On Thursday we relocated to the River Center (the Baton Rouge arena & convention center) where the Red Cross had been sheltering upwards of 6000 evacuees. When we arrived they had evacuated some of those folks to other shelters in other cities, but we still had new folks coming in as they were rescued from their homes. Some of these people were rescued after spending quite a bit of time in the contaminated water, so there was a high level of concern about disease - containers of hand sanitzer were stationed near every door, as well as signs reminding volunteer staff and residents to frequently wash our hands. The floors of the arena and convention center were each about the size of a football field. They resembled the grounds of a camping festival drawing near to its conclusion - cots, people, tents, blankets and random belongings sprawled in every direction. Those who could not get a cot were lined up against the walls trying to make themselves comfortable. With the much larger numbers and some troublemakers in the crowd, it was clearly much more of a challenge to organize the effort. The military security would send away people who started fights or smuggled drugs into the facility, but then some of those folks would just show up at the registration desk as a "new arrival." Unless one of the guards on shift happened to recognize a troublemaker, there was no way for us to know that we should turn anyone away since a new arrival would not be expected to have the required wristband to re-enter the facility. We registered all of the new arrivals on paper, rather than into a computer database. I was told that the information would be entered into a master database "sometime." There was a check-out sheet on the table, but no way to ensure that the people who were leaving the shelter actually let us know that they were leaving or where they were going. There was a shortage of available cots, and those waiting for a bed had to wait until "lights out" to find out if they would even get a cot (that was the only way they could tell if some of the residents had vacated the premises and freed up cot space). There was also a great deal of misinformation circulating about FEMA and the $2000 debit cards, as well as the relief available for evacuees who needed help but were not staying at the shelter. No one could tell me where the phone center (free phone service available to shelter residents) was located, even though it turned out to be only a few yards behind the registration table where I was working. There was a shortage of volunteers at this location, so there were no "runners" available to get help when a question arose, and quite frankly there was no one to whom the question could officially be directed. . River Center photo by Travis Spradling for the Advocate.
The Red Cross volunteers were operating under the guidance of the third director in only 7 or 8 days - the first resigned almost immediately and the second I believe was only an intermim director. Not surprisingly, this contributed to some of the confusion. Keep in mind that there are very few paid staffers (in fact, I was never able to find one while we were at the River Center), almost all of the Red Cross workers are truly VOLUNTEERS (in some cases, untrained like Shana and myself). As I attempted track down someone in charge to get answers for the military and for the shelter residents, I was told that "you should have been here five days ago - it was MUCH worse then!" HOWEVER - as one of the lead volunteers pointed out, "We are providing shelter, food and clothing - that is the mission of the Red Cross." Technically, the mission is as follows: "The American Red Cross, a humanitarian organization led by volunteers, guided by its Congressional Charter and the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross Movement, will provide relief to victims of disasters and help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies." Regardless of any criticism I and others may have, there can be no doubt that ultimately the Red Cross volunteers have risen to the occasion and are helping folks who have nowhere else to turn. Volunteer photo by Lea Kuhlmann.
At this point it sounds like things are settling
into a more organized routine at the River Center:
Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the Red Cross has housed more than 207,000 survivors providing nearly 1.94 million overnight stays in 709 shelters across 24 states and the District of Columbia. The money you have donated or helped raise for the Red Cross is used to purchase medical supplies, food and water, clothing and so on when these things have not been donated or when donated supplies are exhausted. All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of this disaster and thousands of other disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to those in need. Call 1-800-HELP NOW or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.