My Red Cross assignment with Public Affairs involves traveling around to track down stories that will help spread the word about the response to Hurricane Katrina. For the last three days I have been out in the field chasing stories and also seeing the damage done by Hurricane Katrina first hand and close-up. The destruction is much more vivid and impressive than anything you see in the papers and on television.
I’ve traveled to towns that were hit by Katrina north of Lake Pontchartrain, and to others south of New Orleans in the Mississippi delta. Heading east on routes 12 and 190 I started seeing uprooted trees and snapped trunks just west of Covington. As I drove further east toward the Mississippi state line the damage became more widespread.
Hurricane winds had come through these areas and torn up the countryside. Trees were cut into sections to clear the roads and logs and limbs were piled along either side of the road on Route 190 coming into Covington. Huge live oaks and pines were snapped like twigs and filled nearly every yard. Everywhere roofs were stripped of metal roofing and shingles. Billboards and business signs were twisted and destroyed. Power lines were on the ground and light poles were broken off.
I didn’t see much damage to buildings in old town Covington but there were trees and power lines down everywhere. We visited a Red Cross shelter in Covington, a feeding station, and the headquarters. Armed National Guard troops in camouflage guarded the front doors and checked identification for everyone entering. There is a long list of prohibited items that cannot be brought into shelters, including knives and firearms, to help maintain the safety of the shelter guests.
Debris removal is now a big business in this area, and high-sided trucks and trailers are everywhere hauling limbs and twisted metal roofing to the dump. Power has been pretty much restored to Covington, but there are still places where shops and restaurants are dark. The Wendy’s restaurant was offering only take-out window service on reduced hours. The Burger King sign now says “Burger” but they are open with a limited menu, as is KFC. Most places take cash or checks, but universally don’t take credit cards because all the phone lines are not yet in service.
Hurricane damage is worse heading east
Driving further east to a massive Red Cross feeding station at Mandeville, the evidence of storm damage increased. The Red Cross has partnered with the Southern Baptist National Convention and teams of Red Cross workers from France and Norway to feed more than 15,000 meals each day out of mobile Red Cross ERVs. Workers toiled under the hot Louisiana sun to unload boxes from trucks and pallets of water and supplies were stacked everywhere. Starting at 4:00 a.m. every morning cooks from the Southern Baptist Convention prepare meals in the “Spirit of America”, a huge Red Cross semi-trailer kitchen. The hot meals are then loaded into a waiting line of ERVs who will fan out all over the area delivering meals to neighborhoods, organizations, and individuals affected by the storm.
The hurricane damage is even worse in Slidell in St. Tammany Parish, on the Louisiana/ Mississippi line and just north of Lake Pontchartrain. Driving down the streets in town is like driving through a tunnel. Piles of debris, trees and branches, ruined furniture and household goods, and thousands of plastic bags are piled in front of every house. Storm damage is everywhere. The closer to the lake you go, the worse the destruction is. Boats are miles from the lake where they have been lifted and deposited by the storm. Dead fish and tree branches are everywhere. All along one road south of route 12 at the Slidell mall there is an entire row of fiberglass light poles broken and lying on the ground where the storm has left them.
I met with Red Cross volunteers working at a shelter in Slidell, including John Lyons who shipped out from Portland with me. He is working with some of the 350 evacuees who are staying at the shelter. It is a tremendously rewarding job that he is doing, but also very exhausting. I envy him for his courage, and wonder if I would be up to doing the same type of work.
Sugar Cane and Bayous
I met with German and Canadian Red Cross workers at American Red Cross disaster offices in the Houma area. Houma is in the Mississippi Delta southwest of New Orleans, and is a pretty little town amid the fields and bayous. Sugar cane harvesting was just beginning, and life appeared quite normal. However, the area south of New Orleans in LaFourche Parish was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and there are three large shelters in Houma housing survivors.
David Littlefield from Sebago is stationed in Houma, assigned to the feeding operation there. He has only just arrived there, but as he gets further along in his work I’ll let you know how he is doing.
And on a personal note
My son Jim, who lives in Florida and who experienced two hurricanes first hand last year, is my eyes on developing Hurricane Rita. He has been calling me several times a day, and is not real pleased that we are here. Jim told me that if Rita decides to head for Louisiana he wants me to get out of here. I assure him that the storm is going to Texas, and we’ll only get heavy rains here. Besides, I just learned this morning that the Baton Rouge airport is currently closed, so I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. When my tour is up in a couple of weeks I’ll be able to go home to a house and family, but the folks hit hardest here have nothing to go home to. How could I leave?
Speaking of home, yesterday (September 21, 2005) was our 25th wedding anniversary. I am very grateful to Penny for being so understanding and letting me be on this assignment so far from home on this special day. I have promised to make it up to her when I get home, and we are planning a second honeymoon to Cape Breton for the Celtic Colours Music Festival.
I need to get going for some other stories. Tom Jacobson, the PA photographer that I work with is motioning that I need to get my gear and move out. More tomorrow.
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree