This weekend our family rode the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas, and fell in love with travel by train. I was not only reminded of the messages of Carl Honore in his book “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,” but I actually watched his TedTalk again during the trip down to Texas. If you haven’t seen this or read his book, I commend both to you.
One of the best things about traveling by train is that you are provided with a lot of TIME to do things you might not do otherwise, especially if you are normally saddled with the responsibility of driving the family van on the Interstate to get to a new destination. Train travel provides time for conversations, for sleeping, for eating, for reading, for simply looking out the window and daydreaming, for telling stories and for listening to stories. I am reminded of the motto of the Center for Digital Storytelling:
On our five hour train ride back to Oklahoma yesterday, I did have an opportunity to listen deeply, and the story to which I listened absolutely amazed me. A women in her late twenties from El Reno, Oklahoma, sat in front of my wife and son and related the story of what happened when she and her boyfriend were vacationing in New Orleans and got trapped there by the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The story she told was one of absolute survival amidst unthinkable anarchy. I had not realized until I had a conversation with a Red Cross worker the previous week that Louisiana authorities had literally opened up the gates of the prisons along the Gulf Coast and let everyone out, before the hurricane struck land. I knew the situation had been crazy and dangerous, with aid workers and many others being shot and robbed, but I guess I hadn’t realized just HOW bad things had been. This woman told how she survived with 40 others on an upper floor of a building for a week in New Orleans, getting just 10 hours of sleep for 7 days, and had to venture down into the dark mall below to scavenge for food among the looters each day. They subsisted primarily on tortillas and ranch dressing. The stories of the looting and looters were perhaps most chilling. It is difficult to imagine that setting, when hordes of desperate people were completely set loose to destroy, pillage, loot and kill. I don’t know that a science fiction novel could be more gripping or harrowing than the tale she lived through and told.
After about a week, she was sent with others to a college dormitory and campus outside New Orleans, and eventually convinced the local sheriff to get her a taxi ride (which cost $150) to the local airport. There, she paid $160 to rent the last remaining car at the airport, for there were no outgoing flights, and she drove non-stop to Dallas where at last she and those with her found a motel room where they could get some sleep. She had to take several diet pills and put ice under her front lips to stay awake, because if they pulled over to the side of the road to take a break other refugees on foot were sure to mug them, possibly kill them, and take their car. After getting a few hours sleep in Dallas, she continued on to Oklahoma City and back to her home in El Reno.
Good grief. This woman is a survivor. I was reminded of my own brief experiences with survival training, both as a Boy Scout and later at the Air Force Academy, as a survival school student and later as a summer program survival instructor. When I think of survival, I think of being faced with challenging circumstances in the mountains or in a faraway jungle. I would hardly think of facing a survival situation in an urban city of the United States. Yet that is exactly what happened during the hurricane Katrina disaster.
Listening to this woman tell her story, I was further convicted of the importance of recording and archiving the stories and experiences of others in our communities and in our homes. It was impossible to listen to her tale and not be moved. Too often in school, I think we focus too much on facts and dates, and fail to connect personally with a context. Listening to the lived experiences of others who have survived harrowing circumstances can be an impactful learning opportunity. I count my blessings that my family and I did not have to live through and fight to survive in the hurricane Katrina disaster. We may have tornadoes to dodge here in Oklahoma, but at least we do not have to worry about hurricanes and all the associated problems they can bring.
I think we need to focus more efforts on engaging our students in oral history projects including the stories of hurricane Katrina survivors. The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank from George Mason University is one project focused on archiving and sharing these stories. The Katrina Stories Project is another initiative, but does not appear to have been updated recently or to be ongoing.
A search this evening on YouTube for “hurricane katrina” yields over 9000 videos, and I will readily admit I have NOT taken the time to watch many of these. Of the videos I have seen, however, none communicate the desperation and all-out battle for survival which the woman on our train shared in her story Sunday night. I have an abiding sense that much of “the story” of the Katrina disaster remains untold and undocumented, at least for those of us who would be students of this recent history. I’m hopeful that perhaps as our statewide “Celebrate Oklahoma Voices” digital storytelling and oral history project continues to grow, we’ll have opportunities to digitally archive stories like the one I heard on the train this weekend about a brave Oklahoman who had to fight for her own survival against unimaginable odds. Her story simultaneously amazed, shocked, and inspired me. If put to the test, I would hope I could have similar courage and fortitude in the face of overwhelming circumstances and physical threats to my life and the lives of others around me.
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