And there was a family I became particularly fond of: the Nolands from St. Bernard Parish. Leeane, the mom, was only 6 years younger than me. She chain smoked as she told me stories about her sons and her parents (who were also there at the shelter). The family had created their own home in a corner of the shelter. They had squared off the corner with beds and a long table, and all the possessions they had left in this world were in that corner: boxes with piles of clothing and other essentials in them, 3 or 4 suitcases, some linens and kitchen items. Leeanes mom, Suzanne, had lost her oldest daughter (and Leeanes sister) to breast cancer a few years earlier. Her eyes were still haunted with that experience and she didnt talk much, but I loved it when I could make her smile. Leeane and her mom and dad had survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965, but said Betsy was a baby compared to Katrina. Leeane had to leave 3 dogs behind. One was so old she had no hope she would survive the storm, but she did have hope for the other 2.
The Nolands had just gotten finished remodeling their house when Katrina burst in. They had put in all new floors, painted and wallpapered. Leeane loved the results and said “Now my home looks just the way Ive always wanted it to.” They were content to live there forever. St. Bernard was their only home and the only home they wanted. Really, it was their world. They were determined to go back and rebuild, no matter what it took-even if it took years. If anyone could have held onto that hope after seeing the total destruction that Katrina wrought in St. Bernard Parish, it would be the Noland family. Leeane was strong-hard-headed, as she put it-and there wasnt much that could destroy that spirit, but I was concerned that if she went back to see where her home used to be (which she would do if it were possible) when they started letting people into St. Bernard, it would be a crushing blow. The area was designated a hot spot meaning it was toxic and uninhabitable.
The Nolands, along with a lot of other people in the shelter, had left NOLA a day or 2 before the storm hit, packing into their cars with whatever and whoever would fit, thinking theyd be back home in 2-3 days. None of them was prepared for what happened next. Many came with their whole families and so knew that their loved ones were safe and well. Sometimes members of the same family got to the same shelter at different times. But many left loved ones behind in the city because they were stubborn and refused to leave, or because they were ill or elderly or disabled and could not leave. Most of them found out later that those loved ones had died. A few families had been split up and were at different shelter or in different states. But for those there was usually a way to connect and most were satisfied that their families were ok. I heard only one story of someone being separated from a child-but of course even one is too many.
Most of the residents were very grateful for the support they were getting and overwhelmed by the generosity of the volunteers, relief organizations, communities, and fellow evacuees. I repeatedly heard that their priorities had changed and they realized that material things were nice but not as essential as they had thought they were before they lost them. What was missed the most were things that contained memory-especially photographs or a family table that had marked special occasions for generations. Houses could be rebuilt, photos and heirlooms could not.
The vast majority of shelter residents in Erwinville were black (as were the vast majority of NOLA residents). There was racism (classism?)evident in some of the shelter residentsboth black and white–who blamed the problems at the beginning of the disaster (looting, shooting, etc.) on blacks and even expressed the hope that NOLA would be better now that they had lost their run-down and dangerous neighborhoods.
There was a significant military and police presence in Baton Rouge, and they were at the shelter, too. The military there were very polite but didnt interact much with the residents. They basically sat at a table inside the front door of the shelter and talked to each other.
The shelter residents were by no means all poor or unskilled as some might assume from looking at them and sensing their neediness. They were engineers and teachers, musicians and former military, nurses and business people, carpenters and janitors, as well some who had been unemployed-a wide range of occupations, education levels, income, and social positions.
I did quite a bit of counseling at the staff shelter as well. Tonio did DA (Damage Assessment) in the New Orleans area and it really got to him on an emotional level. He talked to me for a long time on a couple of occasions. The children wandering around, hungry and clothed in rags or their underwear, without parental supervision in unsafe areas upset him terribly. He wished he had clothing to give them. He cried as he told me about them. He would get out of his truck (which was expressly prohibited since the air and water in the city was contaminated) and hug them. I helped him realize that he could help them but not save them. We became good friends and he told everyone I was his personal counselor.
