Frustration in New Orleans
Chico State students caught up in the red tape of disaster relief
As five of us Chico State University students prepared on Sept. 4 to head to Louisiana with the Red Cross, our trainer, Keith, told us to remember the five key commitments:
To the customer. Check.
To the culture and the people. Check
To yourself. Check.
To the task; use good judgment. Check.
To the organization; stick up for the Red Cross.
Well, four out of five isn’t bad.
Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina had swamped the south, we—Shane, Erik, Kyle, Leah and I—had visions of rescuing people from flooded houses and delivering food the hungry in New Orleans.
Instead, we got the considerably less glamorous job of working “Mass Care” in a shelter, which is defined in the Red Cross workbook: “To take care of the eating and sleeping needs of the people affected by disaster on an interim basis while they are making other arrangements.”
After our first plane ticket was cancelled at the last minute and a second made good, we finally arrived in Jackson, Miss.
No problem. As Keith had told us during our training, “You have to be flexible.”
From Jackson, we rented a car without gas, waited in line for 40 minutes to get more gas, drove the couple of hours to Baton Rouge, La., and arrived at the Red Cross headquarters. There we were given directions to the Baker Municipal building in Franklin, La.
After a three-hour drive through the Louisiana swamps to Franklin, we learned that the Baker Municipal building is, as it should be, in Baker, La., about 15 minutes north of Baton Rouge. We drove back.
The Red Cross was overwhelmed: From the three days of paperwork, to the headquarters’ chaos, wrong directions, lack of directions, shortage of supplies, warehouses filled with blankets, towels, sheets, food, water and yet every day scrambling to have enough in the shelters.
My first night I was not allowed to sleep because I’d been assigned the midnight shift with long-haired Tom, the night supervisor.
“You have to walk around all night,” Tom told me.
I spoke with the on-duty police officer and the two social services workers who stayed up every night.
Deidre, one of the social workers, asked, “Why? We are up all night, everyone knows where we are, and if we need your help, we will come get you.”
I pulled Tom into the office and told him I didn’t mind staying up all night, but it wasn’t right to walk around people’s beds while they were sleeping and point flashlights at them.
“It’s creepy, Tom,” I said.
Tom got upset and told me with some authority in his voice, “You will walk around and you will not fall asleep.”
I told him I was a volunteer and asked what he was going to do about it.
His face turned red. “I will complain bitterly,” he said.
So I stayed up all night, walked the floor every hour or so, ready to voice my opinion in the morning to the shelter manager.
During one night, the police officer came and got me. “Come quick, Tom’s asleep right now,” he said.
I took a photo of Tom sleeping, and stood in front of him until he awoke. It was never really about sleeping, but rather the level of care you provided to a person.
Edna, our shelter manager, ran the show. Once she asked us to move a family’s cots from one side of the room to another to make more space. Normally we would do this, but only if the family were there.
“You don’t need to ask,” Edna commanded. “Just move them—that’s the way we do it.”
We refused and told her she’d have to move them herself if she wanted it done. I told her we were trying to make a home here, and it may only be a few cots and a couple of Tupperware bins, but it was all they had.
The Red Cross policy is great for short-term sheltering needs; you can run it like a prison and people will be in a real hurry to get out. But we knew they were in it for the long haul and the shelter needed to be more like a summer camp than a prison. Prisons rotate cots and move personal belongings to keep people from getting too comfortable. Summer camps don’t.
One day Edna declared, “This isn’t right. The Red Cross is supposed to put us up in a nice hotel, but there are no hotels anywhere.”
The management slept in the office of Baker’s mayor, but Edna was still upset. I told her that we were fine sleeping in the shelter; that, in fact, we preferred it.
“You can’t do that,” Edna replied. “It’s not allowed.”
We didn’t want the Red Cross to spend more donation money on hotel rooms when we actually enjoyed sleeping in the shelter. Edna eventually got a small room in the firehouse next door for us to sleep in, but none of us wanted to go.
We tried to explain that if we had extra room, we’d rather find one of the larger families and let them have the privacy.
She got upset and flustered. “This is not the way the Red Cross does it,” she said. “You can’t work 24 hours a day.”
I tried to get in a philosophical debate about the nature of care using Mother Theresa, Che Guevara, Ghandi and even Clara Barton as my sources. It didn’t go over too well.
All Edna could say was that it wasn’t the way the Red Cross did things, but as Leah said once to Edna, “It doesn’t matter if I work a shift, I’m going to be here anyways … I don’t have anywhere else I want to be … this is what I came down here to do.”
We realized when we arrived that the Red Cross spent a lot of money—donation money—to send us down to New Orleans to help, so we had to do everything possible to see that the money was well spent.
