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article imageWoman's Death in Katrina Reveals Human Side of Disaster (Part 5)

By Carol Forsloff     Mar 26, 2009 in Lifestyle
Violent storms carrying tornadoes, devastating winds and lightning sped across parts of the southeast U.S. on Wednesday night. I could hear the tornado warnings and sirens through my window in Natchitoches, Louisiana. And I thought about Rachel.
This is the third installment in a series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here, part 3 here and part 4 here.
The last time anyone saw Rachel she was crossing a street. She was waist-deep in flood waters. Hurricane Katrina took her life in a disaster that shouldn't have been. I thought about her yesterday evening as I huddled with my husband in a small, inner hallway of our house waiting for the storm to pass.
The name Rachel is often given a child at birth as part of tradition in both Christian and Jewish communities. In the Bible, Rachel is described as a beautiful woman, who eventually bore Jakob two sons, including Joseph, and from whom came mighty descendants of Israel. Her story is central to the story of life's flow in old traditions. So it is reasonable that someone of her name be seen as symbolizing the core of human suffering in great tragedies like Hurricane Katrina.
Rachel Polmer
Rachel was one of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a symbol of a preventable tragedy in the City of New Orleans. Her daughter said she was the kind of person who cared about others and had a sense of community. She did not, however, survive Hurricane Katrina.
Polmer family album, with permission
Rachel was born in Baghdad in 1941 at the outset of World War II. She experienced many challenges during her life. As a child she moved to Israel with her family and finally emigrated to the United States where she spent many years in New Orleans. It was that colorful, one-of-a-kind city, New Orleans, that became her passion, the culture, the city, her neighbors and the area around where she lived. She raised her children in its neighborhoods, as one of those old-fashioned, stay-at-home moms who scrubbed faces, got her young ones to school, buried her husband years earlier and kept the family's heart. She had lived through the trials of the Middle East, during those early, struggling days of Israel, only to die at the hands of violence in the Katrina storm.
Many of the details of Rachel's death remain unknown. Her neighbors, who were rescued by helicopters coming into her area, saw her walking across the street to make sure she had her pet dog and to check on her home as raging flood waters raced along. She struggled against those waters as they increased in height and volume as she made that walk. Rachel wasn't seen again until her daughter found her body, after a long and complicated search at the New Orleans morgue months later, one of many bodies waiting for families, some of whom were never identified and consequently lost forever.
Rachel was 64 when Hurricane Katrina struck the coast. She was diabetic and had to take health precautions. Blood sugar rises during times of stress. Hurricane Katrina, before, after and during, was certainly that kind of time.
I can imagine what might have happened with Rachel because of her age and health conditions. I too am diabetic and am the age Rachel would be now had she lived. I live at a time when the possibility of catastrophe can occur almost anywhere. With fires in California, flooding in the Midwest, tornadoes in the Southeast, and hurricanes and wind storms along the Gulf Coast many people face potential storm tragedies.
Hurricane Katrina
Members of the Coast Guard Sector Ohio Valley Disaster Response Team and the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team mark a house here today to show that it has been searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Teams are conducting massive search efforts for anyone who may still be trapped by the floodwaters.
Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer Robert M. Reed.
I didn't know Rachel, but I met people like her while working as a counselor at the Red Cross as people came into Natchitoches to seek shelter. In many ways she symbolizes not just a preventable tragedy but the grief carried by families that may never go away. Her story reveals the poor planning, the helplessness of certain groups when disaster comes and the need for compassion to guide everything we do about people like her, in preparing, helping, reporting and assisting recovery for victims at all levels everywhere.
As I start to write this, I periodically turn to the weather channel to review updates on the tornado. It is reported to be in effect until 1:00 a.m. Shall I sleep or stay awake and vigilant? Although the parish where I live seldom has tornadoes of high intensity, there is always the possibility of being hit with one. I am recuperating from cancer surgery on my leg and wonder as the news comes across the screen whether I could run, swim, or move in any way fast enough to get into a shelter and what I might do if I had no car and no one around who could drive. I wonder how I might fare with my diabetes, without medication to maintain sugar control and what might happen a day or so without it. My family lives more than 1,500 miles from my home in Louisiana. I wonder about Rachel when the storm warnings came and when she knew she might be trapped. And finally I wonder about others like her when the warnings come too late.
That was Rachel's lot the day Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. No family lived nearby. Mostly elderly folk lived on her block. Like the poor, many seniors lived without cars, relying on public transportation, as many people do in large cities. No buses came that day for Rachel and the others after the call came to evacuate the city. By the time helicopters arrived, Rachel seems to have vanished. Neighbors hoped to see her as rescue teams came in. But she wasn't among the survivors.
Hurricane Katrina
Petty Officer Chuck Hunt, of the Boston-based Coast Guard cutter Spencer, signals that his team can load two more Hurricane Katrina victims in addition to the one they are helping into the Army Black Hawk helicopter.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Sam Towers
Not until months later, was Rachel found. Her daughter Hannah, through intervention from a Colorado Senator, got authorities to conduct a proper investigation to find her. A body located in a morgue was identified as Rachel's, waiting for someone to identify it. Rachel, it was said, had been found barely alive, was taken to a hospital, then died soon after she was discovered. Rachel, whose family had fled hardships when she was a child, spent her last minutes with no one she knew and with family left only to mourn in a process that continues four years later for her daughter, Hannah.
According to CNN news this week, 25 per cent of the population of New Orleans has left the city since 2005. For many people New Orleans is and always will be home. It holds memories of lifetimes, family histories, music, culture and great moments. It holds the grief of thousands in ways that others may never understand nor have heart or mind to do. Rachel, whose immortality is secure in family memories, might be with us all today. But she died, too early, too alone in a flood in the city she loved,
a symbol of preventable tragedy for many who suffer today.
By remembering Rachel, we remember the human side of disaster, the most significant part, that can occur for anyone at any time, but when it comes and needn't might be the greatest hurt of all. I remembered Rachel last night, and like many people who care about those who suffer needlessly, who are killed violently, who die too early or who face violent storms themselves, I will remember her story for many years to come.
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