Following Hurricane Katrina evacuees out of New Orleans
By David Enders / MotherJones.com
COVINGTON, LA — Around 60 Hurricane Katrina refugees are staying in the cafeteria of Pine View Middle School. Covington has suffered heavy wind damage from the storm but not as much flooding as other areas. Since September 2, members of Veterans for Peace, an anti-war group that had been on its way to Washington, DC, for protests later this month, have been delivering donated relief supplies to the area.
"We left Camp Casey and Cindy Sheehan with thousands of pounds of food that was donated there and we got here and handed it out within hours. That's our mission, to open up a functional supply line to southern Louisiana," said Dennis Kyne, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. "We're not counting on the government to take care of us anymore, they've already proven they won't."
The Red Cross, which is officially in charge of the shelter in Covington, is supplying basic medical care and shelter, while volunteers are helping to cook and provide additional supplies.
"When we first showed up they were without power and they had some medical needs," said Gordon Soderbergh, who served in Lebanon and in Iraq in 1991. "We have power generation and we hooked them up. They have a small child here that has cystic fibrosis and requires physical therapy with a small chest bag that pounds his chest and loosens him up and he has a ventilator. We fed them a hot meal, they had until then been eating MREs or cold food."
Soderbergh said the group was invited by local police to stay at the middle school, but that initially there was some friction between Veterans for Peace and officials from the Red Cross, FEMA and Homeland Security at the regional level because of the group’s anti-war advocacy.
"They tried to get us out of here, but the volunteers from the Red Cross said 'if you kick the veterans out, we're leaving too," Soderbergh said. "That stopped it pretty quick." The regional directors have since returned to check on the site.
"They've been here several times in the past few days and acknowledged our value and thanked us for our service," Soderbergh said.
Red Cross volunteers at the shelter said that the volunteers from Veterans for Peace have been invaluable because they are not bound by the same restrictions as the relief agency, and some of the volunteers have even brought supplies for the veterans to hand out.
"These people didn't have any baby diapers," said Joanne Tandler, a Red Cross volunteer from New York.
Tina Levi, an evacuee from Slidell, about fifteen miles east of Covington, stops to talk for a minute. Her trailer is totaled, she says, and she has no insurance. Her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend evacuated with her, and although they went $10,000 into credit card debt the week before the storm "she bought a brand new TV to watch football this season," Tina says her daughter's credit was still good enough to make the down payment on a car and replace the one destroyed by the storm, and that even though everyone at the shelter has been helpful — people with cars have been helping to ferry around people who lost theirs — she's now ready to move somewhere else.
Military convoys roll through Covington and across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway to New Orleans, where the Army and National Guard are slowly taking back the city street by street. The liberation comes, perhaps, a little late and is a touch haphazard. In the lower Ninth Ward, where the water has gone down a couple feet in the last few days, we find Lloyd, an old man standing on the second floor of an apartment building from which some of the stairs have been washed or blown away. Wearing a bathrobe and flip-flops, he looks disoriented and answers questions slowly. He says he wants to leave. We inform some guard soldiers at a checkpoint nearby who say they will evacuate him.
Down the street, a Rottweiler sits obediently on the front porch of a home surrounded by three or four feet of water, waiting for someone to come back.
On Interstate 10, people with their belongings, strapped to the tops of their vehicles, travel west to Baton Rouge and beyond. As far as Houston, gas stations are only taking cash because of the "increased number of drive-offs" in recent days. The dead leaves on the trees along the roadside—some with broken branches, some entirely felled—give the impression of an early fall. The radio reports on tragedies only now coming to light, including: a sheriff who abandoned all the prisoners in his jail; a water purification system donated by the Swedish government that remains on an airplane in Sweden, pending approval from the US government; a story about a Baton Rouge gun shop that has recently been selling more than 1,000 firearms a day to aid workers, law enforcement officials, and citizens worried about looting. "It's better than Christmas," the owner says.
The digitals signs along the highway, rather than providing traffic information, display the FEMA hotline number and messages such as DEBIT CARDS NOT AVAILABLE AT ASTRODOME.
Next door to the Astrodome, at the Reliant Center, evacuees mill about on the suburban sidewalks and manicured median strips that are normally empty when there's not an event going on. Under the most extreme circumstances, people are being moved from shabby public works projects to gleaming buildings constructed with public money.
Ed Sears, 58, was one of the first evacuees to arrive at the Astrodome after he was airlifted from Highway 10 in New Orleans. He said he and his neighbors had crammed 10 to 15 people into single-family apartments on the second floor of a public housing project in that occupied the highest ground in his neighborhood.
Sears has a $360 debit card and says he will go back to Baton Rouge and look for a job there while waiting to return to New Orleans, where he hopes he can pick up work on some sort of cleanup effort. He says he went to buy a T-shirt, but the card hadn't been activated yet.
"This don't belong to me," he says. "When they say go, I got to roll."
David Enders is a regular contributor to Mother Jones. His first book, Baghdad Bulletin, is available from University of Michigan Press.
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