Yukoner rises above the water in Louisiana (from October 27 issue of the Yukon News
Al Alcock went to Louisiana as a volunteer and left as a leader.
When he arrived on September 27th at a Red Cross shelter in Hammond, Louisiana — about 45 minutes north of New Orleans — Alcock was almost immediately promoted to lead the rescue and recovery station there.
More than 1.4 million people were displaced from their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and close to 1,300 died.
Alcock had arrived in a disaster zone — but it’s the type of place he knows well.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, he served in the Canadian military during the recovery efforts after the Red River floods in Manitoba in 1979.
He retired from the forces in 1981, and started a quarter-century long career for the Yukon government.
After retiring from his government post, Alcock has become the chief of the Ibex Valley Fire Department, and also volunteers at many other organizations.
Thanks to his leadership experience, Alcock stood out among a group of 37 stressed and tired volunteers.
Sure enough, three days into his three-week mission, he was asked to lead all of them as they cared for 249 displaced people in three church-based shelters.
“My background in the military, search and rescue work and the fire department and a whole host of other things I’ve done kind of fitted nicely into that leadership role.”
Since he was volunteering, the job promotion “was a 400 per cent pay increase,” he joked in a recent interview, after returning to the Yukon on October 17th.
The Red Cross stations in Hammond were caring for people displaced from other areas, as Hammond suffered only minor wind damage.
Most of those people were from Plaquemines Parish (a parish is similar to a county), a small strip of land southeast of New Orleans that was decimated by Katrina.
“The storm surge at Plaquemines was about a 30 foot high wall of water,” said Alcock. “It literally buried the islet. Plaquemines was completely wiped off the face of the map.
“When I left, it was still under eight feet of sea water.”
He was spared the gruesome horror many watching their televisions saw in New Orleans after Katrina.
But that doesn’t mean he was spared the stress of helping people who had lost everything.
“There were a number of people from the American Red Cross that we had to send home. They just could not handle the emotions or the stress of working in this kind of environment.
“They just weren’t psychologically prepared to deal with it.”
During his time at the shelters, Alcock became, “the Canadian with the big heart,” or simply “Mista Al,” to the people he was helping, he said.
In the stations, displaced people — the Red Cross now calls them “clients” — slept on cots, while in the staff shelter, “we slept on air mattresses,” said Alcock.
His days were often 16 hours long, and he was on call the whole time. He never once had any time off, he said.
But the hard work paid off.
“We managed to close the shelters down the day before I left. That’s a really great feeling when you do that. You’re not passing it off on to somebody else to take over where you’ve left off,” he said.
The two shelters slowly cleared during Alcock’s stay, as people either found temporary housing in FEMA mobile homes, or left for other places in the US.
Only two people couldn’t be placed in the end, due to special needs, he said.
Now that he’s returned, a couple of kilograms lighter and thousands of stories richer, Alcock is sanguine about the experience.
“It’s something that I wanted to do, and it’s something that I’ll continue to do.
“I think it’s valuable because I believe we are nothing but one big community, regardless of borders, when it comes to humanity,” he said.
“It’s important, not just for me, but for all of us to recognize that, and help out where we can.”
Talking to Alcock, one gets the sense he wasn’t overwhelmed by the demands and emotions in Louisiana.
“I’ve seen suffering before, so I was prepared to deal with it. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t under stress. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a lot of feelings for the folks I encountered.
"But I was more prepared than somebody you might have picked up out of an office environment, never exposed to anything.”
Fittingly, he’s ready to help again.
“If they need me, I’m ready for another mission.”