horrible destruction of Katrina. Many had no jobs, businesses and houses were gone. The kid’s schools were being used as shelters or were gone. These weren’t poor people. They lived their normal lives in middle and upper class and they were reduced to living in shelters and eating out of emergency response vehicles. The mental health workers for the Red Cross worked very hard taking care of these people, but their lives will never be the same.”

With the pervasive sense of loss that the storm brought, the good side of human nature had moments to shine. While she was working at a shelter in Fulsom, a man came in with boxes of McDonald’s Happy Meals. “I’m sure it cost him at least $500,” said Coneglio. “We asked his name, but he never told a soul. He simply turned around and left. It was just one of those random acts of kindness you hear about.”

On another occasion, a man from a frozen food company came by with a truck full of ice cream bars. “He wanted to know what he could do with them, so I asked if he’d like to go to some of our shelters to hand them out to the clients and staff. He agreed, so on a 100 degree day, there were these sheriffs and national guardsmen eating ice cream. Those guys thought it was great.”

At the end of September, Mary Ellen’s stay ended and the Red Cross rotated her out of Louisiana. “It was very hard for me to come home. The entire month was about the hurricane. I talked it and lived it. We joked about it calling it ‘Groundhog Day’ after the movie because we’d wake up at the same time, do this job, eat this food, go back at night to this little room and get up the next morning and do it all again.”

She recalled sitting at the airport in Atlanta waiting to fly home. “There was nobody there at that point who was being affected by the hurricane. Everybody in Atlanta was ‘normal. I hadn’t seen a ‘normal’ person for 30 days. The world still continued on, but in Louisiana, ‘normal’ won’t happen for a long, long time.”

Mary Ellen’s experience gave her a big picture perspective of Red Cross operations. “If something were to happen here, the Red Cross would be there to help. If it was too much for our chapter, others would come to care for us. That’s the big picture of the Red Cross.”

Steve Ruic is the writer and editor at Notre Dame College.