Thursday, September 3, 2015

Day 30: Katrina 10 Year Anniversary

Last weekend was the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I've never really written about my experience (I lived in Baton Rouge at the time) so I thought I'd remedy that with a nice long blog post.

This post will not involve politics or my thoughts on how things should be handled next time; city planning and crisis management are not my areas of expertise, I just like to talk and write about things. There will probably be inaccuracies and I apologize in advance for those. I'm writing what I remember, but a lot of things happened and it was ten years ago; specifics are blurry, but the experience will never leave me.


First things first: hurricanes are part of life on the Gulf Coast, and usually they're not terrifying, life-altering events. My freshman year alone classes were cancelled six different times because of hurricane warnings. But that year they all veered East and died down last minute which left us with gorgeous weather and no class. Most students took advantage of the opportunity and threw a hurricane party where people hung out and drank (wait for it) hurricanes. Surprise surprise, even college Rebecca was not excited about those parties because apparently I've been old forever.

Katrina was different. I'm sure plenty of people threw parties and were shocked when they turned on the news the next day, but most people knew it was going to be bad. As a timeline reference, it hit super early Monday morning. By Sunday evening we knew Baton Rouge wouldn't get hit directly with the storm so our worst-case-scenario was heavy rain, wind, and power outages. The other big concern was that New Orleans was being evacuated which would mean a LOT of people coming our way with no place to go.

Sunday afternoon LSU announced that classes were cancelled for Monday and that the Field House would serve as a shelter, and I made a mental note that I should try to volunteer tomorrow. Fast forward a few hours and my power went out; I was a scared, twenty-one year old living alone in a first-floor apartment with big windows, I was eight hours from my family, and the storm from hell was coming. "Maybe volunteer tomorrow" quickly turned into "definitely volunteer ASAP."

I pulled up to the shelter Sunday evening thinking it would be crazy, but it was almost empty. New Orleans announced a mandatory evacuation much earlier in the day, but those folks hadn't made it to us yet. I had to search around for someone to ask about volunteering. Her response: "Actually, you're our first volunteer, but I'm sure we can put you to work." The shelter was weirdly calm that night. I helped the social workers (who'd come in from around the state) fill out paperwork for occasional new arrivals, then we'd all gather around the TV and the watch the storm in silence. The weather channel has never been so popular.

It's a strange feeling, to be huddled in with a bunch of strangers in the middle of the night in a field house and watch a storm tear apart the city down the street. I felt so powerless and small, but at the same time I was deeply connected to a bunch of people I'd never met. It was a nice bit of comfort in a scary situation.

I met lots of new people in the shelter, but Crystal was my favorite. She was a social worker from out of town, and a few months she made a trip back to Baton Rouge for my senior recital, a kind gesture that meant more to me than she probably realized. After the storm hit and it seemed like Baton Rouge was in the clear weather-wise, I told Crystal I might go home to get some rest but I'd be back tomorrow. I don't know if she was worried that I wouldn't come back and they'd need extra help or if she just knew I didn't really want to be alone, but she told me I could sleep in the makeshift sleeping room the social workers were using. I gladly accepted the offer.

I went on to spend three consecutive days volunteering; I really only left to shower, take quick naps at home, and pick up things I knew people could use. The first full day (Monday) was kind of exciting; we were very busy, our intake process ran smoothly, and people were in good spirits despite what they'd been through. It helps that I love to feel productive, and because I'd been there from the start I was the Large and In Charge Volunteer. I was bossing around LSU football players, telling them where to carry all the heavy things, and I taught a bunch of gymnasts how to fill out the intake forms (students in the athletics department were strongly encouraged to volunteer). It's one of the first times in life that I felt like I had an important, grown-up job.


The intake form asked new arrivals for their name, date of birth, home address, information that would distinguish you from another John Smith. One guy said, "Well, I guess this place is my home address for now because my place is long gone." It was heartbreaking and you could tell he was sad, but like most people in the beginning, he just seemed thankful he got out in one piece.

