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Beyond TV Screens and Telephone Hotlines

Two Alexandrians confront Katrina's living aftermath.

Deciding between a barbecue and an afternoon at the beach weren't options for David and Jill Forbes of Alexandria this Labor Day. The local couple sacrificed their final summer weekend to bring comfort and joy to those who did not have a grill, yet alone a backyard or a beach to enjoy. Frustration and courage fueled the Forbes' journey to Mobile County, Alabama, where they spent 12 hours face-to-face with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

Initially, the Forbeses were joining forces with a 10-car caravan of Maryland and North Carolina volunteers as part of a search-and-rescue effort. Instead, they loaded 1,500 de-inventoried diapers from the Giant grocery store on South Glebe, baby formula, boxes of granola bars, cases of bottled water, and fresh fruit all purchased from Costco into their cars and departed Saturday night with one Red Cross volunteer, Amy Weiss, from Maryland. Fear of fuel shortages, poor road conditions, and their help being rejected curtailed the mission for the others.

The destruction of Katrina broadcast around the world haunted the couple all week. When David Forbes returned home from work that Friday, Jill Forbes recalled his reaction: "I'm just so frustrated with all this — we need to do something." A monetary donation through a telephone hotline would not quench their thirst to offer service.

APPROXIMATELY 30 MILES north of Mobile, Ala., interstate signs were turned and twisted, siding was ripped from the buildings, fallen trees littered the road. Not shocking sights for the Forbeses, who had volunteered during Hurricane Isabel. But the sights they encountered in the tiny shrimping town southwest of Mobile called Bayou Le Batre amazed them. "Shrimp boats were literally stacked on top of each other in the trees," Jill Forbes said.

Sunday evening, at the National Guard Armory in Mobile, the Forbeses unloaded the diapers and most of the food. There they met Cyprus Shores Baptist church members led by Dr. Randy Johnson collecting cots for the patients of Providence Hospital. The patients, mostly from Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., were released to provide spaces for those needing hospital services. Exhausted and distraught, they had arrived at the church by bus from a high school where they were held for over 24 hours with no air conditioning, water, or food. A woman said that she had been sitting next to a man in the gymnasium — and then realized that he had died from shock.

Another woman at the church told Jill Forbes her story of escape from her Mississippi home with her husband. The waters rose around their home, so the husband opened the door to equalize the environment. Realizing the danger, the husband climbed on top of his pickup truck, placed the pets on the roof, and retrieved a tire floating down the street so that his wife would not be swept away. Twelve hours later the police found them exactly like that. "You'll have to excuse me," the woman smiled through wet eyes, "one minute I'll cry and the next I'll laugh." The couple had not yet heard from their son upon arrival in Mobile.

THE FORBESES WITNESSED a sense of fellowship when they then made a brief journey to Bayou Le Batre. Jill Forbes said, "A lot of these little cities would just be lost without the churches and community groups taking people in." Families drove to the community center in their cars, asked for what they needed, waved at their neighbors, and heaped gratitude upon the tireless volunteers.

The Forbes' final stop late Sunday night before facing the 18-hour return trip to Alexandria was a Red Roof Inn in Mobile filled to capacity with homeless families. "You couldn't find an empty hotel room within a 200-mile radius," Jill Forbes said. The couple knocked on doors, offering the last of their food and creating goodie bags for the children. Everyone was grateful for the generosity and for the chance to be with loved ones. Although their entire belongings now fit into a few plastic trash bags, people rejoiced to be alive. "It was a sobering atmosphere," Jill Forbes said.

The experiences of that weekend continue to consume the Forbes' thoughts. Jill Forbes said it "has changed me tremendously. All I think about is: When can we get back down there? What else can we do?" In Mobile, as in New Orleans, confusion and frustration still overshadow the volunteer efforts — survivors do not know where to call for certain supplies, and they do not know who to contact for answers. Phone lines remain busy, and Internet access is a rare commodity.

WHILE THE BLAME DEBATES rage across media airways, survivors the Forbeses encountered see the situation differently. "I never heard one single complaint," Jill Forbes said. "People are in shock, they're in survival mode." With the recent FEMA upheaval, organization of volunteers is difficult. The Forbes' neighbor, Gail Nemec, is a FEMA volunteer who underwent training for several days in Atlanta before she could be dispatched to Texas. Various groups of doctors, law enforcement personnel and average citizens desiring to volunteer unaffiliated with a government organization populate the tragic tales of help turned away. Fortunately, the Forbes' attitude was "just go, apologize later." With no regrets, Jill Forbes declares about the trip, "It could not have worked out any better for not having a plan."

The couple believes that only positive changes will arise from Katrina's aftermath. David Forbes sums it up: "Policies and politics will be highlighted in a new way with each challenge that confronts America. And that's always a good thing."