Bridges Over Troubled Waters: Volunteers Aid Evacuees With Bureaucracy, Finding Loved Ones

Computer whizzes from two area law firms are helping evacuees from Hurricane Katrina wade through the muddy waters of the federal bureaucracy to find lost loved ones and fill out the forms they need to get help.

Sue Brown, a secretary at The Lakin Law Firm of Wood River a Madison County Board member, said she and her fellow legal workers became involved in the effort after she visited the center for displaced hurricane victims at Alton Mental Health Center.

“One of the FEMA directors came up to me and asked me if I knew how to use a computer,” she said.

She said the volume of work was so large, she called on fellow clerical staff members from her employer and Simmons Hanly Conroy of East Alton.

“The first thing we had to do was set them up with e-mail accounts, because the only way they could receive their government personal identification numbers was through e-mail,” Brown said.

Most of the people at the shelter are from disadvantaged situations. They don’t own computers and have little knowledge of how to use them, Brown said.

Brown said she and other volunteers learned a lot about wading through the federal bureaucracy.

Many of the evacuees had to telephone the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clarify questions on the forms, but the phones were incredibly clogged.

One volunteer would do nothing but get on the phone and dial the help number. Once they got through, they lined up all the evacuees at the shelter needing to get their questions handled.

“Once we got them, we wouldn’t let them off the phone. That worked wonders. We cleared up so much that way,” Brown said.

Eventually, the staff members started helping the families reunite with lost loved ones, and that was the most rewarding job of all, Brown said.

One New Orleans native was so impressed with the kindness and helpfulness of people such as the volunteers that he decided to stay here.

Frank Clayton, 58, said he and his wife have 10 children between them who were sent from their New Orleans home early in the evacuation to keep them safe, while he and his wife stayed back to prepare the house for the Katrina onslaught.

In the process, they got separated.

Once they got relatively settled in Alton, Clayton’s wife, Shirley Keys, 44, mentioned to volunteer Tara Zeller, who was giving Keys a ride to an optometrist, that she was worried about the children.

Zeller, a college student and daughter of Sandy Zeller, got on the Internet and found the rest of the family in Houston. She got a phone number of Clayton’s daughter, Kendall Keys, 20, and soon the family was reunited — at least electronically.

“Let me tell you, it was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Clayton said.

“My wife has high blood pressure, and that was one of the things that got her pressure up was worrying about the kids,” he said in an interview at his new home in Pontoon Beach.

“Everyone at the center, from the maintenance men to the kitchen staff, were absolutely fantastic. If you even looked like you had a question, they would help you,” he said.

Clayton, who has lived all his life in New Orleans and worked for a moving company, said the people he met at the shelter convinced him to stay here.

“That was one reason I made the decision to stay here, because of all the wonderful people,” he said. “So many people opened their hearts. My only regret is that I can’t bottle it up and spread it around.”

Brown said stories like that became the part of the volunteer work she and the other helpers enjoyed the most.

“Once FEMA was no longer overwhelmed, (tracking lost loved ones) was the main thing we did. I helped four or five families, and the others found several,” Brown said.

She said one man brought tears to her eyes with the note he gave her after she helped find his family. It read: “Thanks. You people are the symbol of love. Through your beloved help, I am in contact with my people. To the zenith, you are appreciated.”

Brown said she cannot remember the name of the man who wrote the note, but she will not forget her interaction with him.

“He was so sweet. He would just come in (the computer room at the shelter) and just hug me,” she said.

Clayton lavished praise on the people at the center and the lawyers and staff members who pitched in, including Tom Lakin, the founder of The Lakin Firm. Even though Clayton said he realizes personal injury law firms have been at the center of controversy with their aggressive litigation against corporate defendants and strong ties to the Democratic Party, he felt obliged to sing their praises.

“Not one time has (Lakin) hesitated to offer assistance to all of us there,” Clayton said. “I just don’t feel it would be right if I didn’t mention that.”

Lakin’s daughter, Kyra Lakin of Bethalto, also pitched in with an idea to take a group of 14 evacuees to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. She said her family had come up with the winning bid for a free motor coach trip to a sporting event at a recent March of Dimes charity auction.

She also arranged to get game tickets from a friend of hers who works for the team, and Fred Weber, the donor of the motor coach, even pitched in with Cardinal caps.

The trip over was a bit stiff from the standpoint of social interaction, she said, but by the time they got back, they were laughing and talking like longtime friends.

“Most had never been to a Major League Baseball game before, and this was really a rewarding experience for us,” Kyra Lakin said.

Jack Quigley, Madison County’s emergency services coordinator, said people from the Lakin and Simmons Hanly Conroy have provided money, equipment and a lot of man and woman power in helping bail the evacuees out of a sea of troubles.

“They offered their assistance from the very beginning,” Quigley said. “They stepped right up to the plate.”