As I took down another woman's information I realized it was her birthday, she was 84 years old. She made a joke about what an eventful birthday it was, and later a group of us got together to sing her happy birthday (I know we had MREs and food like that, but I think we sang to her over a plate of cookies).

By Monday evening things started to get harder. Two of the biggest problems were that people didn't know where to go, and they couldn't find their loved ones. Remember, technology has changed a LOT in ten years. People had to rely on the information they got from the radio, but shelters filled up so quickly it was almost always inaccurate. If you had a cell phone you could call until you got through to your loved ones (the population of Baton Rouge went from 400,000 to over a million in about 24 hours, the cell phone towers couldn't keep up), but most people didn't have cell phones which meant you just had to wait and hope everyone was okay.

The shelter I volunteered at was only for people with medical needs; it wasn't a hospital, it was just meant for people who needed daily check-ins with nurses or doctors (people on dialysis, disabled folks, seniors from assisted living nursing homes). It's great that were shelters like that, a church opening up its doors wouldn't be able to provide the services we could, but it did mean we had to turn away people who didn't need medical attention.

Monday night a woman arrived in a van with her five kids; her husband had been at work when the evacuation was announced and she couldn't get ahold of him. She and her kids left New Orleans Sunday afternoon and finally made it to a shelter in Baton Rouge Monday morning (by the way, it should take one hour to drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, but during the evacuation it took most people 13-18 hours), but when they arrived, the shelter was full. That shelter must have had misinformation because they told her to come to us  even though nobody in her family had medical needs. It took her five hours to drive a few miles across town to us. I can't put into words the look on her face when she heard her family wouldn't be able to stay there, but we told her not to worry, we'd help her figure something out.

Another volunteer entertained her kids, we told her to take a breather, and I started cold-calling churches in the area to see if they could take her in. I was able to find one, but I didn't hang up until I clarified: "Can you promise me that even if it takes her six hours to drive to you that you will make sure there is room for her and her kids?" The guy on the other end laughed and said, "Yes, I promise, we won't give her spot away." We gave her directions and some cookies for the kids and sent her on her way trusting (hoping) that everything would work out.


As the days progressed it got harder. LSU cancelled classes for the whole week and opened up the basketball facility as an additional shelter (a general one, not specifically for people with medical needs). I moved to that facility and joined some other volunteers in setting up a play area for kids. There was a small TV, so I brought up my VCR (that was the last VCR I ever owned and who knows where it is now), some Disney movies, and a couple board games.

One little girl started telling me how her family got there. They didn't have a car and couldn't evacuate and ended up being rescued by a police boat from their roof because the water got so high. After that they were put on a school bus (I found out later most people on those buses didn't even know what city they were heading toward), and they ended up at LSU. The bottom of her pants were still dirty from the water, but because kids are amazing, she just thought it was one big awesome adventure that ended with a bunch of new friends camping out in a basketball arena. I realized then that I'd seen her in the bathroom earlier with her mom, but I barely noticed her because of how clearly distraught her mother was (this was part of why we started a kids play area, so parents could take some time to deal with their stuff).

Wednesday evening I reached my limit. Evacuations are a really challenging thing for nursing homes; think about how much effort it takes a 95-year-old to move from a bed to a wheelchair. Now imagine that you have to move that 95-year-old from a bed, to a wheelchair, then into a van that s/he will have to sit in for 18 hours without moving around, so that at the end of it all s/he can sleep in a gymnasium. What I'm saying is, nursing homes evacuated, and a lot of their residents didn't make the journey. To accommodate those new bodies, the lower level of the gymnasium (the one with the kids play area) was being used as a makeshift morgue.

Almost immediately after learning there was a morgue under my feet, another volunteer told me that a couple kids had just arrived who'd been separated from their parents; nobody knew where they were or if they were even alive. It was the one-two punch that did me in. I don't remember saying goodbye to anyone or signing out, I just left. I spent the next couple days watching movies and trying to avoid the news.


That ended my time volunteering, but Katrina had a direct impact on me the rest of the year. There are the crazy things that come with a city more than doubling in size overnight, like terrible traffic all the time, no cell service anywhere ever, and the 24/7 WalMart closing for four hours a night so they could restock the shelves because everything sold out every day.

