I live in a small Texas town that is known as a “pass through” during hurricane evacuations. We don’t welcome people for overnights. Keep on moving! I had no idea that such a town existed until the summer of 2005 and the devastation of Katrina. Not long after her attack, Katrina was followed by Rita. The migration of people seemed to go on forever. But life in La Grange went on as usual. Katrina was a tragedy we could watch on television, but not something we would experience the way Houston and Austin would.
One afternoon, about two weeks after Katrina, I went to Walmart to buy sodas and ice for a party I was throwing for my staff. We were celebrating the opening of our new office in La Grange. Katrina was far from my mind that afternoon. As I was loading the bed of my truck with party supplies and filling an ice chest with ice and drinks, a young girl walked up behind me and asked if I could help her. She told me she was coming from New Orleans and trying to get to Austin, and she was out of gas. The cynicism in me thought that she was probably some con artist who was hitting “pass through” town Walmarts looking for suckers. As I turned to say, “no,” I saw real desperation in her eyes. I knew immediately she really was a casualty of Katrina. However, I had no cash; only my debit card, so I apologized, explained my situation and she thanked me and slowly walked toward a U-Haul truck. She looked so defeated. Here I was at Walmart, planning a party, and the very young woman was out of hope because no one would help her.
I decided to follow her to the truck. She got in, and locked the door, and she was just sitting there. I tapped the window, and she just barely cracked it; just like she had been taught to do. “Don’t trust strangers. Never roll down the window for one.” I could hear my own mother preaching this to me. I could see a toddler in the passenger seat. A little girl, strapped into her car safety seat, innocently waiting for the older girl to drive off. Again, I knew this was no con artist. So I asked the young woman if she had enough gas to get to the gas station next door to Walmart and she said she did. I told her that I had no cash, but I could swipe my card at the pump and give her enough gas to get to Austin. I asked her if she knew exactly where she was going in the city. She told me the Springdale area. I said, “I know exactly where that is. $20 worth of gas will get you there with no problems.” She thanked me, and I swiped my card, engaged the pump and filled the tank. When I was finished, I asked her if she and the child needed any food or water because I could go into the convenience store and get them something. She said they didn’t, and then she rolled the window down just a little more and put her hand out to shake mine and say, “Thank you” again. I told her my name was Christy, and she smiled and said, “Oh! I’m Christine!” Then she rolled up the window and drove off.
Something as huge and devastating as Katrina can make a person feel completely helpless. Walmarts were the scenes of crimes committed by people in desperation. Folks like me had been told to be vigilant and avoid strangers during the crisis, but I took my chance. Because I did, Christine and her child finally completed the journey to a place where hope was waiting.