Acupuncturists Without Borders -  Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort
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Blues for New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 28, horrifically damaging the area - but that was only the first disaster.

The next day in New Orleans the levees were overtopped and then broken by twelve-foot storm surges coming up the Mississippi. By the the third day eighty percent of the city was under water.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth days flood victims were still trapped on rooftops, in attics, hospitals and highrises. Tens of thousands were stranded on rare areas of high ground, and in the rapidly deteriorating conditions of the convention center and Superdome.

Although an evacuation plan took a good deal of the population out of harm’s way, the twenty percent left, over a hundred thousand people, were those who couldn’t get in a car and drive - the old, the feeble, the poor. In New Orleans the poor are predominantly black and there’s a topology of poverty and racism. The wealthy live on high ground and the poor live below sea level.

By the fourth and fifth days the third disaster was apparent - a massive failure of government and official emergency response systems.

In the end Katrina produced the worst natural disaster in US history and the largest migration of population since the Depression. She’ll show the face of her impact for a long time. In the months after Katrina another powerful force of Nature rose up - the human spirit.

In the vacuum left by government failure a wonderfully kaleidoscopic array of individuals, grassroots groups, and small organizations emerged and arrived, forming impressive and effective community-based responses. (See www.commongroundrelief.org for one example.). A spirit of goodwill and non-official initiative began coupling together the independent shoestring efforts with the uncoordinated patchwork of arriving National Guard, Red Cross, 82nd Airborne, Fish and Wildlife, police and fire units, water and sewage workers, engineers, roofers..

In October I was in transition, moving back to Canada after five years in Seattle. I was able to take time out from packing and so traveled to Louisiana as a volunteer with Acupuncturists Without Borders. Our base camp was a large tent city of relief workers run by a Montana forest fire ‘incident management group’. Helicopters beat overhead and the downtown New Orleans skyscrapers and Mississippi River bridges loomed above us, creating a surreal scene.

With a treatment tent established at the camp we also travelled the city to set up other treatment sites. Some of these were:

  • -a Red Cross tent on the edge of the still closed-off and ghostly Lower 9th Ward, site of the worst flooding
  • -the Common Ground community medical relief centre at Algiers Point – located in a mosque, it shut down twice a day for prayers
  • -a park near the French Quarter where a grassroots group in a tent kitchen was providing several thousand meals a day
  • -a FEMA claims-processing tent in the parking lot of a boarded-up Walmart (to arrive there we travelled an avenue called Elysian Fields)
  • -a Vietnamese Catholic church , the Queen Mary of Vietnam, a congregation already familiar with extraordinary loss, where a banner read, “Welcome to the Resurrection of New Orleans”

The treatments were free and available to anyone needing them. The basic protocol, gently needling five points on the external ear, was developed in addiction recovery settings for its profound and immediate effect on physiological stress mechanisms.

A simple treatment, it can be done with people clothed and sitting in chairs allowing one acupuncturist to treat almost two dozen people in an hour. It’s flexible, allowing concurrent treatment of specific complaints such as digestive difficulties, insomnia, or pain. The cost is minimal – a few needles.

When you put stressed and traumatized people in a circle of chairs and encourage them to stay put for thirty minutes there’s a lovely beneficial side effect – a sense of community and camaraderie that develops almost immediately and then settles into peaceful silence as the profoundly relaxing effects of the acupuncture take hold.

My memory goes immediately to…

  • …the stressed, exhausted sewage worker whose overly rapid heartbeat slowed by 40% after the needles were in;
  • …the burly National Guard who “just came to watch”, then came every evening, rifle tucked under chair, for “his needles”;
  • …to the “only person home” on his city block, who laughed with large liquid eyes, needles in both ears, saying “I’ve been sober for 9 months and I’m staying that way!”;
  • …to the despair and grief on the faces of 9th Ward evacuees as they came back, army-chaperoned, from seeing their uninhabitable homes for the first time;
  • …to the city bus angled across the median of St. Claude Avenue, draped in black cloth and surrounded by handmade crosses;
  • …to the uprooted oaks, houses off foundations, boats on lawns, miles of mudcaked debris;
  • …the smell, all pervading, of mold, dust, garbage, and rot.

The Gulf Coast lives with such vulnerability to storms from the sea which are becoming larger and more frequent with global warming, with ecological damage to the coastal wetlands, and with manmade changes to Old Man River, the Mississippi. Shelter from such storms will become harder to find.

The healing of New Orleans will take a long time and Acupuncturists Without Borders will be there for the long haul. The effort relies solely on donations for supplies. Donations can be made through www.acuwithoutborders.org

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