Thursday, November 10, 2005

SHELTER FROM THE STORM: Inside a Katrina Shelter, Part 2

Following is part two of a transcript of a tape made by Calixto Cabrera as a Red Cross Volunteer for Hurricane Katrina. While the news media frequently portrays the external affects, there is much to learn about the grit and fortitude of Americans through this "slice of life" experience of a Red Cross volunteer shelter manager (Calixto) and the hurricane survivors or "residents" he oversees.

FROM SEPTEMBER 19, 2005 (Synopsis):
I've been feeding Walt 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, the lady who had been floating in the water for eight hours, was so appreciative of the Red Cross. She was an incredible worker, worked all the time. If I had three like Judy, life would have been so much easier in that shelter.

SEPTEMBER 22, 2005, time on deck: 22:18

Meadville, MS -- The Emmanuel Church was closing down. It was a shelter and it outlived its purpose. The shelter manager didn't want to shut it down because it was a good set-up and he's right. He got in contact with us, he heard about our situation and told us to come and check it out. I liked what I saw. It's a two-story building with several rooms upstairs and several rooms downstairs. It had a large area where the congregation gathered that could accommodate possibly about 92 people if set up properly. Per Red Cross rules and regulations, you have to have 4' wide area per cot, if I'm not mistaken, 4' by 8'. That would give us about 50 cots that we could set up down there.

I had originally intended to give the clients a voice in whether they wanted to move or not. In spite of the fact that the area was small, they hadn't seen this one so they really couldn't compare really well. We were set in over there. We were kind of used to what was going on; the madness and some of the problems were settling down except for the bickering between Erwin and Nicole, that's the cook and the cook wannabe. Everything else was just your typical problems of people having gotten their checks. Complaining about their checks both from FEMA and the Red Cross. Both organizations were giving evacuees money during this period of time. There was just a lot of grumbling and griping and dissatisfaction about how that was going along. Nothing out of the unusual.

There were times and moments when some people I don't think are ever appreciative about anything, no matter what you give them. But overall, the assemblage of people that were there were, in fact, appreciative of what they had going. They had food. They had a bed, albeit a cot. They had a place to stay that they were out of the weather. When they first moved into Mars Hill, apparently they didn't even have a cot. All of a sudden they had an air-conditioned place. And it was like yummy, but they had nothing else. And then they had an air conditioned place and got some cots. They were, again, appreciative. It was an uplifting of their conditions. And we were able to get blankets and pillows and stuff like that. And start getting some hot meals going. This was described to me by Jeremy. For the first while, things were going pretty well, and then the grumbling and stuff like that started setting in.

So, we're up the road now, it's time to move. I'd been gone for a while, and got back to Mars Hill, and Patty, my assistant shelter manager, that Monday had gotten a call from Ms. Nellie, who is like president or representative of the association that owns and runs that building and wanted to know when we were going to leave, how much longer the set-up was going to be. At the same time, the availability of Meadville was that Monday. Tuesday, it would be closed. And Meadville, while the building was billed as a church, it isn't really a church now. It's just a building. This company and this fellow bought it when the preacher got arrested for child molestation, rape and some other operation he had going here. Basically, it started out as a church but it quickly stopped became a church. It became a company building. Somehow, somebody contacted this guy and said, "Can we use this as a shelter?" And it was done. They've been really good about it. They fixed things quickly. They installed two showers. We didn't have it. They installed a vanity in one of the bathrooms. It didn't have it either. Just to be able to shelter the people here. That was very nice and I thought it was very gracious of this particular company, South Cellular(?).

The combination that we had to make a decision quickly as to whether we were going to take this building or not, and the fact that Ms. Nellie wanted to know when we were leaving, I just made an executive decision. I said, "Folks, we originally intended to give you a vote on this, that is no longer the case, we're moving."

