Compassion of experience

Formerly flooded city opens arms to Katrina evacuees
November 1, 2005

If the city of Seguin, Texas, hadn’t suffered several devastating floods in the 1990s, its citizens almost certainly would not have acted as they did when the exhausted, fleeing victims of Katrina and Rita arrived on their doorstep in September.

Because this city, 39 miles east of San Antonio on the Guadalupe River, had experienced disaster up close, its citizens had a response structure honed and ready for action. This time, though, they were called on to save their neighbors, not themselves.

As Katrina bore down on New Orleans, motorists headed west along Interstate 10, looking for shelter. Hotels filled up quickly along that route. For dozens of families, Seguin, city of 24,000 at Exit 612, was the first place with motel rooms available.

It was in those hotels a day or two later that the Seguin Area Recovery teams found their work awaiting them. The disaster-recovery group that rejuvenates when need arises had met with the Salvation Army, district officials, city personnel and the local ministerial association and decided to visit all hotels and invite evacuees to gather at a luncheon.

“We encountered families who were merely stopping over in Seguin, who had relatives in California or elsewhere,” said the Rev. Jay George of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. “What they needed was immediate response – gas money, food money. That’s where the Salvation Army really stepped in.”

Don Richey, a member of St. Andrews and head of Seguin Area Recovery and its Unmet Needs Committee, coordinated much of the effort. “We provided pre-paid gas cards … Wal-Mart cards so they could get toiletries, diapers, clothes … whatever they needed,” he said. “That first group came through as transients then dispersed in all directions.”

“More followed them in,” said George, “some who were looking for temporary respite … others who were saying, ‘We might as well relocate. We don’t have anything to go back to.’ … I believe the Seguin Area Recovery did a phenomenal job at trying to meet the different levels of need.”

A home for four weeks

One of the families at the luncheon was David Dominguez who, with his mother Rita, found a home for the month of September with Anne and Frank Galaway of St. Andrew’s. “I’d never heard of Seguin in my life,” he said on his last day with the Galoways, “but I will never forget it the rest of my life.”

A member of the Seguin Area Recovery group had found David a job the first week. The boss invited him and his mother to dinner. “Everybody has been super nice here. We sure weren’t expecting this when we rode into town,” he said, nodding to the parishioners seated around him as he told his story to a visitor.

The Dominguezes had left New Orleans the day before Katrina hit. “We packed a little night bag. Mom wanted to bring a whole lot more, but I said, ‘Ma, we aren’t going on vacation. We gotta’ get out of Dodge.’”

The drive to Seguin, normally 10 hours, took 24. They returned to their homes in New Orleans on Sept. 30 with what Rita Dominguez called mixed emotions. “We made long-lasting friends here. It kind of gets to me.”

Marion Chandler, a St. Andrew’s parishioner and a former flood victim herself, knows that feeling. “In 1998, we lost everything we had. The church at that time, and this community, was very supportive to me. I have just seen this kind of effort be ongoing in our church. I think those of us who were affected early on had an enormous amount of compassion for people who are being affected now.”

Rising to the challenge

At St. Andrew’s, it was parishioner Lynn Champaigne, who prompted the most comprehensive response to the disaster, according to her rector. She urged him, he said, when she learned about the families stranded in Seguin: “Let’s offer the house next door. Fix it up and open it.”

Jay George said he laughed. “Undoable!” he told her. The house on the lot next to the church, willed to the congregation earlier, was a shambles. George described it as filled with junk, meeting few local building codes and in total disrepair. Plus, the yard was a nightmare -- overgrown, untended and cluttered with abandoned belongings. “It would takes weeks to prepare that place,” said George.

“We can do it in a week,” was Champaigne’s response. And they did. Forty-five of them.

All expressed pride as they showed off a bright, airy, freshly scrubbed, two-bedroom home, tastefully furnished with their donations. The lawn was mowed, the windows washed. All was ready. They expected to receive the first family in October.