September 6, 2009 6:26:00 PM
Bert Montgomery -
Four years ago, Laura Grider Hansen ("Popcorn," is what I call her, because she went to our prom with my best friend, nicknamed "Peanut") was riding the storm out, and then the ensuing chaos, on the fifth floor of East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie.
Popcorn is a nurse and had been for 10 years when Katrina''s winds began to blow. Her husband and children packed and left for Houston; Popcorn packed and left to spend an expected two days - at the most - working and living at the hospital.
The hurricane passed over - not a direct hit on the New Orleans area. Still, trees were down, roofs were damaged, hotels and offices had windows blown out. For many people in Louisiana, this was to be expected: "No big deal," Popcorn thought. "All fixable."
Of course, the electricity was out. A battery-powered radio served as the voice of the outside world to those inside East Jefferson Hospital, and the reports weren''t good. Levees were failing. Water flowed through streets and overflowed the canals around the hospital, and soon reached the tops of houses.
The hospital''s backup power kept the most necessary equipment working (i.e. vents, pumps, etc.). Popcorn and her colleagues were caring for patients using flashlights and wearing headbands with lights on them. Air conditioning became a "non-essential luxury" and was lost halfway through the first full day.
Twelve-hour shifts for 12 straight days. Air mattresses. Six nurses sharing an empty room.
"The radio and news broadcasts that everyone outside of New Orleans was seeing were very true: New Orleans was a War Zone," Popcorn told me. "Although we did not have a lot of trouble at East Jefferson, we were still kept under lock and key and only allowed to move about in the parking garage." The National Guard made hourly rounds on the unit to make sure everything was OK. They (the Guard) were "a pleasure to have around; they made you feel safe and secure when everything else around us was not."
Popcorn and her colleagues befriended a couple of Guardsmen, and those men took the nurses out through the streets near City Park. Riding in military vehicles, Popcorn helped deliver water, food, diapers, baby formula, ice, and personal hygiene supplies to anyone who needed them.
Twelve days later, she was able to go home and rest. While her husband and children were still in Houston, Popcorn went to her parents'' house in LaPlace - they had just returned home a couple of days earlier. "I was just so exhausted and mentally drained . . . I passed out on their sofa until noon the next day."
As for Popcorn''s own damages - there were trees down, one fell onto her son''s upstairs bedroom; some roof and other property damage, but "nothing that couldn''t be repaired." After two weeks, her family returned home, only to have to evacuate again a couple of weeks later; "and yep," she said, "I was back in gear heading to the hospital for Hurricane Rita."
Just this past week, as national news reports covered this fourth year since Katrina, Popcorn, too, reflected. "If it had not been for the wonderful group of staff members I worked with, it would have been very different. We laughed and cried together, sometimes at the same time. We all had our moments of weakness; I truly missed my family, dog, my own bed."
Laura was a "cute, little freshman" band member when we met during my senior year. Twenty-plus years later and still stuck with the nickname "Popcorn," she''s now a hero who inspires me.
Thanks be to God for Popcorn, and all the others, who, like her, willingly devote their lives to truly caring for others.
Bert Montgomery is an author, MSU religion/sociology instructor, and pastor and lives in Starkville. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.