But there was good stuff too, or at least good with the right perspective. One of my best friends got to live with me for a while! She was in med school in New Orleans; classes were on hold but she knew they wouldn't get much notice before they started up so she needed to be nearby, and she couldn't stay at her apartment yet because of water damage. So it was great news for me because my friend was waiting for me when I got home from school! But it was bad news for her and her brand new husband who had to live on an air mattress in my dining room for a week or so. I win!

Another unexpected "great for me, bad for someone else" thing that came out of it was that I wound up playing with several orchestras that I wouldn't have otherwise. After Katrina, a lot of members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans (a really, really good orchestra) moved to different parts of the country and decided not to come back. The whole ensemble took about a seven month hiatus and resumed concerts from March to May. The people who should have gotten that gig (like my professor and a couple other professional oboists in the area) already had more gigs on their plate than they could handle, and the LPO was not going to have any luck getting someone from out of town to live in New Orleans for only a three month long season. I did just a good enough job on the first concert to be asked to come back the rest of the season, and it was an incredible opportunity.

I got another gig playing with the Gulf Coast Symphony in Biloxi, Mississippi. New Orleans was hit hard by flooding and crazy water damage, Biloxi was actually hit directly with the hurricane. It's hard to properly describe what the city looked like, and the pictures I took are long gone (they were on a disposable camera...). Banksy just debuted a display he calls, Dismayland, it's his take on a post-apocalyptic Disneyland, and I can't tell you how much it reminds me of my time in Biloxi.

The main road leading to our hotel ran along the beach, and the buildings were completely wiped out. It was just foundation after foundation with maybe a pipe or two sticking up in each. I remember recognizing a Waffle House sign not because it said Waffle House, but because it was like a "name this logo" quiz- the six black boxes on top and five black boxes on bottom were there, but the letters were completely blown out.

The hotel we stayed at was filled almost to capacity with contractors, plumbers, and electricians who'd come in from across the country and would be living in the hotel long-term while they helped rebuild the city. There was a miniature golf course that looked like it had been picked up and turned upside down, and a cemetery full of tombs that had their lids knocked off (I got out of there really fast).

The symphony hall was far enough from the storm's path to be spared. I'm pretty sure every resident who stayed in Biloxi went to that concert, and it was really emotional. The conductor thanked the audience before we started and made a really nice speech about the heart of the city and how their strength as a community would help them rebuild. If that wasn't enough to make me cry, we played Mahler.


Those are my Katrina highlights. I'm not really sure how to sum this up because it's not something you can put a little bow on and call it done. Tragedies are horrible, but they help you figure out what really matters. I guess my hope is that things like this will continue to bring us together. If you need help with something, ask, and if you can help someone, don't wait for them to ask. Soak it up when things are good, but remember that others might not be in such a great place and it doesn't take much to have a positive impact on someone else's life.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Goodbye, Car. Sorry I Never Named You.

Today, after almost fourteen years, I said goodbye to my car. I don't get attached to material possessions. I've never named a single car, bike, or musical instrument that I've owned, but I do think my car was a girl. Despite the fact that I'm not sentimental about this kind of stuff, and that keeping her made zero sense financially, I definitely cried the whole way home after saying goodbye. 

The last picture.

What better way to honor our time together than to share our stories. But first, a pre-story.

This, but longer to accommodate four doors.
My first car was an '84 Chevy Celebrity. It was a maroon boat on wheels, and you had to choose between the radio OR the air conditioner or the car would just stop running. As a music-loving, heat-hating young woman in Texas, it was my Sophie's Choice. The rule in our house was that you drove an old tank for a year, and if you didn't break it, then you could get an upgrade. I think even as a teen I recognized that was a pretty sweet deal considering I didn't have to pay for the tank or the upgrade.

Our first date.

June 2001. I was seventeen years old when my mother surprised me with a dark blue '99 Chevy Blazer. She finished her night shift and immediately drove three hours to Waco, Texas to see my final concert and pick me up from Baylor Band Camp. As we left the concert hall, she said, "I came in your car." I was totally confused why she wouldn't take her car, a car that understood that you just can't choose between your children (or music and AC). Then I was more confused when she handed me a set of keys I didn't recognize. She stopped at the passenger door and said, "Happy birthday!" My birthday was a month earlier and we'd already celebrated, but I gladly ignored those facts.

