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At a glance: United States of America

Frontline diary: Wednesday 7 September – Searching for loved ones

© UNICEF New York/2005
UNICEF Press Officer Allison Hickling

Allison Hickling, a UNICEF Press Officer, has volunteered to help with the Katrina relief effort. This is her personal account.

By Allison Hickling

HOUSTON, 7 September 2005 – A few nights ago I met a woman who was looking for her son. I warmed to Ms. Plaisance immediately, a polite woman with a soft-spoken Southern lilt. She had left New Orleans before the hurricane, but her son had stayed behind. After a week of sleepless nights Ms. Plaisance still knew nothing about his fate. She was exhausted and disoriented.

She was clutching a piece of paper with a series of phone numbers and a website address for finding missing family members. Every number she dialled was constantly busy, and she had no idea how to use the Internet. We sat and searched together, but his name appeared nowhere.

Her plight became my plight for the next two days, as I helped to look for her son. Ms. Plaisance was no longer a faceless number among those ‘affected’, her son no longer an abstract story lost in thousands of similar tales almost too difficult to imagine. I too am a mother. Somehow I understood the confusion in her eyes. I could not shoulder her grief, but I could feel it. Her heartbreak was palpable.

Inside the Astrodome

Once your eyes adjust to the sea of people inside the Astrodome, the first thing you notice is a busy hub at one end of the shelter. Evacuees are here everyday, pinning up messages for missing friends and relatives – and searching themselves to see who may be trying to find them.

The leaves of paper with messages written in shock and despair are ironically bright in colour. The fuchsia and neon-green notes do not reflect a sense of optimism – they merely stand out. 

Each shelter in the Astrodome complex has its own message centre. Besides posting notes, evacuees line up behind rows of computers where volunteers enter names and contact numbers in the database for missing loved ones.

Every couple minutes throughout the day, a public address system booms out announcements calling evacuees to report to the message centre – in the best case scenario, they have been found by someone and are given a phone number to call.

Manning the phones

Today I spent some time manning the phones in the Red Cross call centre for missing persons, adding entries to the growing database. Emotionally it was the most difficult job I’ve done all week. After a couple hours I lost count of how many calls I had taken. But each voice, each story, was painfully distinct.

Those phone calls haunted me tonight. I turned my thoughts instead to family reunions I have heard of and even witnessed myself. And to the best phone call I’ve taken all week, the one yesterday from Ms. Plaisance who found her son in Atlanta. We rejoiced together on the phone, and when I hung up, my hopes – just like hers – had been lifted.




8 September 2005:
UNICEF Press Officer Alison Hickling says many families are looking for a new future in Houston.

Frontline diary

UNICEF's Allison Hickling is working as a volunteer in Texas. Read her account of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

Wednesday 7 September – Searching for loved ones

Tuesday 6 September – Evacuees at the Reliant Center

Monday 5 September - Volunteering to help in Katrina’s aftermath

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