Frontline Initiative: DSPs Responding to Crisis
Working as a DSP During and after Hurricane Katrina
My wife and I have been working as direct support professionals (DSPs) for more than 20 years with Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and we had to get of town quickly. We got everyone we were supporting in vans and left with the clothes on our back. We were on the road for three days to find higher ground. We were lucky to get gas, as most stations were closed. We had to pay for everything out of pocket. It was tough, but we made it to Texas safely where we had hotel rooms reserved.
When my family and I got back to New Orleans, all of our belongings were either gone or destroyed by the storm and the flood. Our apartment was under water and a tree came through the roof. After the flood waters went down, looters came through and took what wasn’t damaged by water. We had to find a new place to live, which was hard because the monthly rent had jumped from around $650 for a three-bedroom apartment to over $2,300. And our wages at the time were under $11 per hour. Eventually we found a house and we’ve been there now for 15 years.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, we had a house full of kids. My wife’s brother passed away, and then my mother-in-law, and all of their children came to our home. My wife and I were raising 11 kids and working as DSPs. One of our daughters needed 24-hour care. It wasn’t easy. Coming home from a 16-hour shift to kids fighting was hard. It was the hardest thing I ever did. But we got through it. We just have three in the house now: a 17-year-old senior, a 19-year-old in college, and a 21-year-old in school taking classes. College is expensive!
These days, after Hurricane Katrina, some things at work are a little better. Our documentation is done on computers and phones which saves a lot of time. And our communication across the agency is better. But if we have flooding and we need to evacuate, we have pay for hotel rooms. The agency used to take care of this in advance. They don’t do that anymore.
Responding to COVID-19
With COVID-19, we have to be really careful. I’m worried about catching the virus and passing it on to the people I support, or them infecting me. And you don’t know who is coming into work after you and whether they follow safety procedures. A lot of people I come into contact with don’t wear masks. I’ve been lucky to not catch it, but three healthy friends caught COVID and died. The virus doesn’t have a face. It can take you.
At my agency, we were considered essential workers and got a pay raise for a few months, which was great. It should have been permanent, but it was not. I got my shots in March and all the people I support have been vaccinated. They were depressed and lonely, wondering when they’d be able to go out again and go back to work. Some people just don’t understand what’s going on with the pandemic and this is really hard. Everybody is different. Now, it’s getting closer to normal.
I work as a DSP because I believe in helping others. I’ve been at this work for 20 years and the pay is still too low, but you gotta do what you gotta do. I love the people I support and we’re like family. Today, my job is supporting people to become as independent as they can be. We go the library and sporting events and do things in the community. One man I support works cleaning up the waterfront, and he earns a paycheck. In this job, you’re always teaching new skills and then stepping back as people learn to do for themselves. In my job, I want to do more teaching, more hands-on. For the managers, I want them to see what we do, get to know the people we support, and understand how they live. What we do is essential.
In this job, you’re always teaching new skills and then stepping back as people learn to do for themselves. In my job, I want to do more teaching, more hands-on. What we do is essential.
Higher Ground (film): The Dedication of Direct Support Professionals During and After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita | This 45-minute documentary film tells the stories of some of the heroic direct support professionals from New Orleans who, despite long hours, low pay, and tremendous stress and trauma, continued to provide support services during and after the storms while often not knowing the fate of their own families. See more of Burnell’s story in this documentary.