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San Joaquin man recalls helping Katrina victims

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Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2005 10:00 pm

As a former Eagle Scout, 25-year-old Brian Barringer knows how to survive in an uncontrolled environment. But his expertise is camping and fishing in a forest, not wading in a sea of strangers displaced by two major hurricanes.

Still, after hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and pushed evacuees into Texas - and then Hurricane Rita struck Texas and forced them and a new wave of distraught people even deeper inland - Barringer knew he could do something to help.

He ended up spending three weeks helping the hurting and hopeful people in a Texas shelter. He returned about three weeks ago.

"After Katrina hit, I wanted to know how I could help but I didn't have the resources," said Barringer, a married real estate agent for Century 21 in Tracy. "So I called the Red Cross."

After Katrina, he took a class at the Stockton Red Cross office, but it was not until Hurricane Rita that he got a phone call from the agency asking him for help. And just like that, he was off to Austin, Texas.

He arrived at the agency's disaster headquarters, "where hundreds of volunteers were being checked in and randomly assembled into disaster teams. We formed teams of eight, exchanged cell numbers and picked a team leader then waited to be assigned to a shelter," Barringer wrote in an e-mail to his parents Bill and Pat.

The next day, his team was assigned to a camp at a Pentecostal church in Lufkin, Texas, a seven-hour drive from Austin, near the Louisiana border. It was only four days after Rita, and the shelter was running at full speed, housing 800 and feeding another 400.

While no one knew exactly what to do after getting off the bus, Barringer was asked by an evacuee for some aspirin, so that's where he started.

"From that point on, it seems like one long day to me," he said.

Before sunrise, he would drive around in a golf cart and pick up trash. By 6:30 a.m., he was helping prepare breakfast.

"We had to set up the mess hall each morning because that's where everyone slept the night before," he said in the e-mail to his parents. "Food would come from a delivery truck … and we would serve it in a line, kind of like a school cafeteria. It is really neat to see how fast and easy it is to feed so many people. We never ran out of food; people always had seconds and dessert with dinner."

Water was served in aluminum cans brought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That made the water taste like metal, Barringer said. Anheuser-Busch donated 321,000 cans of filtered water which volunteers referred to as "Baptist beer."

Barringer's other responsibility was to watch after the evacuees in the dorms. Every day, he collected people's bedding for laundry, fed the sick, asked about the needs of others and tried to resolve personal conflicts.

People had questions. Where is the government-promised FEMA aid? Where are the Red Cross officials? When can we go home? What are we supposed to do now?

"We knew as much as they did," Barringer said. "My answer always was, 'I can get you food and I can get you shelter and I can get you supplies but I have no idea when the money is coming.' If I did have an answer it would just be a rumor."

The medical and health issues were some of the scariest Barringer said he saw. Many people did not have their medications, or had lost their prescriptions. Some had just decided to stop taking psychiatric drugs.

One of those was a man who attacked his grandmother one day after not taking his pills, Barringer said. The man was arrested, but returned the next day for aid.

Meanwhile, Bill Barringer, Brian's dad, was watching news filled with reports of violence and looting caused by flustered evacuees in the Houston Astrodome and elsewhere.

"Any parent would worry in that situation," Bill Barringer said. "It's your kid."

But the father knew why his son wanted to possibly risk his life to help others,

"He has a big heart, and he is a doer," he said of Brian.

Barringer's mother, Pat, said she is also proud of what her son did because of the televised dangers in the affected regions.

"Actually doing this amazes me," she said. "He has a safe life here and he has a wife. But his going there made a difference for people."

Back at the camp, evacuees also suffered physical ailments, such as a man in a shelter who developed gangrene on his foot.

"He didn't want to tell anyone, but he was getting sicker and sicker," Barringer said. "After we found out, we called an ambulance and I'm sure he had to have it amputated."

Barringer worked between 12 to 16 hours each day, but said he never got tired because there was always something that needed to be done. He said he believes the government was a little slow to organize the relief effort, but that it quickly recovered with the help of charitable organizations like the Red Cross and corporations like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, which donated money and supplies.

And the little things that volunteers like Barringer provided were also extremely helpful. He would find medicine, give people his cigarettes and let evacuees use his cell phone to call family members.

Every day, Barringer said he saw people reunited with their families, he became closer friends with them and his fellow volunteers, and learned something new.

"Kids hung out with me all day long," he said. "I had no idea I was such a people person. I found out a lot about myself over there."

When his two-week commitment to the relief effort ended, he signed up for a third week. "(I) wanted to see my new friends make it through all right, at least see them getting their money," he said.

In that extra week, he got to see every remaining family set up with 18-month temporary housing and get their federal aid.

"The whole experience really puts things into perspective," he said. "I got to see how much family, God and community really matter."

Contact reporter Roman Gokhman at romang@tracypress.com.

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