Residents of selected areas in New Orleans were allowed back into the city this weekend for the first time since Hurricane Katrina to see their homes, or what was left of them. The Red Cross opened six feeding stations in those areas today, Sunday October 2, to provide supplies, food and water to the returning residents.
Three of us from Public Affairs drove down to the city on Saturday to cover the opening of the feeding stations - Tom our photographer, Jack Papp our team leader, and I. We had heard that the traffic returning to the city was heavy on I-10 out of Baton Rouge so we headed east on I-12 and then cut south on I-55 to pick up I-10 west of Kenner. We then did a repeat of the route that Tom and I had taken a few days earlier - off at the Canal Street exit from I-610 and through the military checkpoint there.
”Is the curfew still in effect?” I asked the National Guardsman at the checkpoint after he had checked my Red Cross credentials and waived us through.
”Yes, the 6:00 p.m. curfew is still in effect,” he said. “But don’t worry about it. You won’t have any trouble,” he added.
Canal was flooded at one point and we had to make a detour up on the embankment to get around it, but otherwise the trip down to the French Quarter was uneventful. When we got to Claiborne Street we started to see traffic lights working and there had been some cleanup of debris and ruined cars. The boat was still sitting in the median north of Claiborne, and the town still had the look of an abandoned movie set after some Japanese monster had gone through.
A place to stay
We are staying at the Quarter House on Chartes Street, just off Canal. It is a B&B, but without the breakfast. Two Red Cross Rapid Response staff are staying here and have invited us to stay with them. This is lucky, since a hotel room is not to be h ad for any money and we were not looking forward to staying in one of the shelters available with no air conditioning, food or water. There is a little traffic in the French Quarter now as people are starting to move back in, but we still have no problem in finding a parking spot right in front.
There are large dumpsters everywhere. The air smells like standing in a landfill. We decide it is garbage, decayed things and mold that we smell. It fills our nostrils and we carry the smell on our clothes. It is hot and very humid, and I feel limp just walking down the street. When Penny lived here she never got used to the humidity, even after a neighbor told her; “This isn’t humid. Just think of it as velvet fingers caressing your body.”
There is no one in the lobby as we brought our bags in from the cars, and the hotel seems deserted although supposedly it is full. The elevator smells like someone had given themselves a home permanent in it. I expect it has been disinfected and that is the chemical odor we smell.
We will be sharing a large suite, with a bedroom, bath, living room and small kitchen. There is power and the air conditioning works. The water is OK to shower in but not to drink, so we have brought several cases of drinking water and some MREs and trail lunches to eat. The living room has two couches with fold-out beds. We talk the guard at the Holiday Inn next door into letting us park our cars in their garage, and also to letting we “borrow” some extra towels. In our wandering around the hotel we find the chambermaids’ linen closet and pick up enough sheets for the beds. It is just like camping out, except with air conditioning.
Red beans and rice
Bourbon Street is full of people and a number of bars and restaurants are open. There are a few places with live music going. Most of the revelers are emergency workers here on the recovery effort. I see T-shirts from fire departments and police departments from all around the country. If the curfew is at 6:00 p.m. no one seems to follow it, even though several humvees with troops are circulating.
We find a restaurant that is open and, after a short wait, are seated. Desiree oyster house has a Cajun buffet with red beans and rice, blackened catfish, gumbo, and pecan pie. They are using paper plates and utensils, and drinks served in plastic cups, and the meal is $23.00 but it is good and filling. We spot several media crews from the networks.
Jack and Tom head down Bourbon to enjoy the sights and take pictures, and the rest of us head back to the B&B. We lay out our plan for tomorrow to cover the six feeding sites and turn in. It is a late night after a long day.
Red Cross distribution sites
Areas of the city open to residents is being done on the basis of zip codes. In each of the six zip code areas the Red Cross has picked a site where a distribution station will be set up starting Sunday and continuing daily for several weeks. The crew of 20 Red Cross volunteers at each site distributes drinking water, food, cleaning supplies, plastic bags and buckets, face masks, diapers and baby formula from 8 large box trucks. There is a crew of nurses and mental health councilors at each site to help people as well.
Each site opens at 10:00 a.m., and the people in the neighborhood start arriving soon after. They are allowed to take whatever they need, and the Red Cross volunteers help them carry the items to their cars. It is good to see so many smiling, grateful faces, but it is sad to know that each of them has a tough road ahead of them to bring their lives back into some sort of normalcy.
Every person there has a story. This is the first time for most of them that they have been able to return to their homes, and many of them are in shock over what they have found. Homes have been flooded, windows and roofs destroyed, and everywhere there is mildew and mold from the water that covered the homes and their contents.
”My refrigerator was full of rotten, spoiled food and I’ll never be able to get it clean to use again,” one lady told me. “But the waiting list for a new one is more than a month. What am I going to do?”
The Public Affairs staff is assigned to different distribution sites to help answer the questions that people have and also to handle any media that show up. Channel 26, the local ABC affiliate shows up at one site, and NBC is at another, but media attention is very low. Later we look at the ABC story on the evening news and it is very fair.
People want to know where the emergency financial assistance is available and we have developed a list of places in the areas to tell people about. I am able to locate a nurse from the California Association of Nurses who is working with local hospitals and clinics to offer free tetanus shots, and we pass this information along as well. The Red Cross nurses at the distribution sites pass out literature warning of the dangers of black mold, tetanus, and the other hazards that working in the damaged houses presents.
The distribution was to have continued until 3:00 p.m., but by 2:00 p.m. the trucks were completely empty. Everything had been given out. We tell people that the sites will be here every day, and when they need more supplies to come by. The clean up effort will be long and hard, and it is gratifying to know that we are helping in this small way.
New England faces
At the Red Cross distribution site I met members of Easy Company of the New Hampshire National Guard from Concord, NH. Lt. Joshua Pierce and Sgt First Class Kevin Dugrenier told me about their deployment to Louisiana as part of the Katrina relief effort. They have just arrived, and are already feeling the effects of the heat and humidity here in New Orleans. They are providing security for the distribution site, but thankfully there are no incidents and everything runs smoothly.
I have run into two of the Portland Red Cross volunteers in the last couple of days. John Eder was at a client financial assistance center in Baton Rouge that opened on Thursday. He was there distributing funds to people who were victims of Hurricane Katrina and was part of the Red Cross effort that has given more than $34 million to nearly 47,000 families in Louisiana alone.
We went over to Bourbon Street to find a place to eat supper. On a side street we came across a restaurant where the owner was out on the sidewalk with a huge tureen of red beans and rice. He was handing out bowls of it for free, and we stopped and had some. Later we stopped at the Five O’clock Grill for a beef brisket sandwich and a beer. A group of familiar faces came in and sat down near us. John Lyons from Portland and some of the crew from the Slidell shelter were there on their day off, and John was able to bring me up to speed on the changes at the shelter since I’d last been there.
On the way back from the distribution site I stopped by Arden Stitzell’s place in the French Quarter. I called her, and she suggested I ring the doorbell. Her landlord answered and let me in. I gave him my phone to talk with Arden and he told her how her place had survived the hurricane. She is planning on returning on Friday and resuming her life here. I brought in a case of water and some MRE’s so she’ll have something when she gets here.
Tomorrow (Monday) I will work at one of the distribution sites till about noon, then will visit with the principal of the Jefferson Elementary School about pairing them with Sebago Elementary. Then I am off to Slidell to pick up Raggs and back to Baton Rouge to pack my bags for my flight back on Tuesday.
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree