Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 8:07 pm | Fair 58º

 
 
 
 
Advice

CoastHills Employees Remember Efforts in Katrina 10 Years Later

 After 10 years , Seanna Ochoa still remembers the 8-year-old boy who mirrored her every step. His family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and Ochoa was volunteering at a shelter on a special leave from CoastHills Credit Union. 

“There was this little boy; he followed me everywhere,” said Ochoa, now the collections quality assurance officer for CoastHills. “He was a child of one of the victims, but once he got into the shelter, all he wanted to do was help.” 

When CoastHills Credit Union decided to sponsor aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, the credit union’s leadership team decided to allow for a select group of five employees to volunteer in relief efforts with American Red Cross while continuing to be compensated for their entire time of service.

Staff response was rapid, and within a few days, the CoastHills relief team was in place. 
 
“Once we began to see the devastation, we really wanted to respond in a way that would make a difference,” CoastHills President and CEO Jeff York said. “Looking back 10 years, I am so proud of what this credit union did and what our relief team members were able to contribute. Honestly, to allow for those five employees to immerse themselves in the relief effort was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.” 

Marla Hernandez had twice spent her vacation from work volunteering in flood relief efforts, and Ochoa had studied to be an EMT. 

Still working at the credit union 10 years later, the pair of Lompoc, Calif., residents remembered the anniversary of the Category 3 hurricane’s landfall in Southern Louisiana Aug. 29, 2005, by recalling the disaster’s profound impact.

“It was amazing how rewarding it was to help,” Ochoa said.

After a day of training with the Red Cross in Santa Maria, Calif., Ochoa was placed in a shelter in San Antonio, Texas. There, some refugees arrived after having been stranded for days on their rooftops back in Louisiana.

Others had been moved from the Superdome in New Orleans. Ochoa divvied supplies, served food, babysat children and helped register those who had lost IDs, wallets, purses, social security cards and birth certificates — everything.

She was struck by the spirit in the shelter, which she described as a warehouse full of cots, very few belongings and even less privacy.

“They told us to be prepared. People have lost everything. You’re going to be dealing with people who were at their lowest of lows,” said Ochoa. “Once I got there, I was so shocked at how positive they were. They were actually very thankful.”

A CoastHills Collections Officer, Hernandez used her own vacation time to aid in flood relief efforts in Cape Girardeau, Mo., in 1993 and again in Sacramento, Calif., in 1997.

Her own home was flooded in a 1998 El Niño storm. After Katrina, that experience landed her in Falls Church, Va., the site of a major Red Cross call center. She directed callers to shelters and local organizations where they could receive vouchers for food, clothing and medical aid.

The call volume was so high, Hernandez said, callers were waiting on hold for extreme lengths of time, and the conversations were so intensely personal, they usually lasted an hour or more once a connection was made. Often, the caller’s home had been flooded and he or she had little idea how to proceed. 

“We had people on the line waiting 24 hours,” Hernandez said. “People would go to sleep and have a family member sitting by phone with the phone off the hook. We would yell, ‘Hello! Hello!’ Then you could hear feet running and people yelling, ‘Don’t hang up!’"

Hernandez and Ochoa each returned having made a difference elsewhere and use that life-changing experience to bring a unique level of dedication and service to our members. Each was enriched by the experience and would encourage others to volunteer should the opportunity arise.
 
“If people want to get prepared for a disaster should it come,” Ochoa said, “they should go do their part, get certified by the Red Cross and be ready.”
 
Said Hernandez: “You go through something like that, and you come back knowing, ‘I can handle anything you want to throw at me.’ ”

— Joshua D. Scroggin is the social media officer at CoastHills Credit Union.

 

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