The communities of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas banned together to help with relief efforts after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many residents reached into their hearts and dug into their pocketbooks to help. Cash was sent to churches, the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other help groups. Schools and groups all over the nation, including most schools in the area, bonded together to collect water, diapers, food and other necessities to send to the victims who had lost their homes.
Local businesses such as North Arkansas Electric Coop and various cable companies lent their employees' expertise to help make it easier for victims to return to their homes more quickly.
One local business was able to send employees to assist in a different way. White River Area Agency on Aging (WRAAA) was invited by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging to send teams of employees to aide in assessing the needs of hurricane evacuees. The local office was the only agency of this kind in the state to be asked to go to Texas.
The first team to go consisted of three WRAAA employees. Two of those employees are from north central Arkansas, Shanna Maguffee, care manager for Fulton County, and Lori Gentry, care manager for Sharp and Izard counties.
These two women were the first to volunteer when this opportunity arose. Their team was completed by WRAAA CEO Ed Haas.
The three said they were eager for their trip. They had originally planned to spend a week in the Houston, Texas, Astrodome assisting and assessing Katrina evacuees. But, before the plan could be realized, Hurricane Rita set her path for the Houston area and evacuees were once again being relocated.
After a weekend of anticipation and watching hours of television news coverage about the destruction Rita had left behind, the group left for Tyler, Texas, on Sept. 28. People from south Texas had been evacuated to many areas of the state. Tyler was just one site for the set-up of a FEMA disaster relief center.
"The experience of driving up to a long, draping line of weary people was overwhelming. Their stories were sad and disheartening," Maguffee said. She said they watched as the "hurricane victims with name tags walked to the front of the line and in their eyes you could see they had hope that we somehow held answers."
"Our hotel was 1 1/2 hours from the disaster relief center. The first day I would say there were 3,000 people standing in lines. It was a bit overwhelming, and Shanna and I were not sure what resources we had to offer the people," Gentry said. "About the fourth or fifth person in my line was a lady that was upset. She was crying. Her immediate family was OK but her aunt had been in a hospital in Texas. After Rita hit they moved her to a hospital in Little Rock. You should have seen the look on her face when she found out we were from Arkansas and had connections to find out about her aunt," Gentry said.
In the beginning Maguffee and Gentry assessed people so they could get Red Cross debit cards. She said there were people there from every social and economic background.
"We worked two days assisting the Red Cross giving out debit cards. Many of the people in the lines did not know they were going to receive the cards. They were just told to come to the disaster center and they did," Gentry said.
One person received $365. For every person in the family after that, up to five people, $360 was added to the card.
Gentry said about 70 percent of the people she assessed planned to return to where they lived when they could. Many did not know if they would have anything to return to.
"We were ready to stay. We wanted to help more and there was so much more to do. And also we were jealous of the assignment Team 2 got," Maguffee said. Team 2 also consisted of local people. They are WRAAA Chief Financial Officer Ron Cantrell; Supervisor of Care Manager Phyllis Gouin; and Barbara Massey and Jina Daniel, both care mangers.
"Team 2 was sent to the Distribution Relief Center. They were more hands-on with people that were hit by Rita," Maguffee said.
"This was a very humbling experience. Most of the people coming through our line did not know what was lost or what they would be going home to," Maguffee said.
"It was a life changing experience for me. It made me stop and think and not to take everything for granted," Gentry said.
Both Gentry and Maguffee made sacrifices of their own to make the trip. Maguffee left a husband and two teenage daughters at home. Gentry left her husband, two sons who still live at home and her father who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
Both ladies said that FEMA and the victims of the hurricanes were not represented fairly by the television media.
"FEMA was very helpful and well organized." Maguffee said.
Gentry added, "The many, many families and children in the lines were well behaved and patient."
Maguffee and Gentry said it was a satisfying experience and they would relive the experience again if they could.