One Katrina lesson resonates for me beyond everything else — the importance of advocacy, for oneself and others.
In the dire circumstances of the Cajundome on Friday, Sept. 2, 2005, I was walking in the midst of thousands of people with abandoned looks in their eyes. I was on my way to see Laura Bush when a woman ran up to me and gently grabbed my arm. Minutes earlier, she had stepped off a bus from New Orleans.
“I’ve lost my baby,” Quiana Ruffin said.
At that point, I was almost late to see the First Lady, but when another mother tells you she’s lost her baby, there is no alternative response.
You listen and try to help.
“What do you mean you’ve lost your baby?” I asked.
She explained that she had given birth in New Orleans the day Katrina hit. The hospital advised her to go home and they would keep the baby. She did.
In the madness after Katrina, the hospital ended up evacuating infants. After the young mother fought elements to get back to the hospital, her baby wasn’t there. An official there told her the baby should be at one of six possible hospitals across Louisiana.
The young mother then opened her purse and pulled out a tiny, tattered piece of paper showing the names of hospitals in Shreveport, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Monroe and Lafayette.
“We’ve called them all. None of them have him. My husband is walking to the Lafayette hospitals now to check again,” she said.
I took a deep breath and headed toward the Red Cross table.
“I’ve already been there,” she said. “They don’t know where he is and don’t know what else to do to help me.”
I approached the table anyway. I explained the story to the volunteer who immediately started making phone calls on our behalf.
I was sure what I had done, according to some journalism colleagues, had crossed a line, but I didn’t care. Journalists aren’t supposed to become part of the story they’re covering. However, I believe responsible journalists should advocate for people who can’t or don’t know how to advocate for themselves. I’d do it again if need be.
At that point, I was almost hopeful – something I hadn’t felt in a while. I went on inside for my Laura Bush assignment.
About an hour later, I went back to the Red Cross table. The young mother saw me approaching and threw herself on me, tears streaming down her face.
“Thank you. Thank you. We found him. He’s in Baton Rouge,” she said. “I had called the hospital already. They told me they didn’t have him, but they do.”
She and her husband, Weldon Ruffin, who had just learned the news after walking to three Lafayette hospitals, smothered me in hugs.
When I heard someone volunteer to take them to Baton Rouge to pick up their baby, I left in peace.
Weldon Ruffin Jr. turns five today. I wonder where he is and what he knows of the first week of his life. And, yes, I am trying to find him but no luck as of yet.
The experience taught me how some people’s voices are heard, while others are not. Along with several Red Cross volunteers, I asked the same people the same questions the mother asked.
The volunteers and I got answers and action.
She did not.
Understanding that discrepancy would take us all a long way toward understanding how many of the horrors of Katrina occurred.