Of all the tragic stories that have come out of the Gulf States since Hurricane Katrina hit, one especially struck a chord with Brookfield resident Lita Tomas.
Keesler Air Force Base, near Biloxi, Miss., was directly in the path of the storm, and was one of the worst damaged military bases in the area. What made the situation worse was the fact that most of the service men and women stationed there are currently in Afghanistan and were unable to protect their homes against the storm.
For Tomas, the story brought back memories of her own experiences with a natural disaster. As a member of the National Guard, in 1993 she was sent to help contain a flood of the Mississippi River in Illinois. When she returned home, she found her entire house had been flooded while she was gone.
“Now these people [at Keesler] need to start all over,” she said. “I know what that’s like.”
The similarities were enough to push Tomas, a retired major of the U.S. Army Reserves, into action. While most people showed their support by phoning in donations, in two days, she and her siblings collected almost $5,000 worth of household goods to personally bring down to the base.
“Obviously there is a lot of need,” Tomas said. “Everybody’s saying donate money, but not everyone has money. Most people do have things to donate, though.”
This was not the first time Tomas and her family has been involved in such a donation drive. Although she can’t remember the exact name of the storm anymore, Tomas also put in similar efforts to help the people affected by one of the first hurricanes that hit the United States after the 1993 flood.
That was a much larger drive, with Tomas collecting enough materials to fill up her garage, and then bringing those goods to the airport to be flown south. At that time, they were able to send out three such shipments.
This time, however, the family’s collection was on a much smaller scale, mainly because Tomas no longer has the capacity to store so much material. What they did collect they loaded into Tomas’ van, and on Sept. 13, after making a few phone calls to get directions and alert officials she was coming, she started her solo trek down to Mississippi.
Tomas said the trip went well until she reached the storm damage, which she said stretched almost 200 miles inland. Roads were damaged and blocked by debris, and her directions to a donation center in Gulfport, Miss., quickly proved useless.
“It wasn’t exactly what I expected,” she said. “I didn’t realize the damage was going to be so widespread. And the directions, they’d use landmarks to tell you where to go. They’d say turn left at the Burger King, but the Burger King wasn’t there anymore.”
When Tomas finally did reach the donation center, after four hours of searching, the overwhelmed staff turned her away. They couldn’t handle any more donations, and sent Tomas to another center in Meridian, Miss.
When she arrived at the second warehouse, Tomas said, her van was almost immediately surrounded by storm victims, eager to see the new donations.
“It felt like going to Santa’s sleigh, I think,” Tomas said. “It was a really, really good feeling to know that the things will be put to a good use.”
Tomas has since returned to Brookfield, but says her work with Katrina is far from over. From talking to workers in Mississippi, she said they still need basic materials, especially baby food or formula. She’s started asking local businesses to make donations, and is hoping to bring another van full of donations down to the Gulf as early as next week.
“The Red Cross says it’s easier for people to just give money, but if you bring down cases of baby food, they’re going to use it,” she said. “They need stuff now.”