September 22, 2005

USA Family: A Hurricane Story

In the seven years I have been President of the University of South Alabama, we have called ourselves family--the USA Family. At the recent Employee Recognition Ceremony we recounted the past year and how, as a family, we have pulled together to meet all forms of disasters and challenges.

During the past several weeks, we have witnessed countless stories about the recent storm: its devastation, the losses and needs of so many people, and the unselfish acts of generosity and kindness by so many others. I am positive there are many such stories that could be told about our USA Family. Following is one that I thought you would be interested in reading.

Gordon Moulton, president

Dear President Moulton,

I am a HSF employee who you may not yet know, but I hope you will take just a few moments to read my letter, intended to let you know a bit more about the quality of some of the people who work for you, the University and the Health Services Foundation.

I knew in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that I was a most fortunate and blessed person. I had survived. My beloved little cottage home in Ocean Springs was largely intact, my pets were still with me, and I knew my dear neighbors and friends had made it as well, since we were still communicating by flashlight-blinking out the windows through the swaying trees.

Once I could get my shaking legs to carry me down from my safe place in the upstairs hallway, the realization of the amount of water throughout the first floor hit me. All over the ceramic tile squares I had installed myself, the hand-pieced beaded wood, over the carpet it had taken me months to select, saturating into the antiques, the family pieces, the architectural items I have collected for years. And I was lucky: at the high point, I had two and a half feet of water inside the house. Though I live right near the inner harbor in old downtown, my 1940's house is nearly 30 feet above sea level. Old timers in Ocean Springs always used Camille as the benchmark: if your house made it through Camille it was safe to stay. For Katrina, I listened to this adage rather than the advisories. How stupid of me. People a few blocks away died.

In my wonderful neighborhood, we are really neighbors, especially in a crisis. We band together. Every household's freezers began to thaw, so those with gas grills cooked for all of us. I am a purist with a pecan-wood burning outside fireplace on the deck, so I was useless with wet wood and a leaning brick/stucco fireplace. The first few nights we all ate better than usual, though the menus were a tad mismatched. But then by the third or fourth day, with no clean water or ice, no cell phones that worked, no word from local authorities, little communication to the outside world other than one battery-powered black & white TV, we were beginning to wear down. No Red Cross, no Salvation Army, no City directives. We started to share vehicles because gas became gold in order to search for relatives, to search for liquids, to search for the rumored spots where cell phone service might actually work. One neighbor drove to Lillian, Alabama (really) for a few bags of ice and ten dollars worth of gasoline.

I had been trying desperately to reach my supervisor Nona Odom, though I had gotten word to her through a chain of friends that I was safe. I must admit that though I was personally so very fortunate, my reserve at this point after Katrina was worn to a near breaking point. I have made the trek to Mobile to work at USA for over seven years because I love very much my job and the purpose of the Health Services Foundation and the University. I love the people I work with and I respect them. It would be easier to move to Mobile, a beautiful city itself. But I am dug-in here in Ocean Springs, and I serve in many local volunteer capacities because of this. It was not just the disarray and continuing deterioration of my own house that was emotionally breaking me, it was the irrevocable and overwhelming brokenness of my town that tore my heart. I found myself weeping over the smallest reason.

Like a miracle that defies any other reason, all of a sudden my cell phone allowed me two phone calls before lapsing again into uselessness. I was able to report in to Nona and to cry about my concern for the people in town who had so few resources. How would things ever be normal again? Without my ever asking for help, with my assurances to Nona that I was better off than most, that I would be fine, apparently between Nona and Becky Tate an action plan was developed in amazing efficiency. On their Labor Day holiday, Nona and Becky led a cavalcade of vehicles to my house in Ocean Springs. They brought cleaning supplies, pre-sorted clothing for the community, food, drinks, water, baby foods, personal hygiene kits, household medical basics, towels, linens, shoes...many items I am certain I am leaving out. And these were not just easy cast-offs: personal funds had been used to support this effort and buy new things. We started a distribution system out of the house immediately. It was amazing, efficient and a singular resource in the town at the time. You would have been so very proud of these USA professionals and the family members they had enlisted as well.

I was completely overwhelmed the next day to find another USA crew in my own yard, replete with chain saws, rakes, tarps and wheel barrows who had come to assist in the cleanup of my yard. They had taken leave to come help. When I first caught sight of a gloved Becky Tate smiling while dragging a tarp laden with debris down the side of my house along a now bumpy area which once was a wooden boardwalk, I had to smile.

I have always been honored to be part of the staff of the University of South Alabama. Nona Odom is a rare Director whose ethics, knowledge and practical sense make it easy to follow her lead. It has been my good fortune to respect and learn from her since the day I began at USA. And though I have always held her in high regard, I also now have a real appreciation for the leadership characteristics long recognized in Becky Tate and of the depth of the value she feels for those of us who work for and with her.

William Blake wrote so very many years ago:
"Can I see another's woe, And not be in sorrow too? Can I see another's grief, And not seek for kind relief?"

I have learned that the term "USA family" is not just a marketing or morale boosting phrase. It is a spirit alive in the leadership of the University of South Alabama and the Health Services Foundation. I will never forget the gifts given to me and to my town. When it is my turn to give, I will be first in line.

Thank you, sir, for leading this institution and for allowing me the opportunity to contribute as an employee. I will wear my name tag now with more pride than ever.

With kindest regards,
Susan L. Gulledge
Assistant Director, Patient Business Services, Health Services Foundation

USA Friends who helped in Ocean Springs:

Becky Tate
Nona Odom
Paul Taylor
Tommie Carlisle
Harvey Ikner
Melissa Bowden
Walter Beckham
Danny Rickert
Shannon Taylor
Hardy Demeranville
and also:
Jim Tate
Dollie Demeranville
and Hardy Demeranville IV