Friday, October 07, 2005

SHELTER FROM THE STORM: Inside a Katrina Shelter, Part 1 by Calixto Cabrera

This is a transcription from Calixto Cabrera about his 1st hours as a Red Cross volunteer shelter manager for Hurricane Katrina. There is much to learn about the grit and fortitude of Americans through Calixto's "slice of life" experience with the survivor/residents as they struggle to reclaim their lives.

SEPTEMBER 19, 2005

The date is the 19th day of September 2005. The time is 0401 in the morning, Monday morning. I am in McComb, MS.

Mars Hill Community Center and Red Cross Shelter

Where do I even start? Just a few minutes ago, I was lying in my bed thinking about all the things that I have experienced since I have arrived in Mississippi as a Red Cross volunteer. My heart was saddened when I saw the damage that Hurricane Katrina had wrought on Louisiana and Mississippi, primarily Louisiana and the City of New Orleans. Nature reclaimed the bowl that was the City of New Orleans and turned it into the lake that it was meant to be. It is, after all, a city below sea level separated from the ocean by an antiquated dike system that could not stand up to the likes of Katrina. Katrina hit the Louisiana/MS coast with a fury, Cat 4 the weather folk call it. This is to say a Category 4 hurricane came up against a Category 3 dike system. The result is now history. The largest human disaster in US history and Red Cross history.

The City of New Orleans is 80% under water, and so is the largest humanitarian relief effort in both US and Red Cross history. The political fallout from this disaster and the recovery effects will go on for years. I just wanted to give all of this a human face. It's 4:24 in the morning in the Red Cross Shelter in Mars Hill, MS. The babies, the elderly and all the rest of the 36 inhabitants of this shelter are still asleep. In just a couple of hours, they will all awaken and a new day will begin. The number of residents was 55 when I arrived and at 82 just before I arrived. Given how squeezed it was with 55 people, I can't imagine 82 people in here.

Patty, the assistant shelter manager tells me that about eight more people will be leaving this week. Those that have received their FEMA (that's Federal Emergency Management Agency) checks and/or their Red Cross checks have departed in the hopes of creating a meaningful life after their loss. In the big picture, it can be said that they didn't get much. The Red Cross checks are about $360 and the FEMA check is about $2,000. A paltry sum to try and reconstruct your life, given that everything you had is gone. The disaster has another side to it that is steeped in the human condition and affects all of us, residents and staff alike.

The Conditions at Mars Hill

Mars Hill Shelter is really kind of just a rectangular building. It did have a kitchen. It did have one flush toilet for the women and one flush toilet for the men. It had no shower, so a makeshift shower was built outside with a water hose. Later on, Red Cross brought in another one of those makeshift showers, so that we could have at least two makeshift cold water showers.

The weather has been extremely humid. (I have such a hard time with humidity, I really don't like it at all.) Nevertheless, there's lots of it at this time of year. And they have all these little bugs called love bugs. They don't really bite, but there's tens of millions of them all over the place. They land all over you and their name is apropos because all they do is make love. So, they land on you, they hook up, and they just start doing their thing. Hence the name. But there are so many of them, that it's really obnoxious. It's all in the air. The grills of the car are blackened with impact with these things. And yet, the swarms continue.

Inside the shelter itself, the cots are all close to each other. The people are all huddled together. Children and babies run all over the place. It's a lot of noise. We try to keep the volume down some, but kids are kids. It doesn't matter where they're at. They are going to make the most of their situation. They're going to play and laugh etc.; that's just what they do. We have parents and non-parents alike in here, and sometimes tempers tend to flare just a little bit.

There are a few people that I'd like to speak about. Walt and his wife Judy. There's this guy named Erwin, I'll come back to him. A woman named Nicole. She has six kids from about fourteen down to about a two year old. There's actually another family here, that kind of has a blended family, he's got some of his own children, and then he's got nieces and nephews with him. Where their parents are, I don't know. But he's got the kids and he's got ten of them. Well, he and she, it's a husband and wife. He works. I don't know their names to this day. She sleeps around all day. She does not monitor the children. In essence, the Red Cross personnel that are here are doing babysitting services, which is not Red Cross's mission to do babysitting services.

