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Katrina’s aftermath: Santa Cruz man rides to the rescue
September 7, 2005
By NANCY PASTERNACK
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Gary Maclaughlin has a mission and a bus.
On the fifth day of his Hurricane Katrina disaster-relief tour Tuesday, the Santa Cruz construction worker delivered water, food and other supplies to residents in and around New Orleans.
As he drove into the city from the Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain, he described what he could see through the windshield of his 1990 full-size diesel school bus.
Helicopters dropping sandbags at the levee; a hospital ship; barges carrying oil drums.
"There’s a dump truck with a soldier sitting backwards with an AR-15 in his lap. Police and military are going in every direction at once," he said. "It’s an amazing scene."
The mission began last Thursday night when Maclaughlin, distraught by news reports about devastation and chaos in the Crescent City, bought a bus online with a credit card.
Maclaughlin picked up the bus in Tennessee, near the headquarters for Plenty International, an organization to which he once had ties.
The group, billed online as "a non-governmental alternative development organization," had already raised more than $10,000 for Katrina’s victims, but had not yet decided how to use the money.
They chose the guy from California with the bus.
Volunteers helped Maclaughlin load up with staple items, and before the weekend was over, Maclaughlin had delivered those goods, as well as some cash, to shelters in Alexandria, New Orleans and Covington, La. — the town across Lake Pontchartrain where activist Cindy Sheehan and Veterans For Peace had established a shelter and soup kitchen.
He took 40 people from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and returned to the Plenty headquarters to start another run.
This time, he brought along some company: Ralph McAtee, a Nashville paramedic, who did the driving for the second run.
The school bus raised suspicions Tuesday at the toll booth checkpoint, where guards and police monitored entrance to New Orleans, "but they could see we had good intentions," Maclaughlin said.
The bus was waved through, where it stood out as a lone civilian vehicle among hundreds of police and military convoys, he said.
Most of the day involved getting water to the residents of New Orleans’ Garden District who refused to be evacuated.
"They definitely wanted water, but they definitely weren’t going anywhere," McAtee said. "They’re being told to leave, but there’s a lot of paranoia about what’s going to happen to their homes if they do leave."
They stopped frequently to ask pedestrians — many of them without shoes and with their possessions in tow — if they needed a ride, or food or water.
"My impression," said Maclaughlin, "is that there’s plenty of personnel here to help, but everybody’s reluctant to make decisions, so there are lots of needs going unmet. It’s bedlam."
After a full day of winding through trash-strewn streets and listening to the latest rumors in each neighborhood of New Orleans and the fears of the city’s remaining inhabitants, Maclaughlin and McAtee stopped in the French Quarter for a beer.
Usually in business 20 hours a day, Molly’s has been open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. since Katrina hit. The building sustained wind damage but was not flooded.
Molly’s owner Jim Monahan, who’s running his establishment by way of a generator, said the government’s response to the disaster has been "a national disgrace.
"There’s more police than there are people," he said. "There’s been a general breakdown of society and there was absolute anarchy here for 36 hours."
Mohahan’s wife and daughter left last Wednesday for Baton Rouge, but he has no plans to go.
"It’s easy for people to say, ‘Get up and get out of there,’ " he said, "but this is our lives. They can’t make me leave. I have a right to live in my own home."
At last count, Plenty had raised more than $20,000 to aid victims of Katrina. Some of that is being distributed by Maclaughlin. But within the next few days, he said, he will have to return home.
He plans to donate his bus to Plenty International before he returns to Santa Cruz.
"I hope this bus is an inspiration," he said. "Anybody can do this with a credit card."
Contact Nancy Pastnerack at email@example.com.