Day 12

Another Chicoan’s Red Cross story

For every Red Cross volunteer who went to the Gulf after Katrina, there is a different perspective. Deborah Valentine, a Chico tattoo artist who volunteered for a three-week stint at a Red Cross shelter in Brookhaven, Miss., said the management at her shelter was efficient and caring.

“Our shelter director rocked,” she said, “Other service centers I’ve heard weren’t maybe as good [but] ours was really well run.”

Valentine arrived in Montgomery, Ala., Sept. 11 and from there made her way to Brookhaven on a Red Cross truck loaded with “comfort packs” full of toothpaste and other toiletries.

“We found all these people—about 40 families living under this exhibition tent. It was pretty rough.”

At the shelter, Valentine and other workers began distributing aid checks. But there were so many people and so much chaos it became apparent that some were taking advantage.

“If people said they had five kids, there was no way to check,” Valentine said. “There was an incredible amount of fraud going on. Every day there was between 500 and 1,000 people [receiving aid]. The maximum amount was $1,565. That’s about a million and a half going into the community every day. Some people were coming back again and again.”

While this turned out to be a source of conflict among some volunteers, Valentine said she was told to “err on the side of compassion” until the disbursements could be better regulated. The situation caused some volunteers to walk off in disgust, but Valentine stuck it out.

“I had made a commitment,” she explained. “Some of the [evacuees] I talked to were such amazing people. The Red Cross people would always try to put a happy face on for them, but the people coming in the shelter were so genuine. If they were pissed off or didn’t like something they would let you know. It taught me a lot.”

In dealing with all the stress and chaos, Valentine said, it was normal for volunteers to have at least one breakdown during their deployment. Red Cross regulars know the phenomenon as “Day 12.”

“Mine came on day 11,” Valentine said. “It was a very hard experience. Everybody goes through it. The mental health people took me aside and said ‘You need a day off.'”

Towards the end of her stint, she and some other volunteers drove down to New Orleans, where Valentine had been a few times in the past.

“It just got worse the further south we got. The French Quarter smelled like dead people and sewage. I was sick for days after.”

“It was good and bad,” she said of the experience. “Something I’ll never forget.”

Check out Valentine’s journal on the Web at