Right now, I think we have a total of 17 children, of varying ages, mostly under 10 years old. So, as you can see the volume. About four of them are babies, who are about a year and a half or two years old. They wake up at different times during the night crying and we just do the best we can with it because there's no separation. We're all living in the same place, we're all close together. Under the circumstances, the people are doing very well. But still, like I said, there are problems.

Erwin is one of two professional cooks that used to work in New Orleans and have ended up in the shelters. The one guy likes to cook a lot. He's told me several times that he loves to cook. Which works for me, because I love to have somebody cook for me, and I love to eat. His food is tasty but it lacks a lot of vegetables. It is a lot of an assortment of different types of meat dishes, meat and potatoes, and stuff like that. This lady Nicole and they really don't like each other. She wants to cook; she doesn't want to be an ongoing cook, but she wants to cook every now and then, which to me, is a reasonable request. He, on the other hand, has this whole attitude that it's his kitchen.

I stepped into this with them. Walt and his wife -- his wife had quite the experience. She spent eight hours floating on the river, floating in water, I guess I should say, holding on I think to a door for most of that. Walt, they got separated and Walt somehow got money from Red Cross to travel down to the area where he thought she was at. And he actually found her. He, in turn, has been injured. He has a ripped muscle in his right arm. He's a big guy, 6'3 maybe, has a real attitude about everything. He's real pissed off with Red Cross, in spite of the fact that the Red Cross gave him the money to help him find his wife, because the Red Cross nurses cannot write scripts for the pain he’s in-- the guy really needs some surgery in that arm to reattach that muscle. Well, he doesn't particularly want to go to the hospital. He supposedly went -- and I say supposedly because a lot of the information that we're realizing that people are giving us is either late in coming or not completely accurate. So, it's like they are, in many ways, their own worse enemies, insofar as our ability to help them because they just plain don’t tell us the truth.

Just prior to my arrival, apparently, two new nurses had just arrived, Laura and BJ. As I'm being introduced to people in the area, I see Walt and BJ talking and he's being obnoxious with her, he's saying: "You can't help me worth a shit." He's getting testy and tacky with her. And Jeremy -- I was going to speak originally about Jeremy. He's had two Red Cross classes, and he should have never found himself in a position of putting a Red Cross shelter together. But that is exactly where he found himself and what he ended up doing. Not only did he do it, but he manned it alone for two days. I don't know how many people were there during that two-day period, but it was just him. And Mars Hill is way out there. It's the southernmost of the shelters, and it's the furthest away. Most of the other ones are closer in, in very large churches, that are very comfortable, with a lot of amenities, several hot/cold running showers, several bathrooms, rooms where some of the residents can go to, and the ability to separate. Mars Hill had none of that, believe me, it was like the ghetto of all the shelters and it was having all these problems. Nobody really mentioned that to me when they asked me if I wanted to down to Mars Hills. And I said, well sure, it's just like I volunteered to be a shelter manager and that's where I ended up.

Jeremy did an incredible job under the circumstances. However, he really didn't know Red Cross rules and regulations. Consequently, he let people just do all kinds of things. People going in and out all hours of the day and night in the shelter. That made the security system not too good. At that point, the only two males were myself and Jeremy. The rest of the staff were female. We had three church women, Sally, Dana and Betty who came down from New Hampshire or something. They were a God-send, they really were. They just took care of the kitchen. Cleaned it up. Irvin was the cook, the Cajun cook I was talking about.

The other cook didn't cook too much. Irvin did most of the work, but Irvin had this attachment to the kitchen. "Nobody goes in the kitchen" and this and that. He and Nicole were very squared off. They had several arguments while were still in Mars Hill. I had to get that under control. It was just this pettiness between them that just drove me crazy. I did not sleep for roughly the first 36 hours between the combination of the traveling, being in this shelter, and all the noise at night. The children would stay up until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and they'd just fall asleep from exhaustion. Jeremy wouldn't turn the light off until 10 or 11. The TV would be on until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. It was just a small place, you cannot have all of this and have people get decent sleep.

And then the children were being bussed; it was nearly an hour and a half each way. This meant that we had to get them up at 5:15 in the morning so that they could make it to school in time. Everything was just a mess.

