Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Louisiana: Week One


I left on September 20th, three weeks after Katrina hit and a few days before Rita. I returned 21 days later on October 10th.

Normally one doesn't join the Red Cross after a disaster. But due to the enormity of Katrina, The Red Cross needed additional volunteers than those already on call. I first contacted the Minneapolis Area Chapter on Tuesday September 13th and left 7 days later following training in Disaster Services, Mass Care and Shelter Operations.

I flew into Baton Rouge, where the Red Cross had a massive Staging area for all disaster relief in the State of Louisiana. The Baton Rouge HQ was housed in an old Wal-mart. After some paperwork and orientation, I was assigned to "Feeding," one component of Mass Care services. The staff at the Feeding workstation signed me up to be a kitchen tech in Covington, but my departure was delayed pending a meeting on Hurricane Rita. They needed to make sure it was safe for us to go there and determine the likelihood I would have to turn around and be evacuated. They eventually decided to send 7 of us from Baton Rouge to Covington.

We then arrived at yet another Red Cross staging area in Covington. This office oversaw all personnel for some 5 kitchens and 12 client (evacuee) shelters in the Covington area. We were assigned to Spirit of America kitchen in nearby Mandeville of St. Tammany Parish. Spirit of America is the Red Cross' largest mobile kitchen, capable of preparing 30,000 meals a day. The Red Cross provides the food through in-kind donations and food purchased with donation money. Members of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Convention staff the kitchen and prepare the meals. The Baptists then return the food to the Red Cross for distribution. This was true of the 3 kitchens I ended up working at during my 21 days.

Spirit of America was in the parking lot of the St. Tammany Center. The Red Cross staff shelter was on the third floor of the Center, in the classrooms of Southeastern Louisiana University. In addition to the kitchen, the parking lot was used as a sort of open-air warehouse with everything from generators, food, water, tent showers, coolers, baby supplies, tarps, etc. I would estimate there were some 200 workers staying in the Spirit shelter. In addition to the Southern Baptists and American Red Cross, there were volunteers from the French, Norwegian and Canadian Red Cross as well.

My first day at Spirit, the Red Cross asked us 7 new folks to help with shelter consolidation. There were several evacuee shelters closing and consolidating into 1 new shelter. Because 3 weeks had passed since Katrina hit, these shelters were running under capacity as people either found temporary housing or were able to return home. Plus the shelter we helped close was in a school that was probably getting ready to reopen. Shelter consolidation can't be easy on the clients. They've already been displaced and had to adapt to new surroundings at least once. While a shelter will never be home, I imagine clients would be attached to some degree to whatever shelter they had been in. They knew the other residents, had their belongings organized and sleeping accommodations set up the way they wanted, only to be moved into a new place where they'd be sleeping next to new people. I know it was hard for me just to switch staff shelters, and I had the benefit of knowing I had a home to go to.

For two days after the shelter consolidation, the kitchens shut down for Rita. The day before Rita, the ERVs took out MREs so clients would have extra food while the kitchens were closed. We were on the outer cusp of Rita, receiving some wind and heavy rain, but otherwise unscathed. Our decontamination tent showers were blown over. I felt safe because the Tammany Center is designed to be an evacuation shelter and had already survived Katrina with no damage. While some people welcomed a break from 12 hour workdays, I was going stir-crazy. I felt like I was taking a break before I had really gotten started.

After Rita, I was assigned to work on ERVs (emergency response vehicle). ERVs are essentially an ambulance modified to work as a mobile feeding line. The ERV coordinator for Spirit would assign ERV crews and routes. ERVs usually had a crew of 3 (driver and two in the back doing feeding). The driver would get on a PA system that could be heard for 3 blocks announcing that the Red Cross was there with hot food and cold water. Meals included beef stew, chicken and dumplins, BBQ beef patties, Chicken patties, Corn beef hash, ravioli, chili, red beans & rice. There would always be a side of veggies, side of fruit and some bread. We would also hand out snacks , drinks and bags of ice. Sometimes we'd have juice or gatorade, which was a welcomed change from water.

After about a week in Mandeville, word came down that the University wanted their building back to resume classes. There were rumors for a few days that we were going to move into a tent on the other side of the parking lot, but that idea was eventually squashed. Not sure if it was because the powers that be decided to close Spirit of America or because of the fire ants in the field where the tent was supposed to go. But either way we packed up and moved to another kitchen in Covington and a staff shelter at a Baptist Church. Spirit of America was supposed to be going into New Orleans while the remaining kitchens would service the Covington/Mandeville/Slidell area.

Next time: Week Two

1 comment:

Lisa said...

What an amazing experience! Sounds just crazy.