When New Orleans resident Lita Bennett and her daughter boarded a plane in Houston, they had no idea that they would be arriving in Philadelphia.
They also didn’t know that Wanamaker Junior High School would become their home indefinitely.
“I have no idea how long we’ll be here,” said Bennett, 52, whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina two weeks ago. “As long as we need to, I guess.”
The unused school on 11th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue has been transformed into a relief station for Gulf Coast evacuees as part of Philadelphia’s “Project Brotherly Love.” The Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and volunteers – mainly Temple students – are working at the site to provide aid to any of the affected who come. Seventy people have taken refuge there so far, and have slept on cots in former classrooms.
Upon arrival, Bennett’s daughter Modesta Cooley, 34, immediately received Tetanus and Hepatitis-A shots for open wounds incurred while climbing through the roof of her mother’s flooded home. Bennett, who suffers from high blood pressure and arthritis, was sent to Temple University Hospital for treatment and medication. When she returned to Wanamaker, she was assigned a psychiatrist.
“They’re willing to pay for all my medicine,” she said. “That’s remarkable to me. Everyone here is so kind and so compassionate and so helpful. It makes you feel so good.” Bennett will also be able to see an eye specialist about her cataracts and for new glasses.
“There’s really been an outpouring of support,” said Sally Fisher, a staff person in the command center. “There’s been more than 700 volunteers. Most of them are Temple students.” She added that Wanamaker is no longer accepting donations because of the large amount it has already received.
The Office of Community Service sent out a message last week to students about volunteer positions at Wanamaker. Within a couple of days, the office couldn’t take any more volunteers.
“There’s literally been hundreds of students who have asked if they can help out over there,” said Jason Riley, assistant director for community service. “Forty folks showed up Wednesday unannounced. It’s really day by day in assessing what they [Wanamaker] need in terms of volunteers.” According to Patrick Day, associate vice president of student affairs, about 150 students have volunteered and about 90 students showed up to the volunteer orientation on Saturday. Most of the victims who came to the station have connections to family and friends in Philadelphia. But for those like Bennett and Cooley who are alone, the city is assisting them in job and house placement. A tour bus took 28 of the guests on Friday to look at public housing; two couples chose their new residences.
Bennett’s house was three blocks away from the broken levee that allowed the city to become submerged in water.
“I looked out the front door of the house. The cars were floating down the street,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is serious.'” She and her daughter stayed in the attic of their friend’s home for three days. Cooley refused to leave her four kittens behind.
“Every time we saw a helicopter fly by I would duck so they wouldn’t see me,” Cooley said. They were eventually forced to leave at gunpoint – without the kittens – by National Guardsmen and transported to Houston, which Cooley said she doesn’t remember.
The two say they have no intention of returning to New Orleans.
“I’ll get work. I’m a waitress and there’s plenty of that type of work around here,” said Cooley. “I’m pretty confident.”
In addition to providing the core medical, financial and social services, workers at Wanamaker are helping victims recover from the trauma by adding a few luxuries. Bennett and Cooley removed their shoes to show off their freshly pedicured feet, done at the beauty parlor Cassandra’s Creations.
“Look, they did my hair, too,” said Bennett, as she ran her fingers through her new highlights. “They took us for a day of pampering. I was excited because I needed a pedicure so bad.”
But like so many survivors of the disaster, the future holds nothing but uncertainty for the struggling mother and her supportive daughter.
“I’m scared to death,” Bennett said. “I’ve never been independent.” At the same time, she said, “I’m really excited about starting a new life.”
For more information on how to volunteer, visit Wanamaker or go to www.phila.gov. All material donations must go to either the Red Cross or Salvation Army.
Andrew Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.