And there's this problem with Walt. Walt had intimated the nurses. Now, the nurses were afraid of him and they were thinking of leaving. So, Jeremy leaves the next day. It's just me, myself and I and a female staff that is intimated by this guy. This guy is a big guy. Even with an injured arm, I'm wondering if I can handle him. I'm looking at all of these violations of Red Cross rules. Bear in mind, I'm not necessarily a stickler for rules, but some rules make sense under the circumstances. Like it would be nice to turn off the lights at 10 o'clock. It would be nice to turn off the doggone television at 11 o'clock at the latest, at least during the weekdays so that people can actually get some sleep.

People were resentful of me. They didn't know me; they did know Jeremy. Jeremy had some easy-going rules. People were messing up and leaving their trash all over the place. They weren't cleaning up after themselves. And the Red Cross staff was finding itself babysitting, which is not our job, and cleaning other people's messes because they wouldn't clean up after themselves is also not our job.

I got there on a Wednesday. By Thursday, later afternoon I was pretty damn tired. I was getting really pissed. I regretted several times having volunteered for this thing. I'd thought of quitting two or three times. Just walking the hell out and saying, "The hell with this, the hell with them, I'm outta here." I asked the Creator, look, "Put me where you want me down here, where I can do the most good, where I can affect the most people. I found myself at Mars Hill. I figured this can’t be a mistake.

I have good boundaries. I have no problem saying "This is the way it is." I tried to be respectful, but firm. I started applying my techniques. People were taken aback and they were, in fact, resentful. But I kept insisting, and they kept backing off because, after all, I am the Red Cross person in charge there. And if I say they go, they go and they know it.

Things kind of hit a peak when another fellow, who seemed to have some slight mental and drug problems (Judy, Walt and Erwin hang together and they all do drugs. It is clear they are all drug users.) The nurses were threatening to quit. My assistant Patty was also threatening to quit because she was afraid of Walt and the potential for violence that he represented. Patty comes to me and said, "This guy out here has said twice...'Come out here and I want to talk to you.'" I go out there and I open the door, and he's out there, all kinds of upset. I go out there and say, "What's the problem?" And he just starts going off on -- all I can tell you is that it had something to do with I.D's and how important it is to have I.D. And how Erwin didn't have his I.D. and has no right to say "No," and that he's wrong. And this other guy, I don't know his name. He's still in the shelter, and to this day I still don't know his name. But he also turned out to be a vet. He's just ranting and raving.

I really was patient, I tried to deal with this for about ten minutes. And then I just kind of said "f--- this, we're done talking." At that point, I was really pissed off. I have this guy going off in a potential for violence. I have Walt in here intimidating people. I said I have to get this thing under control. I called the police. We called the police, brought them in. The sheriff came. I had everybody inside, time for a meeting. And I wanted police backup for the meeting. It was time for me to draw the line and tell it like it is, to take control of this shelter. For the next thirty minutes, I told them what all the rules and regulations were going to be. I told them that we were Red Cross personnel, we were not the enemy. All of us had traveled a long distance -- I had personally traveled roughly a thousand miles to get there, other people had traveled even further still. We were not the enemy. We know you're frustrated. We know you're angry. We know you've undergone an incredible loss. It is because we know this, that we've all come to help to whatever extent or degree we can. Venting on us and making us the enemy just isn't going to work.

I told them lights out at 10 o'clock. Television out at 11 o'clock, Monday through Thursday, 12 o'clock Friday and Saturday nights. The door closes at 11 o'clock. Whoever's out there will not be allowed in after 11 o'clock. If they start banging on the door, we will simply not open it and just call the cops. Anybody who gives me any static, or there's a violation of the rules, depending on the nature of the infraction, they will either get one warning or they will be asked to leave immediately. Being stoned, being drunk, having drugs or alcohol on them while they are in the shelter, or a weapon, will not permitted. That is instant grounds for being told to leave. Those are not negotiable. I'm in charge of this thing and that I have the final say on everything that goes on in this shelter.

Anybody who doesn't want that to be the case -- You don't have to like it, but if you're not willing to adhere to the rules and regulations, this is a good time to pack your stuff and get out of here because I'm done. Henceforth and with, these regulations will be adhered to.

