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President Thanks Rita Evacuee Volunteers

By James F. Gaertner
SHSU President

James F. GaertnerOne of the most trying yet satisfying events that I have ever participated in took place recently at Sam Houston State University, as we housed approximately 1,400 evacuees from the Houston and Galveston areas during Hurricane Rita.

In addition, we had 207 National Guard soldiers returning from a draining mission in New Orleans, and standing by for possible further deployment to our state's most heavily damaged areas.

While we have a hotel at Sam Houston, it is much too small for a crowd of that size. So we opened three facilities--Johnson Coliseum, the Dance Building, and the Health & Kinesiology Building--to care for these guests. Most came on buses and some drove their own cars. For the many stranded on the freeway or sleeping in their cars in parking lots we simply had no space or services such as medical staffing.

As evacuees were directed to our campus, with many needs--the chief of which was safety from a dangerous and unpredictable storm--our faculty, staff and student volunteers responded magnificently.

The real story of what happened on our campus Sept. 21-25 was not the overall attempt to organize the evacuation and care of the evacuees, but the countless individual encounters between the volunteers and the evacuees. Some were routine, but many required great compassion and sometimes strength of will (a firm hand) in order for this effort to be as successful as it was.

People who have not experienced such a situation cannot possibly appreciate the amount of assistance that most of the evacuees needed. They are thought of as generally "self-sufficient" people, but many are not.

While we attempted to organize our response "from the top," so much of significance took place where the volunteers were working directly with the evacuees--where literally tens-of-thousands of critical decisions were being made.

There are many memorable incidents that came from this experience. Here are a few that stand out in my mind--some of which I saw personally, and some of which were told to me by those who witnessed them.

One young lady who had recently had major brain surgery, became separated from a friend. As she went out across campus looking for the friend, a university police officer followed at a distance, careful not to upset her further.

Jaimie Hebert ran such an efficient operation that he called "Command Central" to say he was "out of Sprite," and Rosanne Keathley wanted to know if he was also out of sour cream for his baked potato.

Jaimie and his group also came up with a great spur-of-the-moment decision. Some of the guests were on edge, the more coffee they drank the more jittery they became, and the later they stayed up nights. Jaimie and his group decided that after 11 p.m. all coffee served would be caffeine-free, and that decision had a wonderful calming effect in the sleeping area.

Rosanne Keathley somehow found an 18-wheeler full of diapers, and badly needed meals ready to eat (MREs.)

Leah Mulligan, Tiffany Flenoy and others took care of the dogs, cats, birds, lizards, monkeys, horses and cows brought to Huntsville by evacuees. Leah likes to tell folks she had to "sleep with the dogs" at the Walker County Fairgrounds.

Aramark's Santel Frazier and Matthew McDonald and all of their colleagues pitched in to cook and serve hot dogs and hamburgers and took care of the students who stayed as well as the evacuees.

Provost David Payne served food and did various physical tasks, sleeping in his office, and coordinating the Mormon Church missionaries who served so well.

Our students were simply wonderful, as almost 1,200 of them chose to ride out the storm on campus, and many pitched in to help with the evacuees as well.

• People can be kind or tough as needed. Thelma Mooney's contacts for oxygen and other medical supplies, when they were not available from the Red Cross, were invaluable. Her alter ego--who came to be known as "Phoebe"--also came out occasionally as needed.

Even my own usually-gentle wife got into the face of a disruptive guest to advise her to quiet down, "or you're out of here." Frank Parker saw the encounter and went over and asked the evacuee if she would like to "talk to the president." She said she thought she would. Frank couldn't resist a little humor. "Good luck," he told her, "because you just talked to his wife. And she's in charge."

A seven-person CBS News crew stayed three days, sending out reports used nationally and internationally from inside our coliseum. Thanks to help from many, especially Joellen Tipton in residence life and Doug Greening in physical plant, one of the CBS crew e-mailed that "I have to think hard and might be able to count on one hand other events in 20 years where we were treated as nice."

