This post by Tara Allegra Adams originally appeared on ideavillage.org.
August 29, 2005 felt like any other day. It was a cool, mild Monday in San Francisco, and like most of Silicon Valley, I was getting ready to make my way through throngs of early morning traffic in hopes of making it to my coveted tech job at Google (or some other top tech company) on time for a free hot breakfast and latte.
Per my early morning routine, I booted up my computer and browsed the headline news before focusing on my day ahead. A category 5 hurricane was making landfall on the Gulf Coast. By evening on the west coast, the news we began to receive became more alarming.
“Massive flooding, Countless Casualties, State of Emergency, Hurricane Katrina, The Storm of the Century” were phrases being adopted by all of the major news outlets. By the time I returned home, much of the Gulf Coast had either sustained major damage from torrential wind, rain and storm surge, or was under a blanket of water that spread for miles. One of America’s greatest cities, New Orleans, was 80% under water.
By the next day, the stories grew more dire with tens of thousands of people homeless and hundreds, if not thousands of lives lost. Infrastructure was crumbling, as was any sense of stability. The few first responders who were able to access the hardest hit areas could do little, many of them were victims themselves. Worst of all, it seemed there was no help in sight. I recall sitting in my living room three days after Katrina made landfall, overloaded by the 24/7 news cycle of information, asking myself the simple question, “We are the United States of America, arguably the greatest country in the world.
How is it possible that we cannot get aid to our own people? Returning to work that next morning I reached out to my leadership team at Google and expressed my desire to do something, anything to help. Within days I was sitting in a room with over 100 fellow Googlers (including one of our co-founders, Sergey Brin) in an 8-hour, abbreviated Disaster Response Training conducted by the American Red Cross.
Landing in New Orleans
Three weeks later, I was assigned to a church/shelter/clinic/supply distribution center in Gulf Springs, Mississippi where my role was to “do whatever was needed.” Each day I would assist in the distribution center, providing food and supplies to residents who were fortunate enough to be able to make their way to us. With the cooperation of The National Guard, there were times when we brought supplies into restricted areas – neighborhoods with washed out roads and no utilities, where homes were buried under rubble. This was something frowned upon by The Red Cross, but we quickly became aware that many people in dire need were unable to reach us. I was also charged with registering individuals for the coveted, and now infamous FEMA trailers. I distributed one during the duration of my stay.
But of all of my experiences at the shelter, one resonated with me the most. A man in his fifties had just received a new eyeglass prescription from the makeshift clinic, after losing his in the chaos of evacuation. I watched him silently for a moment, observing his pensive expression as he looked down at the small slip of paper in his hands before I asked him if he needed any help. He informed me that he had no way of finding out which, if any, eyeglass retailers would even be open. Armed with my personal laptop and wireless internet card (also frowned upon by the Red Cross, as they could not insure the safety of our valuables), I offered my assistance. Within minutes I was able to find an open Walmart nearby.
Google had a dedicated team working to ensure that information about services in the Gulf Coast region would be up to date and as accurate as possible. I asked him if he would like to see his house as the Google Maps Team was partnering with the US government to show maps of the region in real time. He responded affirmatively, so I swiftly typed in his information and turned my screen to show him.
As tears spilled onto his cheeks, he placed his hand over his mouth and began to sob while mumbling “thank you, thank you, thank you.” His house had been spared from much of the devastation. At first I thought his expression of gratitude was directed towards a higher power. But when he grabbed me and hugged me tightly, I realized he was thanking me because of the impact my seemingly small gesture had made on his life.
Realizing the Power of One
It was in that moment that my life changed and one simple thing became clear to me – the power of just one individual to make a difference when infrastructure fails. When I returned to California, I made a promise to myself to allow my experience to guide my life and my work from that day forward. Within six months I had begun working with Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm and was organizing the first of what became many return trips to the region, this time to New Orleans to continue the work so many of us had started.
Over the past 10 years, I have dedicated my professional life to the field of Philanthropy in many shapes and forms. I have also had the privilege of leading hundreds of talented volunteers who have donated countless man hours, resources and monies to the recovery, rebuilding and revitalizing New Orleans – a city that has shown the world the true meaning of resilience, perseverance and gratitude in the face of inexplicable tragedy.
Through this work I have had the honor of partnering with dedicated individuals and organizations including celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Drew Brees, non-profits like The Idea Village and The St. Bernard Project and political entities including The Office of The Mayor and even The White House, who continue to shine a light on the work taking place in this very special city.
Putting Down Roots
Two years ago, I put my dedication to the city and region into action and became an official New Orleanian. Many have asked me why a born and bred Californian would take such a leap. I was hard-pressed to find the exact words to express why until I ran across a quote accredited to one of New Orleans most famous residents, John Goodman:
“Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.”
Today, my life looks a lot different than it did on that fateful day in 2005. I am married to a New Orleans boy, gave birth to beautiful New Orleans girl, and have since left Google to dedicate my talents and passion to a locally based organization with the hope that I will continue to be part of the movement to solidify New Orleans as THE city for optimism, innovation and urban renewal.
But I will never forget that man in the shelter all those years ago, and the impact we had on each other’s lives. It is a memory that reminds me that all it takes is one person to create a ripple effect that can impact so many more. So I ask, will you be the next one?