Saturday, September 10, 2005

The River Center

Dear friends and family,

Today, one of our hosts, Maryann, went down to the River Center. It’s
the largest refugee shelter in Baton Rouge. It started taking evacuees
early on and the numbers seem to keep on increasing. There are around
5000 people there now, making it very crowded.

Maryann had gone there a couple of days ago to offer to bring some
people back here to use our showers and have the chance to relax for a
little while and get cleaned up. She connected with a woman and her four
grandchildren and although they couldn’t do it that day, Maryann
arranged to pick them up today. So off she went in the morning. She was
going to take them to a McDonald’s for some lunch, then bring them here,
but after a few hours she still hadn’t returned. We finally got a call
from her (on the perpetually degrading phone system) saying she was
standing in a line outside the River Center still waiting to get inside.

Evidently the security has been ratcheted up quite considerably in the
past few days. When Maryann was there on Wednesday there were fewer
people being housed there and she had just been able to walk in the door
and talk with people. Today, there was a highly visible military
presence. She said where she was standing there were a couple of guards,
one with his rifle slung over his shoulder, the other with it ready in
his hands.

The overcrowding, the tension, the lack of privacy, the lack of security
for the few belongings people still possess, the unsettling rumour mill,
the fears of unrest after FEMA’s debit card fiasco (did you hear about
that one? the emergency agency gave away $2000 debit cards on a “trial
basis” to refugees at the Astrodome while those in other shelters
waited; then the program was scrapped after the first ones were given
out). All these things have led to increased security.

When people leave the River Center to get a breath of fresh air or,
conversely, to have a smoke, they have to sign out with those in charge.
Then, to get back in again, they have to queue up, in the same line
Maryann found herself in. That means just to go out and have a stretch
may take several hours. And the queueing up is all done in the 94F
degree heat, with the smokers smoking as much as they can in the line
before they get back inside to the no-smoking zone. Meanwhile, you have
to make sure you leave someone looking after your stuff inside or it may
disappear. So, you leave someone waiting rooted to your little bit of
space inside while you take hours to get back in.

Maryann talked to quite a few people there. One older woman was sitting
in the shade. She told Maryann she really wanted to get back inside, but
she had bad knees and so she was trying to rest up before she got on
that long line, hoping it might grow a bit shorter in the meantime.
Maryann said she’d get in line on the woman’s behalf and then get her in
when she reached the head of the queue. And that’s what she did.

In the queue, one of the women behind her, when she realised Maryann
lived in town, started begging her for any accommodation at all that she
knew of. She was saying “I just need a small place to be by myself. I’ll
clean house. I’m a good worker, I’m honest, I have references. I just
need a little space.” Maryann pointed out a woman standing away from the
queue, who had told her earlier she had a boarding house and was taking
names of people for the rooms, and that she might be able to help. But
the woman was too scared to give up her place in the queue to go over to
the boarding house woman. She’d already waited for hours, and the woman
was already taking other people’s names, so even if she left the queue
she might not get a room. It was heartbreaking.

When Maryann finally got inside, although she’d had the woman she was to
meet paged, she couldn’t find her anyway. After hours, she gave up and
came home.

And that’s what it’s like in the River Center. Many of the people there
spent days in intolerable conditions in New Orleans after Katrina hit,
so you could say it’s an improvement.

I spent the day researching an article for the Herald on using the
Internet for disaster relief. I find it really hard to concentrate on my
usual writing about computers, so one of my editors has come up with
this story, which is central to my thinking.

Lillie had a really tough day. Now that we are sure we’re moving to
Houston, and moving soon, she’s faced with separation from the rest of
her family. She had hoped to see her dad before we leave Baton Rouge,
but he’s currently on the road to Atlanta with Lillie’s sister Laurie,
going there to pick up his wife, so the chances of seeing him any time
soon are slim. Jane’s in northern Louisiana, staying at a camp (local
word for a cabin in the woods or on a bayou) near Tallulah. Lillie will
make the trip up there tomorrow to see her. I can’t take the time to go
with her, as I have to try to earn some money and need to help out at
the newly reestablished Death Penalty Discourse Center here, before I
abandon them for Texas (I’ll still do the online management for the
Center from Texas, but I won’t be on hand to do computer training and
troubleshooting). Ann and Glenn are still camped with their son,
Stephen, here in Baton Rouge. It’s quite a sight, seeing Ann, Glenn and
Lisa all piled into a household with Stephen and his two flatmates and
assorted girlfriends. We’re hoping to have time with them on Monday
before we leave.

It’s going to be such an enormous wrench for Lillie. Right at the time
she needs to be near them most, she’s going to have to leave her family.
We’re already really missing our friends, so this is going to be
extraordinarily hard.

One thing people who haven’t spent time in the South might not realise
is how important family is. I think this may be even more the case in
New Orleans than for other places in the South. Families stick together.
Lillie’s family all live within a few miles of one another and she and
her three sisters have always talked on the phone almost every day. They
all adore their dad. And the connection is not just immediate family:
they have really strong ties to a very extended network of aunts, uncles
and cousins.

This is the usual way of things in New Orleans. We were talking to a
couple at the refugee gathering last week, and they have family dinner
every single Sunday with 60 people in their home. There families have
lived in Louisiana since the 1700s (they’re African American), and being
separated is beyond comprehension.

That’s one of the great tragedies of this disaster which may not be
visible to those from outside this culture. It has wrenched these
closely-knit families apart, flinging them off in all directions.

With hundreds of thousands of people being forced to do what they don’t
want to do – leave their families and friends, accept unpalatable work,
live in places not of their choosing – I think the depression factor
down the road is going to be enormous. Lillie was certainly feeling it