Everybody was pretty good about it. Now, Walt, Judy and Erwin and another couple were not there when we moved. We had to deal with their gear. This is part of the lack of consideration factor. A shelter is not either a storage bin or a crash pad for people to take off, come back every few days, spend the night, take off again, that type of thing. You are either registered in the shelter -- you can go to work form the shelter, or if you're going back to inspect your home or what-not, you check out of the shelter and say, hey, I'm going to be gone two or three days, this is the kind of thing I'm planning on doing so that we keep you on the roster. All of this is an after-the-fact situation that came out of the shelter setup being abused like that by those three individuals in particular. We changed the rules to reflect this new reality. Hey, in 48 hours, if you haven't called back and checked back with us, you are considered out of the shelter and gone. That's what we did.

We moved over to the new place and we encountered a new set of realities. The police chief is like the only cop in town. Consequently, he's the police chief, he's his own chief. The County Sheriff is really the sheriff himself and four deputies. The Police Chief seems to be real friendly with the women, type of thing. And real nosey as to what's going on. Technically, I don't have to allow either one of them into the building unless they've been called or they suspect there is a crime going on, and then they need a search warrant.
In the interest of community let them in. (I never locked on to the name of either the police chief or the sheriff, so I'll just refer to them by their jobs, by their professions.) I met the coroner, his name is Mr. Peeler. I'll get his first name here in a little while. Met him. He likes to show his badge a few times. His wife, Mrs. Peeler, is trying to form a Red Cross chapter in town. I'm not sure why. It seems to me like a very straight -- this whole area, by the way, is Bible belt. Most of them are Baptist this and Baptist that. You know, that old "Fear the Lord thing." The culture here is steeped deep in the whole Bible belt mentality, which is fine, just as long as they don't lay it on us. If any of our people wish to participate in that, they are certainly free to do so. I kept monitoring their activity because it didn't want it poured down the throat of the residents of this shelter.

Well, Mrs. Peeler is also a member of the community who is kind of like a big fish in a little pond. She likes to let people know that. Mrs. Peeler and her husband have been very helpful in doing a lot of things. In some sense, I think they are coming from spirit, they're coming from the heart, they're coming from a good place. In other senses, I think they are letting ego and politics kind of get in the way and that impacts us here. The sheriff wanted to know how many people were in the shelter, and he then he wanted a racial background: How many black. How many Hispanics. And how many Anglos. He said that to me, and I kind of looked at him like, "I don't think so." I did not say, "I don't think so." I knew that I had no intention of giving this guy that information. But I didn't say anything. Apparently the police chief said the same thing to Patty, the assistant shelter manager. And she just plain said -- she actually took a firmer stand than I did publicly. She said, "I can't do that. It's not happening." And he said, "buy why -- the other shelter manager did." Which she was not supposed to, near as I can tell. Red Cross protects the people inside the shelter. This is their home for the duration. It wants to have them feel as comfortable as they can here. And that their privacy is protected. There is nothing like turning records over to the sheriff not to protect people's privacy.

He mentioned it to one of the people in her chain of command. We both have slightly different, except for here in the shelter, we have different people who we answer to. I mentioned it to mine as to what it is going on. There must have been some conversations at a higher level. They mentioned it to Tim, who is kind of like the overall regional guy here, overseeing the whole Red Cross operation. He apparently called National and talked to somebody there. Neither one of us said it from a perspective of "snitching" on the sheriff or the chief of police. It was like, hey, can you imagine these guys, in this day and age asking for that kind of information? We're not giving it to them.

Next thing we know, the Dept. of Justice is involved, and they are coming down to talk to the sheriff and the police chief and investigate this particular request. They stated that they'd been keeping an eye on Mississippi for racial kind of things, whatever that meant. As it turned out, they did come down, they called the sheriff. They called the police chief. They called Mrs. Peeler. I don't know if they talked to the coroner or not. They talked to Patty on the phone, but they never did come and interview her. They did not interview me. The long and the short of it is that we created a little stink for the sheriff and the police department with the justice department. Patty came in at another time and found the police chief looking at one of the check-out lists of our people. She said, "What are you doing?" and she took the list from him. And he said, "Well, what do I do to get my hands on that list?" And she said, "A warrant." And he said, "Okay, I'll call the judge right now." And he pulls out his cell phone as if he's calling the judge. And then he smiled, and put his cell phone away.

