Sept. 26, 2005 – While many of her colleagues in the V.I. National Guard were preparing to go to Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, Aretha Ventura was trying to figure out a way to get out of a shelter and back to the Virgin Islands.
She had just finished her first month of a three-month computer operation course at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. when Katrina hit.
She said she went to a shelter on the base at about 4 p.m. Sunday before the storm hit and, along with the 6,000 other people, she expected be out of the shelter by Tuesday.
It was Thursday before she was given permission to leave the shelter and then she had no transportation to get her through the devastated region to a functioning airport from which she could fly home.
Although physical conditions at the shelter were not good, she said it was not that bad. She said, "Situations like this bring out the good in people." When she ran out of water, someone was there to share a bottle with her.
The building was really hot. After the storm passed, and people were allowed out of the building, Ventura said, "We just went outside and laid down on the concrete, the grass, wherever, and went to sleep."
She said there was concern about security and someone always agreed to stay awake and watch while others slept. Most of the people in the shelter were military but there were civilians — families of instructors were sheltered there. She said Monday at a press conference that people might still be in that shelter.
She said life in the shelter gave her new appreciation for simple things. "From Sunday to Wednesday we had no place to take a shower. On Wednesday they set up a make-shift shower outside. It was a three-minute, cold shower, the best shower I have ever had in my life."
Five days after Katrina struck, she was offered a ride to Texas, but she did not know the young man who made the offer. She said she prayed over the matter and then decided to go.
They spent 12-hours on the road and it was not easy. Once she got off base, she said, "The air smelled like death."
The only gas stations opened had "really long lines." She said "People were waiting in line for hours. Their cars would run out of gas. The gas station would run out of gas."
The press conference at the Lionel A. Jackson Armory in Estate Bethlehem on St. Croix was called to answer questions concerning the V.I. National Guard role in the Katrina relief effort. The V.I. National Guard deployed 32 people there from both islands a week after the hurricane struck. Seventeen National Guardsmen returned last Wednesday night, but the contingent of V.I. National Guardsman in the Gulf States remained consistent as 14 more left the territory the same morning the 17 returned. This second rotation should last 30 days.
Three of those returning Spc. Marsha Paul, Spc. Jovani Roserie and Staff Sgt. Newton Severin answered questions along with Ventura at the press conference.
Paul, a medic, said her first concern was the spread of contagious diseases and traumatic injures. She said it was not as bad as she expected it to be. She said she spent much of her time helping those with minor ailments and the common cold.
Roserie and Severin are both military police. First, they were assigned to guard an emergency medical station, then a shelter, and the last days were spent guarding the Emergency Operation Center. Severin said President George W. Bush visited this center and the governor of Louisiana was often there.
All four National Guardsmen talked of the destruction trees and power lines down, buildings demolished.
But they also had a bright side to their story. Paul told how great it felt to have people say to her, "We are glad you are here."
Severin said some residents had a left a thank you note under the wiper of a parked Humvee.
Paul said, "It felt good helping, giving a helping hand to people I did not know."
Roserie said, "It gave me a sense of pride to be part of that relief effort."
Each of them had heard stories about lawlessness and looting, but they did not see anything firsthand. They each were clear that they saw a difference between looting and getting necessities in a crisis.
Ventura reported that the commissary at her base was completely underwater for a day. After the water went down, some people from the shelter waded into it to get supplies. Those items sought were for the care of babies in the shelter.
Severin said his most stressful moment was when a woman came to him at the shelter and asked him to help her find her grandparents. He said, "I still don't know if they were ever found."
When asked if the V.I. National Guard would be involved in the relief effort in the aftermath of Rita, Severin said, "We are ready, if we get the call."
Severin and Roserie are part of 661st Military Police Company. Paul is part of the Army National Guard Medical Command and Ventura is in the Air National Guard.
Last week about a dozen members from the V.I. 610th Quartermaster and Company 640th Quartermaster Detachment joined a team from 661st Military Police Company heading to Fort Bragg, N.C. to prepare for deployment to Iraq.
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