The letter began, "You are invited to participate in Homeland Security's emergency response to Hurricane Katrina. Your assignment will be in very primitive conditions with very little operating infrastructure, and you will need to pack all essential items...."
I received the letter five years ago, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina's anniversary is two weeks away on Aug. 29, and I am sure will cause a resurgence of mixed emotions and memories for many people, including myself.
I humbly and honorably accepted the invitation and joined thousands of dedicated, brave and heroic emergency responders and ordinary, yet courageous people from around the country and world who wanted to help.
When Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, the storm surge left 80 percent of New Orleans submerged, tens of thousands of victims clinging to rooftops, and hundred of thousands victims scattered around the country.
The destruction was so profound that it almost seemed abstract. And although it has been almost five years, the smell, sorrow, sounds, and images of the devastated Gulf Coast and grief-stricken Hurricane Katrina victims remain unbelievable, heart wrenching and vivid to me.
I was stationed in Natchez and assigned to the southwest region of Mississippi. I assisted with the opening of Disaster Centers and worked with organizations and communities to ensure communication with local and regional news and field emergency efforts were networked and timely.
While working in the Disaster Centers, I met many frantic, worried, frustrated, angry, and desperate families who literally lost everything except for what they were wearing or carrying. With four children of my own and many young nephews and nieces, it was easy for me to see a child in the Disaster Center and compare age and circumstances to my own family who were safe at home in California.
As I reflect back on my Hurricane Katrina experience, I am drawn to those monumental moments of anguish and my inability to provide instantaneous relief for these families in tremendous need.
Of all the encounters I had during Hurricane Katrina, the one I carry with me the most is from a child I never met. There, in a Disaster Center located in Woodville, was a wall with about 40 drawings taped to it. The drawings were from children temporarily housed in the Disaster Center who wrote "thank you" messages to emergency responders and shelter staff.
I stood in front of the wall and began to read the children's messages.
"Thank you for being my friend."
"Thank you for the food."
"Thank you for a place to sleep."
"Thank you for taking care of me and my sister."
I looked up and saw a drawing from Devin. By his handwriting, I guessed Devin was about 6 or 7 years old -- about the same age as my nieces, Jacquelyn and Ava. On the front was a colorful picture of a house, tree and walkway.
Inside Devin wrote, "Don't give up. Keep it up. Thank you."
After my two weeks of service in Mississippi, I returned home, and I brought Devin's drawing back and shared it with my family.
My beautiful nieces are about 12 years old now as I hope Devin is.
Each time I see them or children about Devin's age, I can't help but think of this child I have never met and his impact, on many levels, in my life.
I keep his drawing by my bedside in an old cigar box. I take a peek at it every once in a while just to make sure it's still there and safe as I hope are Devin and all those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of The Californian. E-mail him at sflores@ bakersfield.com.