I drove us to the dorm to pick up my bags and had a great time telling all my fellow band nerds that I'd just gotten this sweet new ride. We took lots of pictures on multiple disposable cameras, then it was time to go. At this point my mom was probably on hour 24 with no sleep, anxiously awaiting her long nap on the ride home while I drove, and I wasn't sure if I should come clean or not. Being the way-too-responsible-to-be-a-teen kind of teen that I was, I confessed.

"Mom. I... left my driver's license at home..." She gave me the look she'd given me many times before; the one that said, "Why can't you just be a normal teen and break the rules? Just this once?" A few weeks earlier she'd complained that she didn't fit in with her friends; they were talking about their teenagers sneaking out, drinking, doing things teens do to terrify their parents, and all my mom could add to the conversation was, "My daughter got a C on a biology test! And I'm a doctor! Teens, amiright?!" After telling me that story she joked, "I mean, can't you just get pregnant or something?" [side note: gay people rarely get pregnant by accident]

She took the keys from me and drove home.

After that, the girl got around. Just between school and youth orchestra, I averaged about 500 miles a week my senior year of high school (country living!). She's lived with me in Texas, Baton Rouge, Cincinnati, and Chicago. Her "states I've visited" map is almost as filled in as mine.

She also went to Canada

She helped me take a whirlwind 13 hour drive to take a ten-minute audition in Tallahassee and another 13 hour drive for a two-minute audition in Buffalo. She and I single-handedly pulled a Uhaul trailer from San Marcos, Texas to Cincinnati, about an 18 hour drive. She taught me how to parallel park ridiculously well, something you definitely do not learn growing up in the country ("This patch of grass looks like a perfect parking spot!"). She let me beat the crap out of her steering wheel when said parking was impossible to find and she didn't take it personally when I threatened to leave her by a fire hydrant so she'd get hauled away and I'd never have to deal with searching for parking again.

More than all of that, she gave me freedom. That's the exciting part about turning 16; it's not (solely) the popularity factor of being the only driving friend in your group, it's the fact that you're no longer dependent on anyone to take you places. When I felt stuck or sad, I would go to my car, squeeze in a quick cry, and hit the road. It was a nice reminder that we have a choice in life; if things were really that bad, I could just drive to a new city and start over.

So goodbye old friend. Sorry I wasn't there to wave as you went off into the midday haze of winter in Chicago. I'm always awkward, but goodbyes make me worse (I hope my future children read this and understand why I will hide in the bathroom when they leave for college).

I'd love to wish you a happy future, but the reality is you might be sold for parts, and you're a car so you won't know the difference. I'm sure I will miss you more as I learn the downsides to living without a car, and I will fondly remember the great times we had together (by reading this blog post because my long-term memory might be garbage (I will also post about my children when they leave for college for the same reason, sorry kids!)).

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Big Gay Blog Post

Well here it is, ladies and gentlemen. My big, formal, "coming out" (some day I'll blog about why the entire concept of coming out is gross to me, but the short version is, I don't remember going into a closet and I didn't choose to be gay, despite what the Onion will hilariously lead you to believe). So anyway, I'm gay. If you've had more than a surface-deep conversation with me in the last two years or you have decent gaydar, that's not news to you. If you haven't heard from me since high school or you're a guy who has a crush on me (does that happen?), it might be. Hurray!

It's really hard to write one blog post that sums up a struggle you've been dealing with for nearly fifteen years, but I'll do my best to save the details for my novel. Or my solo show. Or my future sitcom (struggles can lead to comedy- neat!).

It's been a long and not-so-easy journey, mostly because I'm homophobic. Or rather, I was. I don't know exactly why I grew up homophobic, my guess is a combination of many factors. I went to high school in Texas in a very white, Christian, Republican neighborhood, and while you can be all those things and gay, it's definitely not the norm. 

