Besides power being out, there was no cellphone service so I had no way of calling anyone for help. I didn’t even try to locate the owner of the repair shop as I expected he was busy with his own issues. Brenda and I commiserated with each other and discussed ideas for at least trying to get out of the shelter. I had seen a small motel across from the repair shop where I’d been towed, so I suggested taking a walk over to see if there were any rooms available. We walked over and discovered we shouldn’t have bothered. The motel was completely sold out. The lobby itself looked like a refugee camp, packed with people sitting around looking like they were in shock.
We walked around a few more blocks and went back to the shelter. By now it was getting late and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Brenda hadn’t thought to bring more than one day’s worth of food with her and she hadn’t eaten all day. Back at the shelter we learned that several local businesses had donated food and someone had volunteered to prepare a hot meal for the shelter residents using portable gas stoves. The Red Cross staff announced they needed help to set up the school cafeteria so Brenda and I volunteered.
We set up the tables, got people herded into the cafeteria, helped serve meals, and then we were finally able to eat. The food was a bowl of spicy soup thick with unidentifiable bits of vegetable and mystery meat, but to this day I can remember how delicious it tasted. It was the most substantial meal I’d had in two days. The cook also served hot coffee so I was finally able to knock down my caffeine headache.
As I was finishing my meal a Red Cross staffer called out asking if anyone knew anything about electricity. It seemed a local business had donated an emergency generator through the Red Cross for the shelter’s use but it wasn’t setup. The generator was out in back of the school so I left Brenda and went out to look, along with a few other people who claimed electrical know-how.
It was a hefty generator and had we been able to get it working it would have easily provided enough power for lighting and some ventilation inside the school. However, there were no adapter cables provided to hookup to the schools power panel. Even if I’d been able to make one (I had my Swiss army knife and lots of downed power lines for material) the building’s power panel was padlocked and there was no fuel. We gave up, uttering some uncomplimentary words about the Red Cross.
It was dark by now and really stuffy inside the gym, so Brenda and I sat outside for a few hours talking. I told her a little about where I lived, my wife still back in China, my problems trying to get a visa for her, and about my divorce.
Brenda shared that she owned a mobile home, was just getting past cancer treatments, and was newly divorced. She was a few years younger than me (I was 48 at the time), and had thought she was too young to need annual breast cancer checkups. By the time she noticed a lump and got checked her cancer was pretty far advanced. She ended up receiving almost a year of radiation and chemotherapy and removal of one breast, and doctors had just declared her “in remission.” She hadn’t been able to work while receiving treatments and had just landed a job at an accounting office in Orange Beach. Her first day was supposed to be the following Monday, and now she was wondering if she still had a job waiting for her. With her divorce, she literally had no family in the area she could stay with. I suggested that her mobile home might be destroyed and she started crying.
We finally went back inside. I laid down on the bare wood floor (I lost the suitcase “bed” and blanket I’d had the previous night when John and Mary left) and got some sleep using my extra clothing for a pillow. There was a lot of available floor space now as the only people still in the shelter were those whom, like Brenda and me, were unable to return home.
Friday morning I woke up stiff, sore, sweaty, and hungry. I needed a shower worse that I could ever remember, had a caffeine headache within a few minutes of waking up, still could not get any cellphone service, didn’t know if I was getting any breakfast, and still had no idea how I was going to get out of the Red Cross shelter and back home.
Brenda woke up a bit after I did, in not much better shape than me. She at least had some blankets to cushion her from the wood floor, but had similar needs to me of a shower, coffee, and food. She had a working vehicle but nowhere to go and no idea how long before she would be allowed to get back to her mobile home, assuming it was still there.
I managed to take a minimal sponge bath and brushed my teeth in the increasingly filthy men’s bathroom that at least now had running water, but still no lights and going on two days of no one cleaning. Most of the toilet paper was gone and I didn’t have any of my own. I did change into clean clothes but that didn’t help my mood, all things considered.