More than anything, we desperately needed blankets. They kept the shelter’s air-conditioning at a frigid temperature to keep disease from spreading. At night I had to wear a jacket.
People come and go in the shelters. Sometimes because they’ve located a loved one somewhere and bought a bus ticket to meet up with them. When they left, they had to leave their blankets behind. We put the dirty ones in garbage bags and local volunteers would pick them up, take them home, wash them and return them to us. It worked great, but the Health Department came down and told us the blankets had to be commercially washed to prevent disease.
We should have been able to locate a commercial washer, but no, apparently it was easier to just throw the blankets away, which we refused to do.
Bill, a soft spoken Cajun in suspenders and a city of Baker employee, was told to take more than 15 garbage bags of blankets to the dumpster.
“It seems like a huge waste to throw these away,” he said to me.
I agreed and told him that we all refused to do it.
We brought out cameras to take pictures and document the blankets getting thrown away. Bill came back and said, “I couldn’t do it, so I piled them next to the Dumpster.”
I told our shelter manager to forget the policies, and that we would find money to have them washed, even pay for it ourselves if we had to. But Edna said there was nothing she could do.
In time, of course, we ran out of blankets. People got cold in the night, and when we did get more blankets, they were thin, gray, wool ones. We threw away nice blankets, blankets folks pulled from their own beds, quilts and comforters that were comfortable and warm, only to replace them with prison-issue wool ones. Red Cross policy.
While we sat through the agonizing process of filling out forms for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (over and over), or searching for lost loved ones on the Web—mothers, grandparents and children scattered by the hurricane winds—we would hear stories of survival.
There was Ed, who used garbage bags filled with air to float through the flooded streets to safety, watching the murky cars that sat silently beneath him.
Darrel, a prison inmate paroled, but left with no money, no food and no direction, found himself in a shelter, alone, working the computer all night trying to locate his mother and family displaced by the flood.
And Johnny, who stayed behind and as the water flooded his house, moved into the attic then broke through the roof as the water continued to rise. He stayed on that roof for two days waiting for rescue. When a helicopter finally came, it picked him up and dropped him off at the Superdome, where 30,000 others waited and watched as the world inside the stadium went mad. He wouldn’t really talk about that experience, saying only that it smelled really bad.
One night, Annie and Ernestine, a couple of the older ladies who slept in the corner of the shelter, were singing softly to themselves and holding a private religious service. When they were done, I walked over and told them I would love to be included next time.
“We should get everyone involved,” Annie said. “There is a lot of talent in this shelter, and a lot of people might enjoy it.”
From that came the idea of a talent show to help improve shelter morale. I told our manager, but she balked, saying nobody there had any talent. But I’d heard we had a young boy who was a classically trained pianist, and I knew we had some great gospel singers.
We announced the talent show would be held the following night with Annie leading a small prayer followed by some gospel music.
We drove down Groom Road looking for a music shop where we could rent a piano and a couple of guitars. When we pulled into the Baker Music Store we learned an officer Williams had already borrowed a keyboard, amp and microphone.
The music began early with officer Williams, now Brother Williams, singing and preaching gospel music. He brought the crowd to tears as he sang louder and louder, emotion pouring forth, and he commanded the crowd, “If you feel it, hug three people and tell them you love them!”
I lost count of how many people I hugged. People wept, smiled and clapped as Brother Williams sang, “I feel the rain … oh, I feel the rain, let it rain. I could have been dead and gone, but you spared my life.”
The talent show was filled with music; kids danced and sang “God Bless America.” Two boys did a little rap-and-dance routine and I played guitar and sang “The Weight” by The Band. The shining moment came when Chad, the paramedic on duty, walked out in a stained wedding dress flanked by Shane and Erik wearing leisure suits (all donated to the shelter) to lip-synch Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
As Chad strolled the floor, walking between the hundreds of cots, the shelter residents were up, laughing, clapping and whistling. Chad is from Mt. Shasta, and had left on less than a day’s notice to come and offer his help, treating people 24 hours a day at the Astrodome triage.
For a break he went to Baker to help some more. Chad, it seems, is the shining example of how the treatment and care should have been provided. And besides that, who the hell donates a stained wedding dress to a hurricane relief effort?
The talent show ended with all the Red Cross helpers (minus the management) singing Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” with Brother Williams on the keyboard. Afterward, shelter residents came up to us said the show was their first bit of laughter since the hurricane had hit, and I knew, regardless of Red Cross policy, that we did a good thing.
We’d spent only two weeks with these people, but amid the crying goodbyes and flashing of photos, I felt like I’d known them all my life. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that care for individuals should always come before policy procedure. People were helping, people keep helping, and the Gulf states will need much more. I urge everyone to keep donating, keep helping, get involved and do what you can do.