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:

Listen Deeply. Tell Stories.

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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On this day..

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  • http://www.tricianeal.co.uk Tricia Neal

    Certainly an experience reading today’s entry.. introduced to Carl Honore and his Ted talk, not previously seen, to the international day for sharing life stories, via the centre for Digital Story Telling and to the thought provoking story of the Katrina survivor.
    Deep down I think none of us are really surprised about her experiences.. we know of other situations historically (recent and distant) where law and order break down… but we don’t face up to them. We also know that the realities of such events don’t become generally known for some time, initially only a few involved begin to tell their stories, often reluctantly and then the world begins to believe, reluctantly (and their’s always the doubters) .
    I’m ‘re-reading’ Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-five ( well listening to the CD in the car as I travel) and remembering how, when it was first published in 1969 and I read it the firebombing of Dresden by the allies came as a surprising new piece of information to one who knew well about the bombing of Coventry Cathedral, of the H bomb and the concentration camps.
    Lots to think about today then
    Thanks

  • http://whatisyouritvision.blogspot.com Paul R. Wood

    Amazing! Recently I traveled toBay St. Louis, MS for the funeral of the former Principal of my high school Brother Adrian Gaudin. The devastation that still exists today was amazing. Our school took in 40 families and students that came from the New Orleans area. We even had a family living in our library until Catholic Charities was able to find them housing. I wish I had been aware enough to record those stories. The power of voice and story telling is becoming greater to me all the time. I sat the other day and listened to a nun from Rwanda tell the story of the 30 days of “house arrest” while the genocide took place in that country and the things they faced during this tragic time. I truly felt as if I was standing on sacred ground as she spoke. We are now working with her to get her story recorded and the school is beginning a section on it’s web site with voices. Thanks for your continued work in this area and for being another person in the revolution.

  • http://www.soulycatholichs.blogspot.com Charlie Roy

    @Wes
    Thanks for sharing your experience. This is a powerful post. I truly enjoy your posts and this concept of digitally capturing the stories of victims is fabulous. All the best.

  • http://tryangulation.typepad.com tom

    Wes, this story has been sticking with me for days. Thanks for sharing it. These stories have such power that you just have to be quiet when they’re done, and let them do their work.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Charlie and Tom: You are both welcome. Tom you are right, as you think about and reflect on a story like this, it really does affect you. It certainly helps keep things in perspective. I did some interviews in Greensburg, Kansas, about a month after the category 5 tornado hit there, and that experience was similar for me. I still need to publish those. I will try and get them out in the next few weeks. I know sometimes I get so focused on small details of my life that I lose sight of big picture issues. I wish I had asked this woman for her name so I could have followed up with her and actually recorded her story. The thing is, I think there are MANY people with similar tales– Katrina affected so many in so many places. The entire incident raises some important issues about how our present welfare system fails to empower many to become self sufficient and ascend a ladder of economic improvement. I was thinking about this yesterday myself when we were in downtown Oklahoma City for our annual arts festival. I was explaining to my son that in the Katrina tragedy, some of the affected families had been receiving government welfare for four generations. It is unfortunate that it can take a major tragedy to highlight issues like this, but if one of the outcomes from the attention which is focused on these situations is improvement– then that can be a blessing. We’ve certainly got a lot of big problems to move forward on… and surely education must be a centerpiece of these conversations.

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Made with Love in Oklahoma City