Katrina volunteer work shows true value of PR pro's job

On September 11, my colleague Arwen Rahn and I stepped out of our cab into the sweltering Texas heat not knowing what to expect as we stared up at the mammoth Houston Astrodome, housed within the Reliant Park complex.

On September 11, my colleague Arwen Rahn and I stepped out of our cab into the sweltering Texas heat not knowing what to expect as we stared up at the mammoth Houston Astrodome, housed within the Reliant Park complex.

Fleishman-Hillard had provided us and two colleagues - Jackie Mayo and Tara Raeber - with a terrific and rare opportunity to help the Red Cross through pro-bono media work. Not since the Great Depression have so many Americans been displaced, and we were there to witness events firsthand.

After an orientation with Sybil Miller, regional communications director of the Red Cross' New York-Pennsylvania region, Arwen and I grabbed our walkie-talkies and clearance badges and went to lead our first media tours.

My tour was with Deborah Horan, a young, unassuming reporter from the Chicago Tribune who was writing a story at the request of Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek. She needed to get a story that would chronicle what happened each day within the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans and needed to get it fast. This meant she'd have to interview many evacuees in order to confirm the events that occurred in the Superdome.

As Deborah and I walked into the Astrodome, the enormity of it was hard to grasp, despite days of watching CNN. Strewn about were thousands of cots. People of all ages milled around, played cards, listened to radios, talked in circles among themselves, braided each other's hair, or simply slept. The National Guard, the Houston police, the US Army, the Islamic Helping Hands volunteers, the Tzu Chi Buddhists, priests, Jewish youth groups, Red Cross volunteers, and Reliant Complex employees all worked together each day to perform the biggest and smallest of tasks.

Deborah broadcast an announcement over the PA asking individuals who had been in the Superdome to come forward if they wanted to share their stories. Slowly, one by one, they bravely trickled to the message center. The first lady, Colette, a beautiful woman in her 50s, looked into my eyes and said with a smile, "I am so blessed," and gave me a hug. Then she began to tell her story.

According to Colette, the situation was grim in the Superdome, but manageable until Tuesday afternoon, when things began to unravel. Food lines were two hours long, and tired senior citizens were not able to keep their places in line. Fights broke out, and storm victims continued to arrive from Louisiana. Young men broke into the suites and donned concessionaire uniforms, selling pizza and hot dogs as if they were working a sports event.

Further, Colette said that criminal gangs battled with fists and weapons, while people fainted from the heat and retched from the stench of sewage in the hallways. Many fathers, she reported, did not sleep at night for fear that their daughters would be raped. When the buses finally arrived, Colette and her husband were shell-shocked, but glad to be standing after days of living in a nightmarish atmosphere of fear. They have since found housing in Houston.

Colette's story is emblematic of countless others, each one uniquely poignant. During my time in Houston, I would have the privilege of guiding reporters from the Associated Press; the National Journal; Channel One; and Hispanic, Japanese, and French outlets. I listened to stories that spanned well beyond the Gulf of Mexico to those from the Persian Gulf, and for the first time in my career, I witnessed the involved, fascinating, and intense process of developing a strong story and seeing it come to fruition. Fleishman gave its employees the opportunity to leave the office work behind for a week and more fully appreciate the vital role of strong media and, consequently, strong PR.

The most important takeaway from my experience in shadowing reporters is that not one
person interviewed by journalists shed a tear. The evacuees spoke calmly about the events that occurred, and many felt lucky to be alive. Toward the end of my time there, several truckloads of toys arrived from the Florida Marlins and Teddy T. The children lined up quietly. One asked what he had "to do" to get a toy. The reporter and I were pleased to reply, "Nothing."

  • Amanda Finnegan is a managing supervisor at Fleishman-Hillard.

Below are some statistics pertaining to Red Cross Hurricane Katrina relief efforts:

Volunteers enlisted: 156,000-plus from across 50 states

Funds donated: $600 million-plus

Meals served: 12 million

Shelters used: 902-plus shelters across 25 states

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