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Local woman helps in Katrina relief efforts

American Red Cross volunteer Kelly Whitcomb analogized the site of Louisiana post-Hurricane Katrina as resembling that of different levels of hell.

"First, there is damage," Whitcomb said. "Then, it gets a little worse ... [then] the damage changes and it becomes Xs and Os [spray-painted on homes and landmarks to signify if people were] - dead or not. Then you realize that you start to see whole neighborhoods that have Xs."

Whitcomb tried to prepare herself as she arrived in Louisiana to face the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"I was as prepared as anyone could be," she said. "[But] I was really not even close to prepared."

In mid-October, the longtime North Bend resident took three-and-a-half weeks of excused leave from her job at MK Properties in Snoqualmie to provide emergency and long-term assistance to those affected by the hurricane.

"The magnitude and amount of need was so great, I just really felt compelled," Whitcomb said.

As a volunteer, she helped the New Orleans operation go smoothly and helped people obtain necessities, including food, shelter and financial assistance.

On Nov. 19, Whitcomb, who was recently offered a paid relief position with the American Red Cross in public affairs, left her job at MK Properties and returned to Louisiana to work with Hurricane Katrina victims for the next three months.

The single mother of four left her children (three girls, ages 18, 16 and 14 and one boy, age 13) in the care of family members while she is stationed in New Orleans.

Returning to the devastated area was something Whitcomb wanted to do once she came back from her initial trip. Though she said she was sad to miss out on spending the holidays with her loved ones, Whitcomb said the decision was a fairly easy one.

"My kids share my values," she said, noting that her mother and two of her four children are also American Red Cross volunteers. "They felt it was so good that they had something to contribute [to the cause], and this time it was me."

Whitcomb said she was forever changed by her first visit.

As a six-year American Red Cross volunteer, she had experience working in disaster services locally, but not at a national level.

"What's down there is so profoundly devastating," she said.

If one tried to imagine what a nuclear explosion might look like, she said she thinks that is what parts of Louisiana looked like.

Despite the devastation, though, Whitcomb also spoke of the gracious and kind-hearted individuals she met in the area. One shop owner in the French Quarter gave her a silver bracelet with the phrase "Pray for Us" inscribed on a hanging charm.

Working 12-16 hour days in and around New Orleans, Whitcomb originally went to Louisiana to drive emergency vehicles and ended up working at a local operations center dealing with staffing, public affairs, security issues and helping people navigate their next steps.

Whitcomb also stayed connected to the community members by providing immediate relief services such as drinking water and hot meals.

"For the most part, everyone was grateful and gracious," she said.

Whitcomb said the atmosphere of the devastation was dependent upon the location, with some spots seeming dirty, some seeping smells, others filled with sludge and some filled with destroyed materials.

In her private collection of photographs (which were not released to the media because she had privileged access to locations closed to the public), there was an image of a house torn in half with a road down the middle; there were photographs of abandoned vehicles; there were spray-painted messages tagged onto the sides of houses like a giant message board.

Spray paint became a functional form of communication in the area, Whitcomb said.

There were notes giving updates on situations such as, "Two kittens found, safe now," Xs to indicate that dead had been found and Os to note that no one had died. There were also addresses spray painted for where a home used to be or where the residents of a home could now be found.

Whitcomb even saw a few social or political commentaries and quips spray painted. One such scene was that of a damaged home with a pile of debris in front of it. Scrawled above the place where the garage used to be was the comment, "Garage sale ... yours and mine."

"It's amazing to see how people make do," Whitcomb said. "They haven't lost their sense of humor."

Whitcomb said that even though the word "traumatizing" didn't even cover the experience's impact, she worked right alongside many hurricane victims, gaining a deep sense of respect for the people affected and a sense of privilege for being able to assist them.

"I took a lot from that," she said.

Military servicemen and women were also there, Whitcomb said, working and looking after and out for the volunteers and the victims.

Despite the tragic circumstances, Whitcomb also said she saw visible signs of recovery. She noted that in addition to the clean-up crews and the reopening of a few bars and shops, people seemed in good spirits and proactive, especially considering the conditions.

"There's just a profound goodness of humanity," she said. "You really do take a sense of that the rest of your life."

Whitcomb said she encourages people to volunteer their services, time or money, as the effects of the hurricane have not gone away.

She also urged businesses to provide support to employees who would like to contribute their time and complimented those that had (including her former employer MK Properties).

According to the American Red Cross Web site, there are currently more than 215,200 relief workers from across the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands attending to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and that number continues to increase. They have already provided assistance to more than 3.7-million hurricane survivors.

The American Red Cross has received about $1.52 billion in gifts and pledges to go toward hurricane relief and the organization currently estimates that costs will exceed $2 billion. Ninety-one cents of every dollar donated goes directly to assist disaster victims.

"People were devastated in so many ways and there's something we can do about that," Whitcomb said. "That's what it's all about ... How could you not if you have something to contribute?"

For those interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities locally or nationally, call (800) HELP-NOW or visit www.redcross.org.

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