Making It On Fumes, A Katrina Story

By Dr. Will Williams, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

I have so many wonderful stories about my time with the American Red Cross, but the one that I remember most was a woman who literally made it to us on fumes! MADE IT ON FUMES!

During Katrina, we worked in just about every position possible. We all wanted to help, and it didn’t matter where.

This day, was a particularly humid day, and I remember I was outside making sure that everyone, both volunteers and people coming into the shelter, had a bottle of water as I directed traffic into the parking lot.

As you can imagine it was busy; very busy! As I was looking up, I see and hear a vehicle sputtering my way. It was a Caprice station wagon that appeared to be packed beyond belief and running out of gas.

She started honking her horn as her car sputtered some more, so I waved her past the other vehicles. Just as she crossed the line, her car sputtered for the last time, and just coasted about ten more feet. I could see her place her face into her hands as she pressed against the steering wheel sounding the horn.

We rushed to make sure she was okay. As she looked up, I saw the tears just pouring from her eyes.

She said, “I have been driving around for hours trying to find you (the American Red Cross shelter). I finally saw a sign and followed it here. I had nowhere else to go. I have been running on fumes for some time now!”

As I reached into my pocket, all I had was $5 dollars. A few others started reaching into their pockets, and although it was not much, we were all willing to give what we had. She began to cry some more. To this day, I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or sorrow.

I said, “Don’t worry, you’re here now, and we’ll take care of you the best we can.”

People outside the shelter, some volunteers and myself helped push her car to a parking spot. I walked her into the building, which was Reunion Arena. While she was registering, I went and found her someone from mental health. This was a very difficult time for evacuees, and disaster mental health workers are trained to serve as counselors for those affected. In this case, I just thought that she just may need someone to talk to. As she got up from the table she gave me a big hug and said, “Thank you!” She started tearing up some more, and again, I could not tell if they were tears of sorrow or joy. To me, it did not matter. She was safe, and that is what mattered the most.

As the days went on, I was still so very, very busy, and I did not see her for some time. One day, I was standing in the hallway, and I heard a very happy voice say, “Hello, I just wanted to thank you!” I turned around, and it was her! She was so cheerful. Her smile was from ear to ear; so much different from when we first met.

“Everyone has been just so nice. I wish there was something I could do to thank you.”, she said.

I smiled and said, “You just did.”

She gave me a great big hug and patted me on the back and said, “Keep up the good work. It really does make a difference!”

Ever since Katrina, I have been trying to make that difference. It’s my hope to impact someone’s life in a positive way just as she did mine.

Thank you for reading,

Will Williams, PhD


Dr. Williams began his volunteer career with the American Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He is celebrating 10 years of service with the Red Cross, and he is currently the regional lead of sheltering for North Texas.

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