South Whidbey woman continues effort to help Katrina survivors

Susan Knickerbocker’s compassion for helping survivors recover from Hurricane Katrina didn’t stop when she and her husband, Rocky, left the Gulf Coast in November after weeks of volunteer work.

Now, months after the devastating storm left more than a thousand dead and shattered the lives of countless more, Knickerbocker continues to work from South Whidbey, trying to find homes for people left homeless by the hurricane.

Working with Katrina’s Angels, a nonprofit group based in Florida, Knickerbocker recalled how she recently found an apartment for a displaced survivor in New Orleans, La.

“This is something people can do right here, right now. And it’s really needed,” she said.

In the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, Knickerbocker knew she had to do everything she could to help. She made donations to the Salvation Army and local fundraisers, and through Craig’s List, as well. But it wasn’t enough.

“I was in tears just reading the pleas from people, people who just needed little things, like bus money,” she said.

“First I thought we should just drive down there,” Knickerbocker recalled.

The Red Cross, however, was looking for volunteers who could be deployed to the disaster area.

While the Island County Red Cross chapter hadn’t yet started training volunteers, the chapter in Snohomish County was looking for helpers. So Knickerbocker took almost every disaster class the Red Cross was offering, about 10 or so, and then started volunteering in the chapter’s Snohomish County office.

She was soon deployed to help with disaster relief in Texas, in early October, just after Hurricane Rita struck.

Knickerbocker worked in evacuee shelters and delivered food to people displaced by the hurricane.

After she came back to Whidbey, Knickerbocker decided to return to the Gulf Coast so she and her husband could help others.

She looked for groups that needed volunteers on the Internet and found three — Kinship Circle animal rescue in New Orleans, Disaster Corp in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and a Lutheran relief effort in St. Bernard Parish, La. — that still needed help. The Knickerbockers bought airline tickets and got ready to go.

“All three of these groups were so organized; there was no down time,” she said. “We got there, they fed us, and we were out working.”

Her visit marked the first time she was able to see the extent of the devastation.

The Knickerbockers don’t watch television, and Susan Knickerbocker said she only heard of the widespread impact through the Internet and National Public Radio.

With one group of volunteers, the couple helped gut homes that had been submerged by Katrina. Knickerbocker recalled how they put doors on the stairs inside the homes, so everything in the house that had been ruined could be tossed on the makeshift ramp and sent to the bottom floor.

Everything down to the studs was ripped out, carted into the street in wheelbarrows, and dumped.

“There were piles of trash everywhere,” she said.

“This one guy showed us on a laptop what his house used to look like,” Knickerbocker recalled. The man and his wife had spent the last three years fixing up the $350,000 home.

“His neighbor, just the week before, had sold his house for $20,000,” she said. “He was pretty distraught.”

They hugged through the tears. Like many others, the survivor really needed someone to just listen.

Many others shared their stories.

“It was both uplifting and discouraging,” Knickerbocker added.

“I met a 17-year-old boy there who had worked three weeks washing dishes so he could take the bus down there to help out. That was uplifting.”

When she worked for the animal rescue effort, Knickerbocker recounted how an elderly man saw “animal rescue” painted on the side of their rental car and made a beeline over to them.

“He said, ‘Animal rescue, thank you!’”

Knickerbocker later learned the man was an 83-year-old widower, and that animal rescuers had taken care of his cat for seven weeks until the pair was reunited.

The constant sight of seeing people’s destroyed possessions — covered with moss and mildew, silt and clay — had an impact on the couple.

“We’ve come home and have just been boxing everything up,” Knickerbocker said.

They have started giving away some things and getting rid of other items.

“It’s all so temporary, this stuff,” she said. “If something happens here, I wouldn’t want people to have to wheelbarrow my stuff out to the street.”

Now, Knickerbocker is thinking about a return trip to volunteer again. And she stays optimistic that the Gulf states will recover from Katrina.

“It’s going to take a few years and it’s going to take a lot of hard work. And people are scattered all over the country; some will come back, some won’t.”

She has faith that those who do return will have help rebuilding their lives and dreams.

“There’s a lot of giving people in this country,” she said.

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