Some people actually were glad to hear about some of the rules and regulations. I told the parents that it is time for them to start taking responsibility for their children. The Red Cross is not a babysitter. Parents who leave their children unattended, per Red Cross rules and regulations, I have the right to call Child Protective Services and have the children removed from there, possibly have the parents arrested for child neglect. There will be no more of parents just leaving their children there, and we have no idea where the parents are or what's going on.

Some people were happy about this, some people were clearly unhappy about this. Pretty much, they all accepted it. Not that they had a whole lot of opportunity to do anything else. The big trump card that I held was that they didn't really have a whole lot of places to go. If they crossed me too much, they were going to be kicked out of the shelter. Then, they'd have yet another mini-tragedy after having undergone a big one, to be kicked out of the shelter. And I told them that I would call the other shelters to make sure that they couldn't register for those either.

I brought some control to the place. The personal bickering among the residents I was trying to keep a lid on that, at least to the extent that I could, knowing that I was going to have to either kick-out Nicole with her six kids or I'm going to have to kick out Erwin because these guys (our cook)-- He came out one day, just kind of screaming, "You better tell this bitch to stop or I'm going to kill her." I had to go over there and find out what the hell that's all about. If this keeps up, one of you are going to have to go. That's all there is to it. I'm not going to continue putting up with this.

As it turns out, at the same time, another center, the center in Meadsville was shutting down and the people were all but gone. The guy there, Bill "Schindler" got word to me that he knew that our shelter was pretty humble by comparison. He asked me if I wanted to move my people over there, which of course, I'd never done. We had to organize a move to that particular shelter, which we did. A bunch of people were gone, and their stuff was still in the shelter. This is another rule that I hadn't thought of at the time, but I was thinking of then now. If you leave the shelter for 48 hours without communicating with us, without telling us what is going on, as far as I'm concerned you've checked yourself out, and you've abandoned whatever possessions you have here. I reserve the right to throw it all out and check you out of the shelter. You are no longer a resident.

We also had a person who was a methadone addict for 18+ years. He'd been on legal methadone. They tried to detox him and take him off of the methadone one time according to his wife. He had a heart attack, he went into seizures. So, he's on this methadone, he has a very weak heart history. He's running out of this methadone. The nurses are very concerned for him. He could have a heart attack and could die in a very short period of time if he doesn't have his fix. This Red Cross, whiny-assed doctor, a Dr. H., who came there, he was volunteer, he came there to see Walt of all people. Dr. H. apparently is a retired doctor. He loses his ability to write a drug prescription, a controlled-substance prescription, i.e., a painkiller. Walt again went into his, "What the F'g good are you, you know? You have no more authority than the nurses. You guys can't do shit for me." You know, getting testy.

In reference to Walt, I've been giving him, feeding him some line, letting him get to a point that one more outburst to any of my staff or to myself, and he's just plain out. His wife Judy, on the other hand, this is the lady who had been floating in the water, she was so appreciative that Red Cross had given her husband some money and he had been able to get down there and find her. She was an incredible worker in the place. She just worked all the time. If I had three like Judy, life would have been so much easier in that shelter for me. So, I had this thing. If I'm going to kick Walt out, I'm going to have to kick Judy out. And it's unfortunate, but that's the way it's going to have to be.

As it turns out now, we've moved to the Meadville Center. They showed up: Irvin, Walt and Judy showed up to the old shelter. It was closed. They are trying to find out where we are; we'd left a sign. They finally meander to the new center, come in and I tell them, "Okay, well, you guys are going to have to be in the main area. Anybody that does not have children, whether they are single or married, will be in the main area." Judy tried to explain to me, gave me some doggone reasons why they shouldn't be in the main area. I said, "No, that's the way it is. That's where you all go."

So, apparently, I could tell that he didn't receive that very well and they left. They haven't been back since. Yet, they've left their gear there. Like I said, I still haven't gotten the word to them, that hey, 48 hours, this is it. I'm on leave today. When I get back, I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with their stuff tomorrow.

Now, the whole Meadville thing, is a whole other thing in itself. I'm glad to bring this thing up to the Meadville situation. I'll start talking about Meadville tomorrow, and what's going on there. It's just about 11 o'clock and I want to get to bed.

So, goodnight.

Part 2 Will be Published the week of 10/10/05

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