It was February 2001. Straight-line winds had devastated downtown Columbus, sending glass, metal and other debris scattered across the streets.
A surreal image greeted Becky Thomas that morning: Two trees had fallen atop her house.
But her thoughts were only allowed to linger on the devastation for so long. A group of people pulled up to her house, offering a cup of coffee and a sausage biscuit.
It was a small gesture.
But for Thomas, it meant a lot.
“It was the American Red Cross,” she recalled.
The group was dispatched from Washington, D.C. to help with recovery from the storm, “and they came every day.”
Thomas made a promise then: She would volunteer with the Red Cross.
When she went to the Red Cross office, Thomas found out the agency was looking for a director.
At 55, Thomas had always worked a “desk job;” at the time, she was director of early education for First Baptist Church. Prior to then, she was a loan officer for a bank.
“I thought it was going to be exciting,” she said.
Her friends thought she was facing a mid-life crisis and suggested she buy a sports car instead.
Rather than excitement, Thomas faced the realities of families losing homes, loved ones and their livelihood.
“Instead of the excitement, I have found that these families, I think about them and worry about them — especially the Katrina folks. You wonder if they ever recovered,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Thomas rattles off a timeline of disasters in the area, as if they all were yesterday:
- 2001, straight-line winds.
- Sept. 11, 2001, “affected every Red Cross in the United States with blood drives and sending our volunteers to New York. Some stayed for an entire month.”
- 2002, “the tornado that wiped out Southside.”
- 2003, “the Monroe County tornado.”
- 2005, Katrina.
“I”m hoping that when I retire, the disasters will stop in this area,” Thomas said. “It”s been so stressful.”
Thomas” last day on the job is today, in time to avoid the throes of hurricane season.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape of the state forever. It also showed Thomas what a community can do when it rallies together.
“Katrina, we won”t ever forget,” she said.
Families poured into Columbus, fleeing from the storm.
The Red Cross staffed a shelter at the old Hughes school on 23rd Street North.
The local cable company ran cable to every classroom. Johnston Tombigbee Furniture Manufacturing put couches in every room. Baptist hospital provided double beds for every room, along with recliners, which could fold into beds. Cowboy Maloney provided a TV for each room.
East Mississippi Community College set up a computer lab, where evacuees could register with FEMA and apply for assistance. Harry Sanders and fellow Lowndes County supervisors provided trucks of gasoline for the evacuees and Red Cross vehicles. The fire department set up portable showers. Doctors and nurses volunteered their time and skills to see and treat those who needed it.
Church and civic groups and individuals donated food and volunteered to cook for the families. Students at Mississippi University for Women and the Boy Scouts volunteered to clean bathrooms. The Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority took van loads of children to the Slip-n-Dip water slide in New Hope.
“It was amazing. Our community just came together, and it was wonderful,” Thomas said.
Community members donated so much clothing, there were separate rooms dedicated to women”s, men”s and children”s clothing. The families were grateful to have them.
“A lot of them came with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” she said. “They thought they were going to get to go back home, but they couldn”t because their home was gone.”
For three months, Columbus opened its arms and schools to up to 320 people who were displaced by Katrina and living at the Hughes shelter.
It”s moments like those and fellow workers, like 25-year volunteer Sharon Jones, who trained Thomas, that she will miss.
But she also is looking forward to spending more time traveling with her husband, Milton, who retired from the recreation authority 10 years ago, and “just being grandma” to her three young grandchildren.
Ken Hargett, a 13-year Red Cross board of directors member, was on the search committee that hired Thomas.
“Becky has been a very, very dedicated (director). We absolutely made the right decision when we hired her,” Hargett said. “She has been such a blessing for the Red Cross.”
Thomas worked long hours, well before and long after the business day.
She was “extremely dedicated and extremely caring about people,” Hargett said. “We were just extremely blessed to have her. We”re going to miss her, and the Red Cross is going to miss her. The people she”s worked with, they”re going to miss her. The people she”s helped, they”re going to miss her.”
The Red Cross hasn”t seen the last of Becky Thomas.
“I will come back as a volunteer,” she said, nodding in resolution. “That”s what I had in mind when I walked into the Red Cross door. I just wanted to volunteer.”
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