Monday, September 05, 2005

Brendan Greeley in Lake Providence, LA

Shelter Sign

Brendan Greeley reports from Lake Providence, LA, three hours north of New Orleans:

It's easier to take in families than groups, for the same reason that families tend to work better than groups; they're easier to organize. They're easier to trust. They police themselves a bit. The people who've arrived in Lake Providence, a small town across the river and up a bit from Vicksburg, tend to be families with cars who, on their way to other places, stopped here out of exhaustion. Several people I talked to said they followed a rumor they heard at a rest stop that there was a shelter in a town up highway 65. But that was the first wave; coming to Texas and Arkansas and Northern Louisiana now are busloads of people from the Superdome and the New Orleans convention center. They are angry, they are hungry, they may have been abused and they may have been the abusers, and they are terrifying for a small town to take on. The Red Cross center at the civic center in Monroe, a mid-sized city on the Ouachita river a hundred miles to the west, is full and taking no more refugees. Here in Lake Providence we hear rumors that there are stabbings and rapes at the Monroe shelter; they aren't true, but the point is that families -- the ones that move in cars and can help take care of themselves -- aren't scary. But the shock of an undifferentiated mass of new and helpless people, that's scary. And unprecedented, at least in America. Lake Providence first took in evacuees after Hurricane Ivan in 2004; Providence Church opened its doors and, as pastor Don Boyett tells it "All of the sudden it looked like the end of 'Field of Dreams' out there." But after Ivan everyone went home and now, of course, they can't. Refugees can be a novelty; everyone likes to help, and local farmers have been throwing a cookout every night at the Lake Providence shelter. But evacuees will need to be fed every night for a long time now, which is a fundamentally different challenge than bringing in casseroles for a week. Small shelters cannot offer some things that the larger ones can; they can’t forward mail, or process public assistance checks. But they can offer direct local contact to real people with homes, which can be a lot more effective. Ann Fautheree, who’s counseling evacuees, pointed out today that the best thing you can have is a personal advocate, someone who can call around for you, and this you can’t get at a large shelter like at the Monroe Civic Center. And you can already hear some resignation in Don Boyett's voice when he says "Some of these people, I'm trying to push them on to Monroe. But they don't want to go. And I can't blame them."