My family knows I'm gay and has no problem with gay people. They got me a framed sexy picture of Tina Fey for Christmas this year. For the record, that was not on my list, but yes, I probably will hang it up somewhere in my home. You know, to inspire me to work hard like her... My family is made up of really good people and I don't blame them for my homophobia any more than I blame them for making me gay (after many attempts with some awesome straight girls, I can confidently say, you cannot make someone gay).

Homophobia to me wasn't about hating gay people, it was about not relating to the image I had in my mind of what gay was. I was very much a good girl growing up, and for the most part I still am. I was not a partier and I liked to follow the rules. Don't invite me to your game night unless you plan to play fair. I was and continue to be a very outgoing introvert; I'm great with people, but on an average Friday night, a movie and a comfy couch sound way better than a bunch of drunk people in a loud bar. In other words, if you had kids my age, you wanted them to hang out with me.  

My senior year, I had a best friend who I was virtually attached to at the hips. I was at her house all the time, her little sister thought I was the bee's knees, and her parents made me feel welcome. Then one day at school, she completely blew me off. I called her out on it, and she said, "I can't be friends with you anymore. My mom thinks you're gay and doesn't want me hanging out with people like that."

At the time I was aware of feeling different, but I kept trying to convince myself it wasn't a gay thing. It was an artist thing, or a big city thing, like once I lived in a place like New York the self-doubt that weighed me down would magically go away. Even then I think I knew that wasn't really it. After school that day, I had to tell my friend's mother to her face that she had nothing to worry about. I was in fact, "not gay at all," but rather, I was a good kid. Because obviously those were different things.

I have enough life experience now to know that my friend's mom, who I still think is a good person at heart, was just ignorant about what being gay really meant. We were in the same boat. Neither of us could reconcile that someone could be a good girl and also be gay. We knew stories of gay people from television, ones that made you believe all gay people did was party and have sex (I can tell you my gay lifestyle has very little of either, so don't expect me to create the lesbian spinoff of Girls); we didn't understand that being gay just means you're attracted to this person instead of that one.

There's been a big to-do lately about Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty. He voiced his homophobic opinions that probably didn't surprise anyone and as a result his show was suspended (publicity stunt? Who knows, I've never seen it and probably never will). I love this article in response to that whole affair. It's worth a read, but if you're lazy or pressed for time (I know, Facebook is blowing up today!), here's the short version: whether you think homosexuality is a sin or not doesn't matter. Why? Because, "kids are literally killing themselves because they are so tired of being rejected and dehumanized that they feel their only option left is to end their life."

I never tried to kill myself, but I can relate to what those kids felt. The closest I ever came was in college when I sat in a parking lot for two hours because I felt so broken and alone that while I was driving, all I could think about was driving myself into a ditch. I thought that maybe if I wound up in a coma, I could wake up and just start over as my real self. Surely if I'd nearly died, nobody would care that I was gay, they'd just be happy I was still alive. I didn't even consider the physical consequences.

I'm not going to talk about religious beliefs. For me, church and religion should be about love and community, not judgment. Yes, many people think the Bible says homosexuality is a sin (I'm not super religious, but I think this is a great argument against that from a young man who spent a lot of time researching it), but there are a lot of things the Bible calls a sin and we're okay with keeping quiet about those things. 

Did you know that only 3% of people actually save sex for marriage? But you're not going to go around advertising that having premarital sex makes you sinner because you would most likely be calling yourself or someone very close to you a sinner. So let's say that 97% of your friends had sex before marriage. If you gave a big public "Amen, brother!" to someone who said that people who have premarital sex don't deserve to inherit the Kingdom of God, you'd probably lose a lot of friends really fast. Apparently, nobody likes it when other people make them feel like crap, and it doesn't matter what their sexual orientation is. If 97% of your friends were gay, you'd understand why gay people and gay allies get upset over the Duck Dynasty drama (wait, allies? You mean you can be straight and support gay people?!). 