During the Jazz Ensemble performance Monday night the power went out. The students just kept performing, receiving a standing ovation. National Guard Col. Anthony Woods quickly arranged for a generator to be brought over, and after about a 20-minute delay, the performance continued.

There were many other stories that we will be hearing for years from those who volunteered. And as it did during that Jazz Ensemble event, the spirit and teamwork of those few long days can continue to inspire us in our personal and professional lives.

While I cannot possibly remember all of those who served so tirelessly and selfishly, I feel I must try. So here is my Hurricane Rita Honor Roll, incomplete and with someone left out, I'm sure:

Cindy Allbright, Daryl Allphin, Ashley Andreas, April Atzenhoffer, Maggie Babcock, John Baldwin, Wally Barnes, Bob and Mona Barragan, Martha Bass, Terry Bilhartz, Jessica Brash, Genevieve Brown, Larry Brown, Lovell Henry and everyone from Custodial-Grounds who helped, Maria and Ray Busby, Norma Buxkemper, Susan Byrd, Norma Caldwell, Ed Chatal, Jacob Chandler, Joey Chandler, Beth Charrier, Buddy Childress, Brandon Cooper, Dennis Culak, Sean Daley, Dick Eglsaer, Rachel Esman, Shannon Ferrell, Bill Fleming, Tiffany Flenoy and Santel Frazier.

Also, Nancy Gaertner, Maria and Ray Gerling, Marcus Gillespie, Cindy Gratz, Doug Greening and everyone from the Physical Plant who helped, Nancy Harper, Ronda Harris, Jaimie Hebert, Craig Henderson, Sherry Henke, David Holleman and all of the University Police officers, Maria Holmes, Tom Hill, Kathy Hudson, Keith Jenkins, Jackie Jensen, Elizabeth Johnson, Romean Dorsey Johnson, Sissy Johnson, Rosanne Keathley, Jared King, Deb Kleppelid, Frank Krystyniak, Bobby and Pam Lane, Dean Lewis, Tammy Llesky, Brenda Lichtman, Cindi Loeffler, Brian Loft, Brenda Lowery, Ana Mariano, Matthew McDonald, Kevin McKinney, Monica McRill, and Chuck Mize.

Also, Thelma Mooney, Mitch Muehsam, Leah Mulligan, Vinessa Mundorff, Lena Munn, Dana Nicolay, Trapper Pace, Frank Parker, Jack Parker, David Payne and the Mormon Missionaries, Tim Pham, Robin Phares, Alan Plunkett, Sophia Polk, Terry Presley, Keri Rogers, George Rollins, Stone Sampson, Nancy Sears, Mark Shiflet, Anita Shipman, Mary Ellen Sims, Michelle Smith, Lisa Smith, Somer Smith, Valerie Sparkman, Jacob Spradlin, Dennis Stepp, Terry Thibodeaux, Heather Thielemann, Sandy Thompson, Joellen Tipton, Courtney Wallace, Sam Walker, Gloria White, Beverly Wiggins, Norma Vasquez, Karen Whitney, Bobby Williams, John Yarabeck and Mary Zepeda.

While there were some "difficult" guests, there were many more--most of them I think--who were sincerely appreciative. I believe that sharing a portion of this letter received by Ed Chatal from a woman from Galveston might give that impression better than I possibly could.

"Your kindness and caring towards us will forever be in our memories as well as you 'all' will forever be in our prayers. God bless you and the most 'gracious' people in Texas. Hospitality, sharing, caring, serving and helping, must be your middle names...

"(I)...feel honored to have met all of Sam Houston's students and staff. The Man if alive would be so very proud of you to 'Honor' his great name...I'm sure he's smiling, looking down from Heaven as the great ruler he was, knowing his 'Children from Texas' are dutifully assisting others to 'succeed.' Not only in education, but in every aspect of living."


SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Oct. 6, 2005
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