One day at Erwinville, just as we were arriving, 2 women were in the parking lot looking disappointed and closing up the hatch of their car. They told us they brought clothing to the shelter but it wasnt needed there and they didnt know what to do with it. Most of it, they said was childrens clothing. I said I know what to do with it and told them about Tonio and what hed been seeing in New Orleans. She gave me a laundry basket full of childrens clothes, along with a few adult things. Later at home I gave it to Tonio and he got teary.
Anne and Kathy decided they wanted to go to another shelter every other day because wed done such a good job at Erwinville that we werent needed there every day. Thats when Margaret sent us to Iberville, about 12 miles south of Baton Rouge.
As we drove down to Iberville we got lost, as usual! The shelter was in a community center, like the one in Erwinville (wed figured out at this point that we were only going to be sent to places that ended in ville). But this place was bigger. It was also organized to the point of seeming obsessively so. Clothing was laid out on the bleachers that were upstairs on one side of the large main room where cots were set up, and organized according to gender, type, and size. The area was chained off so that people needed to be admitted by one of the Dow volunteers who were in charge. There were announcements over the loudspeaker about events in the shelter (various support groups, after-school homework help, etc.). It felt regimented to us and when we met the ARC mental health worker Mike and the others in charge, we were troubled. Mike looked at us and said You look so fresh! How long have you been here? When we told him this was Day 6, he looked puzzled and said that it was his 6th day as well. He looked exhausted and manic. He hadnt slept more than a few hours a night and was clearly not taking care of himself. And neither were the others. They talked about the shelter residents as though they belonged to them, and boundaries were blurred. They took pictures of them, which we were expressly forbidden to do, and talked about emailing them. Mike had adopted” 2 shelter families. They were rescuers. Control was the operative word and we saw it everywhere. It was a hierarchical operation and volunteers would wait around doing nothing until told what to do by Mike or another of the 3 or 4 staff who were in charge.
There was a sort of revival going on. We were told it was intended to lift everyones spirits because the shelter was closing on Saturday and the residents would be moved again. But it felt bizarre to me, especially when the preacher looked over at me, pointed his finger, and yelled Sing! Sing! Of course, I didnt, but many were singing and clapping. I thought This is a cult and wanted to get out of there. We did some work. I helped a large family shop in the clothing area and that gave me a good way to talk to them about how they were doing. Sally, one of the women in the family, had invited all her relatives to come to her home before Katrina hit. She ended up with 27 people living in her house because those she invited invited their friends. She was extremely stressed and tired, so I spent a lot of time talking with her. But by about 3pm wed all had enough and decided to leave and decided to tell Margaret we didnt want to go back.
Margaret called and said she wanted us to come to HQ between 8:30-9am the following morning, and that she was probably going to split our team in two and add newcomers to each group. We needed Dons Bloody Marys that night.
The next morning we were miraculously on time because we didnt get lost and the traffic was relatively light. Margaret said we were all going to New Orleans, but to 2 different sections: one team to Harvey and one to Hahnville (that ville again!). We were to follow the ERVs (the vehicles that volunteers made food in and distributed it on the streets and at community centers) and to talk to people at the kitchens. As it happened, as soon as we got to NOLA, the ERV assignments were dropped in favor of people going to St. Bernard, which had been devastated and was now beginning to allow people to come back and look at their homes (or former homes). I thought a lot about the Noland family while that was happening.
So, the teams became Joan, Kathy, and Anne, and me, Becky, and Ted. I was so upset I started crying. The level of my distress surprised me, but we were all upset. We were a TEA, or an EAM-not a TEAM anymore. I took Margaret outside to have a cigarette and asked whether it wouldnt make more sense to put 2 experienced people with each newcomer. She was friendly and nice, but said no it wouldnt because Becky and Ted would feel more comfortable if they stayed together-and that was that.
…To be continued