If you believe that being gay is a choice and that God thinks less of those who choose to be gay, then you don't understand what being gay is. If you believe in God, I hope it's not because someone else told you that you should, it's because you just know in your heart that God exists. You can't explain it, but you know it's true. I can't explain why I'm gay, but I know that I am. Just like accepting God into your life made it infinitely better, accepting that I was gay has lifted a weight I assumed I'd have to carry around forever.

Here's my problem with people using religion to remind everyone how bad homosexuality is: it hurts. It hurts like nothing I can even put into words. You're not judging a group of faceless strangers who live in Manhattan who don't care what you think, you're judging the 12-year-old kid next door who already feels like it's going to be him versus the world because he's gay, a kid who probably looks up to you. And it's good, well-meaning people who are reinforcing to him that being the way he is, is a terrible thing. 

You know how much it sucked when your parents said they were disappointed in you? Telling a gay kid growing up in a religious community that being gay is a sin is like telling him that God is disappointed in him. GOD. That's way worse than your parents.

I'm 29 years old and I live in a liberal, loving city. I'm confident bordering on cocky, and I'm very comfortable with who I am. And yet every time Dan Cathy (owner of Chick-fil-A) makes the news about some new homophobic comment or tweet, I dread seeing the "Freedom of Speech!" posts from people I haven't seen in over a decade who live a thousand miles away. That much time and space between us, and yet, their opinions still hurt me because they are my people. They may not understand me, but they will always matter to me. It's hard not to take it personally when people you care about will defend a strangers' right to say something that as a kid made you fundamentally question if who you were was okay.

Please, believe in freedom of speech. It's part of what makes this country great. And don't give up your religious convictions because someone else asks you to. But the next time someone says something hurtful about gay people, picture a kid you love and imagine that he or she is gay. Imagine the struggle that kid is facing already, and ask yourself this: How can I react to this in a way that helps support that kid instead of tearing them down? If you stand up for the guy who is saying hurtful, homophobic things, you might as well tell that kid that they're right to question if they are okay. 

If the class bully makes fun of the smart kid in glasses, you don't defend the bully's right to free speech. Yes, God bless America, he's allowed to say that (O'Doyle rules!). But you're an adult who understands that all kids deserve to be supported and encouraged. You try to teach the bully to be respectful of others, and in doing that, you also reassure the smart kid that she IS okay the way she is. 

In a perfect world, homophobia wouldn't exist at all, but that's not realistic. There will always be homophobic people like there will always be racist and sexist people. Fear and hate aren't new concepts. How people react to those things CAN change, and it will make a difference.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reply All - Because You Can!

Dear Ron in California (and the rest of the company),

Hello! I wanted to apologize for my co-workers here in Chicago. I'm sure Kim didn't mean it when she hit Reply All on that email and changed the subject to, "PLEASE STOP HITTING REPLY ALL!!!" You might have copied 150 people in the Chicago office on an email that has nothing to do with us, but to be fair, so did 23 people before you. It's odd, normally Kim LOVES getting involved in other people's business (ask anyone around the water cooler), but her divorce sure has made her bitter!

I, on the other hand, enjoy hearing what the California office is up to. Has anyone been able to locate that fundraiser pamphlet yet? I sure hope so!

Email inboxes have been blowing up around the country with updates on things like the upcoming merger, people losing their jobs, and which handful of people have been offered new positions. The new emails about missing papers in California have given me and my next-cube neighbor a new game: email roulette! We take turns blindly deleting one email- if you're lucky, it's one that was sent to you by mistake. If you're unlucky, you lose your job! It's a lot more exciting than the post-it note tic-tac-toe we used to play on the window with the office building across the street. "The Man" may take our windows (and jobs!), but he'll never take our fun!

In the spirit of making sure you know what's going on here, Shirley's kids are doing great (the baby is adorable), Jean's menopause has been rough, but it seems like she's nearing the end, and my Shania Twain tribute band is starting to get paid! Neat!

By now I'm sure a few more people have Replied All to this thread, and I'm pretty sure it's my turn to delete a mystery email. I can't help with the missing pamphlets, but if you ever need post-it notes, shoot everyone in my Division an email; we have plenty!

Your Co-Worker (though you didn't know it before today),

Rebecca Marquardt