Sunday, September 04, 2005

The evacuee diaries

In my first 15 hours volunteering to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, I've already seen a great deal. Some of it has been chronicled in the media; some of it hasn't and probably never will. Here are some of the highlights:

Shift one: 12 a.m. to 10 a.m., 9/3/05:

--I first worked the registration table, where I was part of a group checking in evacuees. Though it wasn't required, the process went a lot more smoothly with an ID. Many of the people I checked in had identification cards instead of driver's licenses, bringing to light their probable dependence on public transportation and effective contingency plans. Several of them voiced to me their anger over resources and warning systems that could have been used in their areas but weren't. They also expressed surprise and extreme gratitude that the Cajundome was stocked with every possible amenity, in refreshing contrast to the heat, hunger and disease of the sewage-laden Superdome.

--In a quiet moment, I walked into the main arena, where the majority of the then-6,000-strong crowd was camped out. Not a sound. I've heard more noise in the Dome when no one is there than with all of these people catching some rest. Having heard all of the stories about looting, violence and (false incidents of) random Lafayette carjacking, I did not expect this scene to ensue at all.

--For more than an hour, a woman who had lost everything except her husband poured out her feelings to me. Most of the things she said reflected what others there had said, that they were at a genuine loss as to how the government could have dropped the ball. They weren't vindictive (or making it a political issue), but they were more than a little angry and upset that FEMA and the National Guard, among many others, failed to address the issue as early as they should have. Her greatest concern was that she had no clue as to the whereabouts of her 25-year-old daughter. It reminded me of earlier that night, when a young man had come up to the registration table asking if we knew of a phone number he could call to recover his father's body, in the likely event that he was dead. The woman asked why there was currently very little attempt to enter the check-in cards into a master database so that people in shelters all over the affected area could do a better job of matching estranged families. I said I had no idea, but hoped it was ongoing.

--In the couple of hours leading up to 8 a.m., a large crew of volunteers set up five long tables for breakfast. Food items included everything from single-serve cereal, apples and oranges (don't even think of comparing them) to McDonald's biscuits and Danish pastries. We also had a disturbingly high ratio of fruit punch to milk, leading one woman to remark, "should we really be giving these kids all this pop?" We also had real Dole orange juice, but at one point I was asked to hide it because there wouldn't be enough for the demand. To the credit of the assembled masses, everyone waited patiently in line until we opened for business. Aside from a few people sneaking coffee at the drink kiosks, the patient line was a far cry from what I would have expected from thousands of people just one barricade away from more food than any had probably seen all month. One smiling man asked me if we had Raisin Bran, which we didn't have in our line. He replied that he was okay with his Corn Flakes, because after spending four days last week with water up to his shoulders and nothing to eat or drink, this was a feast. He said he was "blessed," which was a word I heard a lot that day. I drove away that morning feeling really good, not due to any self-gratification but because even in the worst situations, the good people at the Dome held hope for the future.

Shift two: 11:30 p.m. to 3:45 a.m., 9/3-4/05:

An unsettling sight awaited me before I even walked through the doors of the Cajundome: an ambulance, lights flashing, with a stretcher being pushed in by someone wearing a surgical mask. The guy at the door, with whom I worked on my first shift, didn't recognize me and asked me to present some ID. I got asked twice by the Red Cross if I were over 18 and not a resident of New Orleans--apparently some people were trying to hoodwink the system somehow. In any event, I said how different this had been from the previous night and they said, "Yeah, everything's different." I never did figure out why, because things eventually seemed to be the same as the night before, only with even cuter Red Cross girls.

My duty Sunday morning was to help sort out donations of food, clothing, toys and toiletries. We did this under dim lighting and mostly silence, as to not disturb the hundreds of evacuees camped out in cots in the same room. Aside from the occasional crying baby and a handful of people needing items, the work--and the sleep--continued quietly. At one point I found myself with nothing to do and asked the girl in charge what needed to be done. She said, "find something that isn't on the table and make a box for it." My kind of job exactly, being that I love coming up with organizational systems. What follows is a list I compiled of the most interesting moments of the night:

--Finding a marykateandashley telephone among a box full of hair dryers and baby monitors;

--Leafing through a stack of magazines ranging from Boys' Life to Black Confessions;

--A blood-pressure machine that, to my horror and amusement, went off in the quiet auditorium;

--Finding a syringe, presumably unused, among the donated items;

--I very thickly marked a box, "Toys" before noticing that there already was one, resulting in me changing the box to read, "Not Toys"

--Marveling at the cultural and economic diversity that are boxes of tampons;

--Making the best damn maxi-pad and diaper display ever;

--Hearing a woman on the ever-blaring Fox News say from New Orleans, "Things will never be the same again" as the bulletin, "Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist has died" flashed across the screen;

--On my way out, reading the artwork and signs that Lafayette children had put out in a show of support, including the endlessly ambiguous "I am sorry that you have to live here";

--And finally, after assuring my family that I was not going to bring home typhus or dysentery, I did bring home food poisoning from a bad sandwich. Fortunately, the good people of New New Orleans have a different, better-regulated food source. We'll talk to them again soon.


Michael said...

A friend of mine who does disaster counseling for the Red Cross said the place to look for missing persons starts at the local chapter. If they're at the dome, that should be where they go. Supposedly the information is then fed to the central registry (which now has its own ZIP code, I heard on the news this morning).

But do you know of a place in Lafayette that's handling such requests? I ask, because someone over at dKos mentioned she hadn't heard from a friend of hers in Lafayette and she's understandably worried.

Ian McGibboney said...

Michael, all I know at this point is that the registry is ongoing. I suppsoe the best thing to do would be to call the Red Cross (who is running the show here) and ask for a referral.

I do know that very few, if any at all, have died at the Cajundome or anywhere else. So if someone's in Lafayette, chances are they're all right and taken care of.

rhonda said...

this is so very different from the racially-skewed horror stories that have been plastered all over every channel. thank you for this post...and because i know you in the flesh, i know why you're doing this. you may not want to hear this, but you really are a dear heart.

wobbleboard said...

Hey Ian,

I don't know you in the flesh, but what you're doing is really admirable. Please know that there are millions of us around the country who wish there was something we could do to help. I'm glad you've taken advantage of your unique position.

Murph said...

Hey Ian,
I echo what wobbleboard said. I know you're not doing this to feel good about yourself, but you should feel very good about yourself.

Joseph said...

Good writing Ian, and good work at the Cajundome. I spent some of Saturday there, and you have really caught the atmosphere well. I hoe this encourages more people to volunteer. It will take a long time. I'm looking forward to doing some work there tomorrow. Maybe I'll see you there.