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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Life at the Cajundome

Another Daily Kos Diary

A Brush with Bush in NO
by Hal Law [Subscribe]

As you know from the news, it looks like it's worse than anybody could have thought, and so I figured it was time for another update. Lafayette got our first refugees on Wednesday night, even as I was writing my last e-mail, and I spent a good chunk of the night manning a door at the Cajundome as they wheeled stretchers (sometimes occupied) and medical supplies in and out.

The big irony is that I moved to Lafayette in part to get away from refugee work, but with something like this on our doorstep, it's obviously been time to get back in practice, as it has been for nearly everyone else in my town.

I've always been frustrated by America's ability to ignore crises from abroad (such as the ongoing, largely-ignored genocide in Sudan). At the same time, I've always cherished the belief that Americans are fundamentally good people who may be good at shielding themselves from news of other people's problems, but that if they came face-to-face with those problems, they couldn't help but respond.

As it turns out, this is about half true. Which is to say that about half the people I know here said "Jesus, 7,000 refugees in our town?!? How can I help?" and about half said "Wow, that blows. So, wanna go out tonight?"

I've been working an information table at the Cajundome for the past two days and it's amazing how little information we actually have to give them. FEMA, notably, has yet to appear on the scene even once, which raises questions like, why bother to have a federal emergency agency at all?? We hit capacity at the Cajundome before the end of Wednes night, and then we doubled capacity on Thursday, and now we're turning people away. We can feed and house everybody's who's under the roof, but those that we can't we're simply handing a list of area churches and wishing them luck. So far about a third of the churches I've talked to are stepping beautifully up at the plate; the others are hanging out their "No Room at the Inn" signs, at least until their committees meet to discuss the issue. I'm hoping, though, if enough refugees call or drop by even the most reluctant ones, they'll inevitably be shamed into helping.

More than anything people are looking for their loved ones. The typical volunteer arc seems to be to spend the first few hours on the edge of tears at the scope of the devastation--you can't imagine what 6,000 American refugees packed into that small space look like until you've seen it--then to spend a few hours numb, then to get incredibly cheerful as you realize that at least you're still whole and healthy and you have your family and house, and no matter how bad it is out there, we're pulling together and helping. In contrast to Superdome footage, the people I've talked to have all been incredibly thankful and patient for what's happening; we're all frustrated at the lack of federal response and the bleakness of the big picture, but they realize that we're just volunteers and that we're lost and scared too.

Incidentally, CNN's not kidding; the Cajundome is 95% black right now.

It goes to show how overwhelming things are here right now that I encountered the First Lady yesterday and I almost forgot to put it in this e-mail. It actually couldn't have been a worse experience; a team of us were working to put up a website with directions to every Red Cross shelter in the region when we were evicted from the computer room by the Secret Service. There's only one room in the Cajundome with telephones and internet access for refugees, and Laura Bush shut it down for eight hours (along with the food service rooms to the side and the women's showers). You may have seen it on CNN; apparently seven refugees were allowed back so Laura could help them in front of the cameras. If you saw that footage, that's where I put in half my volunteer hours. Not knowing Bush was still back there later I tried to insist on being allowed back into the room to a "Red Cross" guy who must have been a Secret Service agent undercover. A hint for future Secret Service agents: The real Red Cross guys don't look like they want to break your legs for walking too close to the barricade, because they're too busy passing out food and helping people. They're also less likely to use phrases like "Stand fast, sir!" Now, I know this is the sort of thing that happens whenever a VIP tours a disaster site, and maybe Laura Bush handing out that loaf of bread really will lead to an increase in donations. All I can say is, to have paralyzed a third of a day of operations at this stage of the game, it fucking well better. And I tried to position myself to say this to her in front of the television cameras too, but instead I only got a wave and a smile as she hurried past me. Looks like I'm going to have to become nationally infamous another day.

The Cajundome seems to have enough volunteers now but I'm still scared to death about it. We have to get people out of there as fast as possible so we can move new folks in from the Superdome and the Convention Center, where, unbelievably, they are still dying. A bus came by last night and tried to unload; when they heard we were over capacity and couldn't take any more, they began to riot. When I went in this morning the Cajundome was in such lockdown that it took me a half hour to get in, and couldn't have at all if I hadn't been recognized by a Red Cross official. An increasing amount of attention is having to go into keeping people happy and feeling that things are moving along so we don't get a Superdome kind of violence all of the sudden. The truth is that I don't know what's happening down here, and nobody does. Any time I remember that they haven't even counted the dead yet I want to sit down and cry. Statistically, most of the people we're talking to will find their familiies. Statistically, some of them won't. I can't imagine what that dome will look like when that list is released.

I also hope heads will roll in the government for what's happened here this week. I agree that now's not the time for that, but there is no conceivable excuse for having let thousands of people preventably die on our shores. You can't imagine the shock in people's eyes as we explain again and again that there's still no federal agency here to help them, no state agency, only a handful of Red Cross workers and a bunch of utterly untrained volunteers.

On a more personal note, NAMES REMOVED and I have taken in two refugees of our own, who weigh less than a pound each: two-week old kittens a cop friend of ours found abandoned on a bus. We're still feeding them from a dropper, but they've finally opened their eyes and every sign is that they're going to pull through. The white one's going to be named Yeti if I have my way. Black one, who knows.

Anyway I'm off to dinner and to try to unwind for now. To sum up, hurricanes suck, give more money if you can, and I hate Laura Bush,


PS A 17-yr-old student of mine is single-handedly coordinating an animal shelter at the Coliseum that is housing hundreds of evacuated animals. She hasn't slept in three days. Sometimes human beings can really pull through.

posted by Steve @ 3:27:00 PM

3:27:00 PM

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