Answering the call: Tahoe pastor helps hurricane victims in Houston
It was 6 a.m. when Zachary Treueblood went into his yard in New Orleans to see what Hurricane Katrina was up to – and it was up to his ankles.
He went inside to get his family and by the time he made it back to the yard the water was knee high. Three or four minutes later it was up to his chest, and the elderly man with numerous health issues saw only one option. Treueblood led his family to a two-story house next door, where they stood on the upstairs porch until the water came so high they had to go to the roof. They waited there until 9 p.m. when a police boat finally came and took them away. Destination: the New Orleans Superdome.
Norm John watched the catastrophe unfold on his television at his Gardnerville home.
Treueblood’s plight wasn’t as bad as it was for others, some who waited on rooftops for several days, waving their arms and shirts in vain as helicopters buzzed over the flooded city.
John had retired two years earlier after spending a career in the electronics business. He had time now to devote his life to Christianity. He taught Bible study at the Calvary Chapel of South Lake Tahoe, and filled in as the Sunday pastor when the regular one, the Rev. Jerry Foster, was away.
As John watched the TV, he prayed for the people on the Gulf Coast. Frustrated, he told his wife it would be much better if he “could pray with them eyeball to eyeball.”
The telephone rang.
Was it Jesus calling?
It was Foster’s wife, Diana, with a direct connection to his prayers.
There were as many as 50,000 people displaced by the hurricane who had been bused to the Reliant Center in Houston when the Rev. Jerry Foster arrived about two weeks ago. Thousands of them were in need of medical attention. An emergency medical technician for 15 years, Foster was quickly assigned to the medical triage area.
“I feel like I am standing in a sea of need,” Foster said, speaking into his cell phone. “It was just overwhelming. When you look out over the thousands of cots, you are just stunned. I’ve seen many volunteers just break down and cry.
Treueblood and some of his family eventually were bused from the Superdome to Houston, where he met Foster on Wednesday, 10 days after the pastor began volunteering his services.
Foster made the trip with his wife Diana and their friend Norm John. They had tried to go to Louisiana but there was no way in. They were led to Houston, where there were many others who wanted to help. So many, in fact, that Jerry Foster was the only one of the three who was let in the building because of his medical résumé.
“They wouldn’t let me or Norm in,” Diana Foster said. “We went outside and prayed, then we went to the Salvation Army. … We passed out water and snacks. It was so hot.”
She said she saw former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton that day. The cavalry had arrived, so to speak, but too late for many.
John found himself most useful when he was listening to people. He walked up and down the aisles of cots and talked to people. He estimates he talked to more than 1,000 people.
“I would see hollow eyes,” he said. “They wanted someone to talk with.”
Transportation, getting food or medical attention, or trying to get vouchers or cash for victims who have lost everything has been a bureaucratic nightmare.
John was there to listen to people “vent.”
“I am from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans,” Treueblood said. “They told me there is no more Ninth Ward. They said they are still finding bodies there.”
Treueblood was in poor health and without his medication when he arrived in Houston. A diabetic, he also suffers from high blood pressure and heart trouble, and his most notable ailment is an inability to walk very far or even stand for a long period of time. His wheelchair is essential because he spends every day in long lines.
Treueblood said he spent $45 to get across town to a place he was told he could get his medication. But they told him his nine-digit number did not match. He went to the American Red Cross were he said he had a $900 voucher. But they had no record of him.
“They’ve been spelling my name wrong,” he said. “I’m getting lost in the system. I’ve got 2 1/2 wheels on my wheelchair and I am going around in circles.”
John found the perspective of the victims changed according to class. The middle class appear to have a solid grasp about what had happened to them, “but they also have a touch of the political side. They would blame Bush, or the governor and mayor, or the law enforcement.”
The upper class, he said, blamed all three.
John related best to those in the lower class.
“The real poor people are strong with the Lord,” he said. “They feel a hand was moved. They told me some of the hairiest stories I’ve ever heard. They are from neighborhoods where there are five, seven murders a day. There are drugs and rapes. Here, now, they can start over.”
One of John’s most rewarding encounters was with an elderly man who told his survival story. As the water rose in the man’s house, he contemplated climbing up to his attic, “but he decided not to because he said for the first time in his life he feared dying alone.
“By then the water was halfway up the door and furniture was floating in the house. He made a bubble from a bag and he floated up to the telephone lines. He slowly worked his way over to a roof. He got a real bad sunburn. He showed me his feet. They were swollen, beet red and peeling.”
John formed a rapport with the man, and talked at length about the Lord. Finally, he got his message through to him after they did the “Sinner’s Prayer” together.
“A beam came across his face,” he said. “It was a nice, calm smile. I don’t think he’s going to fear dying alone anymore.”
On one of her first days in Houston, Diana Foster noticed a man in a wheelchair, sitting in the scorching sun. He had been dropped off from a group when he asked to go the bathroom. He was given a bottle.
“I can’t do that in front of everybody,” he told Foster, who wheeled him to a rest room. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she said. “If I had known then what I know now, I would have taken him in (the Reliant Center) and tried to find out where his family was.”
She has since learned her way around and has had many successes.
Foster said many people are assumed to be mentally ill. Such was the case of a woman brought to her named Phylise, who was nearly incoherent and so despondent about losing her family she hadn’t eaten in two days.
Foster convinced the woman to help her try to find her family. She had Phylise write the names down of her family members, which she gave to a television news crew. On the way back, they passed a man who Phylise recognized. It was her uncle.
Although the reunion was such a shock to Phylise that she had a seizure and had to be taken to a hospital, she soon recovered. On Monday, she thanked Foster. Phylise was clean, happy and plenty lucid – not at all mentally ill.
Jerry Foster said he was amazed at the scale of the operation at the Reliant Center.
“You could fit four Wal-Marts in here,” he said. “People have so many needs. They’ve lost their car, their home, their job. They’ve lost everything. When they get here they get a cot and a blanket. This is basically a huge M.A.S.H. unit.”
The most common affliction is gastro-intestinal problems. People spent a lot of time in the filthy floodwater – Foster met one who had walked seven miles waist-deep in it.
“The worst tragedy was in the Superdome where they had 50,000 homeless and just 100 to 150 National Guardsmen. The criminal types were running wild. People were raped and assaulted. I don’t think those who were there were thinking of who to blame, they just think it was wrong.”
For the most part, Foster said the victims were happy to have made it to Houston. And the condition there is improving daily.
But not for everybody.
Many members of Treueblood’s large family were left at the Superdome, but 15 made it to Houston. By Wednesday, however, he was by himself. Treueblood’s grandson had left early in the morning in search of insulin for his grandfather. By late afternoon, Treueblood was alone in the medical triage where Foster worked, trying to get medication for his diabetes.
Foster handed his cell phone to the old man, asking if he would tell his story to a reporter from Foster’s hometown in Lake Tahoe.
“I’m basically in this place by myself now,” said Treueblood, who despite his plight, displayed Southern dignity and courtesy. “I am so sorry to burden you with my situation, sir. Thank you for your time, sir.”
Jerry and Diana Foster and Norm John plan to return home Saturday and to attend Sunday’s 10 a.m. service at the Calvary Chapel at the South Lake Tahoe Recreation Center. They will have plenty to talk about.
“This was a life-changing event,” Foster said. “I don’t know what it will be like when I get back, but this definitely was life-changing.”