Monmouth pair quick to help, as usual

Local Katrina volunteers


Sherry and Jack Hinkle have been helping out at disaster scenes for a decade.

MONMOUTH -- It had been four days since Jack and Sherry Hinkle returned from their relief work on the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast.

Those two weeks spent face-to-face with the victims of Hurricane Katrina -- people who had climbed on roofs to escape rising water, families who'd lost their loved ones or homes -- was taking its toll, Sherry said.

"When you come back from something like that, it takes a while to unwind, to get things out of your mind," said Sherry, a retired travel agent. "I was so emotionally exhausted ... I cried myself to sleep.

"Those memories...they replay in your head."

Those feelings aren't uncommon, say the Hinkles, who have volunteered collectively in natural disaster relief for almost a dozen years.

It's a sometimes overwhelming job - but completely worthwhile, if only for the gratitude of their "clients," Jack said.

"I was in a Taco Bell in Florida after Hurricane Charlie last year," he said. "I had been there (in the area) for 19 days, and was wearing my Red Cross T-shirt.

"This lady saw the shirt, came up to me and thanked me for coming down," he said.

"When they haven't eaten or had water for days and you finally reach them, the payment you get is a smile," said Jack, a retired sheriff's deputy and travel agent. "That's better than money."

Jack, 71, and Sherry, 67, have been active volunteers for the Willamette Chapter of the American Red Cross for several years. Since the mid-1990s, they've been on the scene for floods, tornadoes and other natural catastrophes in Nevada, Kentucky and Kansas. Often, their missions have been conducted apart from each other.

"We've seen the same disasters, we've talked to people affected by them," Jack said. "It may sound trite, but we're one (team) out there, even when we're in different places ... we work well together."

They were visiting relatives in Tulsa, Okla., and were watching news coverage of the hurricane blowing into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 when they were called into service -- the first of 16 volunteers from the Willamette Red Cross to be dispatched to the South.

Sherry remained in Oklahoma, interviewing relocated victims in an attempt to reunite them with loved ones.

Jack flew back to Oregon, where he and Sylvia Lee Young, also of Monmouth, packed up a supply truck and drove for three straight days to get to Louisiana.

Sherry said the couple saw devestation while in Florida for hurricane season last year. By now, New Orleans had been declared a no man's land, putting this event on a different scale, Sherry said.

"Just the sheer enormity of it," she said. "Last year ... it seemed like those winds whipped through the state and then it was over ... . You could see what was left, you could clean it up and start rebuilding.

"This time, you couldn't get back home," she continued. "Your home, your loved ones -- you didn't know what was there and what wasn't."

Jack was stationed about 24 miles north of New Orleans in Hammond, La., where scores of Gulf Coast residents had taken shelter.

He supervised food shipments to different Red Cross sites and mobile kitchens capable of producing 13,000 meals a day.

"We didn't do much driving down the street, bringing food to people," Hinkle said. "Though after four or five days, we would find pockets of people in apartments and complexes who weren't able to reach us."

Because most coastal cities had been blocked off, Jack never got close enough to see the full horror in New Orleans. But in towns like Hammond -- essentially refugee camps -- he heard plenty of stories of hardship.

"One thing that angered me was that businesses were overcharging enormously for things," he said. "It might cost $100 to rent and empty a dumpster -- now they wanted $400 to rent one and about $900 to empty it."

Back in Tulsa, at the Crosstown Church of Christ, Sherry spent hours each day interviewing families in order to enter their names in a data bank that would be used to reconnect family members and loved ones.

Some stories still bring tears to her eyes.

One involved a 54-year-old woman who had moved to New Orleans to live with her cousin 12 days before Katrina made landfall. The two women were residing in an apartment complex in the downtown area. They were trying to enter their apartment when a canal broke.

The woman's cousin couldn't swim, Sherry said. "She was washed away."

The Hinkles returned from their volunteer stints on Sept. 11 and took a much deserved vacation -- although Jack said they could return to the hurricane area at a later date.

When those lingering memories begin to overwhelm, Sherry said she chooses to think of the high points. Like consoling a sobbing woman who had been separated from her her husband and children during a rescue in New Orleans. The woman had vowed to go back into the city to find them.

"She had been carrying her cell phone with her, and it rang," Sherry remembers. "It was her mother, telling her that her husband had just called and was getting a ride to Tulsa ... she went from being distraught to bliss.

"When I'm feeling sad," she said. "I go back to a memory that's happy, like that one."

The Willamette Chapter of the American Red Cross has sent 28 volunteers to assist in the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina and has collected more than $270,000 in donations for victims. For more information: 503-585-5414.


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