Wednesday, June 8, 2011


June 8, 2011

Sometimes when government fails good people spring into action, and a laudable case in point is FISH – Faith In Serving Humanity – right here in Walton County.
These compassionate members of our community will now be operating a free medical center out of the old Cofer Adams building on Monroe’s East Spring Street. Full praise to them.
These are the true Christians, the real ones with hearts the size of whales. And here is the saga of a wild, destructive lady and two of her desperate victims who fell into the FISH folks’ caring fins.
For a decade, my daughter Louise had been living in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, right on Rampart Street hearing gunshots, screams and great music. She had braved the storms that swept her town, all except one time when I insisted she evacuate. On her return to a virtually undamaged Big Easy she felt like one of the wimps and vowed to be more courageous.
So this time she and husband-to-be Mark elected to ride out the next one, some minor zephyr, they thought, called Katrina. Such a pretty name. It couldn’t be more than a mere breeze, could it. But as a precaution, and knowing fuel might be in short supply, they gassed up their two small cars the night before. Smart, smart move...
Because next day mayor Ray Nagin urged his citizens to flee and we joke that it was their parrot, Junior, who had the birdbrains to insist they evacuate by constantly repeating the radio warnings and, with his little beak, leading their five large dogs away. So three Great Danes and two others not much smaller crammed into the little cars, an ancient and cantankerous Dodge Neon and a little Honda they’d named Rhonda.
New Orleans was fixing to become Atlantis. The westbound escape route to Texas was already choked up, leaving only two bridges out to safety. The 24-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway had enormous problems due to its narrowness. They chose the other, the twin span Crescent City Connection, but it wasn’t much better. They were stuck. They moved a few yards. They were stuck again.
“Radio reports told us we were heading east right into this approaching behemoth,” recalls Mark. “Traffic was at a standstill. We were helpless. I’ve never been so scared. Talk about hair-raising? That day I grew a full mustache, beard and mullet.”
Adding to the problem, Mississippi governor Hayley Barbour refused to open up a westbound lane or two on I-10 for the fleeing masses, so no contraflow. And, inexplicably, he also ordered one of the three outbound lanes closed and guarded by troopers, creating an even greater bottleneck. There were orange cones and armed cops, but no sign of any road work. What were his motives?
“We expected Katrina to sweep us into the drink,” says Louise. “We would not even be ending our lives together.”
The heat was unbearable. Motorists cut each other off, jockeying to get ahead. With their phone batteries dying, Louise lost Mark. Some frantic creative driving and she was able to catch up again.
As the traffic continued in crawl-stop-crawl mode they would pass gas stations, deserted, their dangling pump hoses lashing wildly about. The attendants had already fled, and, in callous acts of wantonness, had even shut down the option to buy fuel with the swipe of a credit card.
Those stranded pleaded hysterically for help. A can of gas, a ride...
A middle-aged lady cradling a small dog tearfully offered $200 to anyone who’d pick them up. Her car, like so many along that wretched route, had run dry.
With their menagerie pressed up against the windows, Louise and Mark had no room for passengers. They were unsure they’d even make it themselves.
They did. To Alabama. Mobile. A three-hour ride had taken them all day. The next day they were here in Monroe, tired, hungry, severely shaken, carrying a few vital documents and just the clothes on their backs. But safe.
They would learn that their house in the Lower Ninth Ward had been awash and all their belongings lost. Imitating Houdini, their insurance company, Louisiana Citizens, slipped the claimants’ clutches and were successfully sued in two class action suits in which Louise and Mark missed out.
Yet FISH excelled. Hearing their horrendous tale, the ladies supplied clothing, gasoline vouchers, food boxes. They provided Wal-Mart gift cards and basic necessities, even furniture. They got them in touch with Social Services and the Red Cross and continued to support them for months. These caring folks of FISH and those who donate to them help the needy every day.
At their new place on East Spring FISH will be offering free medical attention. This because our broken health system has driven the homeless, the indigent and folks not even quite so destitute to rely on charity. It’s a sorry state when Americans are turned into Third Worlders, but thank God the angels of FISH are here to help.
Louise and Mark lay on the gravel outside our house and stared at a sky they had barely known existed back in New Orleans. They looked at each other and said we want to move to this area. And so they did.
Three months after their ordeal they were married at our home. Mark chose to wear the suit he’d bought from FISH for two bucks.


© 2011 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.