Saturday, September 10, 2005

A night at the shelter

Last night was my first shift volunteering at one of the Red Cross hurricane shelters here in Nashville. I worked the graveyard shift, from 1 AM until 8 AM. I am still processing what I saw.

I met an older diabetic man who toddles around with a walker. He likes his Cheerios with lots of milk and a single packet of Sweet 'n Low. He also likes bananas, but can't stomach anything to drink other than water. Definitely not lemonade, even if it's the good lemonade like they were giving out yesterday. He was rescued from his home by two men in a boat, but then he still had to wade through water up to his chest to get to a temporary shelter. He was eventually airlifted to Atlanta and then to Nashville. He thinks his niece is in Houston and is coming to get him sometime, maybe this week. In the meantime, he has fallen into the shelter routine, being escorted upstairs to the medical team three times a day for his pills and injections, and spending the rest of the time chatting with anyone who will listen.

I heard stories of evacuees who are claiming relief payments for non-existent family members. But I also saw first-hand the selflessness of many evacuees, who have taken it on themselves to turn the shelter into some sort of home. One man spent almost the entire night wiping down tables, emptying trash, and doing other chores. "Didn't he need some sleep?" inquired a staffer. But he was used to working hard at night -- his job in New Orleans was delivering the Times-Picayune in the wee hours of the morning. Another man took at upon himself to begin vacuuming the common area, and another lanky, well-spoken man in coveralls had clearly become something of a spokesman for the residents, advocating for their needs with shelter staff.

One woman, perhaps mentally ill, was worried about her children, who had evidently been hitchhiking away from New Orleans for the last week. Her son finally called her during the night, and she came running into the room desperate for someone to tell him how to get to the shelter. I talked to him for quite a while. Evidently he had caught a ride with someone in Alabama who was headed to Tennessee -- somewhere. His benefactors were asleep at a truck stop, and he wasn't sure what road they were on. In the end the best I could do was tell him which interstates came to Nashville and recommend that he call back when we could talk to the driver.

Another extended family staying at the shelter had to leave for the hospital in the early hours of the morning after the medical staff determined that a young child was running a fever of 103. The nurse called an ambulance, but the family then decided to take their own car, and the ambulance went away empty.

I quickly realize that the well oiled humanitarian machine that I learned about in my two days of training bears only a passing relationship the situation on the ground. In a smaller, more local disaster, the Red Cross' thoroughly-planned management strategies might work perfectly. But it is clear that the system was simply never designed to handle a disaster of this magnitude and complexity. Shelter staff have been dutifully filling out shelter registration cards for every client. But it's unclear whether these have actually been entered into a database to help reunite families. Furthermore, clients have left the shelter without signing out or providing a forwarding address, so even if some names could be matched up there's no guarantee that the person sought would still be there.

Americans everywhere are desperate to help -- a staffer who had worked the evening shift talked about the incessant calls she had been taking from people hundreds of miles away who were desperate to offer housing. The Red Cross is put in an awkward position by these requests. It is the official policy that all Red Cross services must be provided on an equal basis. (IE, someone can't come in and buy a steak dinner for one person in a shelter unless they buy a steak dinner for everyone in the shelter.) Furthermore, there are clearly unknowns and risks related to sending vulnerable evacuees off to live with unknown people in unknown conditions. So shelter staff are instructed to simply take these housing offers and post them on a message board, not to recommend them to specific clients. Many clients are already dazed and overwhelmed by their surroundings. The scraps of paper piling up on the message board are just one more input to their already overloaded brains. They are not yet able to consider life-altering decisions about where they will be living next month or next year.

The lack of response to offers like this has resulted in criticism that the Red Cross is somehow walling off evacuees from help. This is clearly untrue. While members of the general public are not permitted to come inside the shelter (for good reason -- there is enough organized chaos already), they are welcome to be in the parking lot. Residents can come or go as they please. Technically, they are supposed to sign in and out to help with communication and record-keeping, but this is pretty loosely enforced -- especially for the smokers who periodically retreat to the patio to light up. Evacuees inside the shelter have access to daily newspapers and television, as well as the bulletin boards full of housing and job offers. Daily shuttles are provided to places like the downtown Red Cross headquarters, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. Phones are available to make phone calls. Despite what you may read in the City Paper, this is not a concentration camp. It is simply a shelter whose management is trying to provide at least a small level of privacy to its residents.

It is impossible to generalize about evacuees -- the floodwaters clearly affected anyone with the misfortune to live below sea level. But it is evident that the hardest hit are those who are least able to reconstruct their own lives. Those with money, connections to other parts of the country, or simple resourcefulness are gradually moving out of shelters and picking up with life in their new surroundings. Increasing numbers of those left behind are elderly or ill (either physically or mentally). Some have never before left Louisiana, and they are baffled by the situation in which they find themselves. A staffer told of one woman who kept asking why she was at the shelter -- after all, she was sure she had paid her rent on time. Working with these people would be challenging in any environment. Add in the combined stress of seeing homes destroyed, neighbors killed, and then being forcibly evacuated hundreds of miles from anything familiar, and the challenge becomes almost unimaginable.

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