It was a bluff. I think between the two acts and neither one of us giving him the list that they requested, they just started backing off from the shelter. I talked to Tim a little more about their conduct and told him there was a good possibility I was going to have to crack down on the local chapter because they are all buddy-buddy and Mrs. Peeler is married to the coroner. And he's in there with the police chief and the sheriff. It's all one big happy family kind of thing. It was obvious to me that at Mars Hall I had to crack down on the residents. Over here, I was going to have to crack down on the chapter.

As it turns out, instead of "cracking down" as I did over at Mars Hill, what I did was, when they started doing that thing, like, when national moves into an area -- technically I'm a representative of national. When national moves into a chapter area, national is in control. At the same time, they have a lot of rules and regulations about "Don't just tromp over the chapter. Try and work with them. Try and be diplomatic. Try this, try that. Don't alienate them."

During the Colorado fires of 2002, we were the local chapter when national came in. And there were misunderstandings between the chapter people and the national people. Some people were left a little disgruntled. National pulled back from its heavier tactics once we started complaining and tried to work more with the chapter. So, I've been on the receiving end and of that and I'm aware of it. I personally did not want to do the same thing here. At the same time, I wasn't going to let the chapter dictate what goes on at this juncture, because I'm in charge of the shelter and not them. Even though it's their area.

So, slowly but surely, I started taking some firmer stances, by saying, "No, I don't think I want to do that," or "No, I don't think I want to do this. I've thought about it a lot, we're going to do it this way." I said it in a manner where, that's it. We're doing it this way. It doesn't matter how you want to do it. Thank you for your recommendation. And I take it as such. But I've decided to do it this way. And I did. I always listened to their recommendations. I wanted them to feel as included as possible. And sometimes I went with their recommendations because they were good ideas. And other times I just went with my own. They weren't happy with that. But they accepted the fact that, as time went on, that I was going to call the shots in reference to the shelter. And that included the police chief, the sheriff and the coroner. So, I finally got them all to back off and leave the shelter alone.

s I said before, I don't want to paint too heavy of a picture of Mrs. Peeler and the coroner. The reality is that they've done a lot for us. We ask them for something, they get it done. Most of the time they can get it done. This morning, at 4 o'clock in the morning, we were under a tornado watch. The siren went off that a tornado had touched down somewhere in the area. Actually, it was like thirty miles away, but it was moving in this direction. Those things can move pretty quickly. From the time the siren goes off, it could be anywhere from three to fifteen minutes before a tornado actually goes through an area. And that's not to say it will actually go through this area or even hit this building. They are erratic things. The alarm goes off. There is a big siren in the city that a tornado has touched down.

I jumped up quickly, because we had already discussed this with staff and the clients. I told them that we need to move quickly. We don't have to dilly-dally. Everybody helps everybody. Have a little water and maybe a book ready. We don't know how long we're going to be gone. Staff, make sure you have a flashlight with you in case we lose power while we're doing this evacuation. Zoom! Everything went into motion. It went off pretty well, overall. The coroner had gone and gotten himself a bus checked out to him. He had the bus parked right outside. So, we just immediately opened the doors and started loading people. It was raining pretty hard. We got a little wet, not bad. It was something, getting up all these elderly people and babies, and everything in between. They were all sleepy but, none of the kids were crying, none of the babies were crying. They could tell that something was wrong and the adults were moving quickly. So, there wasn't any of the kids that said a thing. They just went a long with it.

It took us about nine minutes from the minute the sirens went off to the minute we arrived over there at the shelter. So it went very quickly and very smoothly. But almost three minutes of that was wasted waiting on the coroner to come over because he was also the bus driver. Even though we have two national guardsmen here at the shelter now. And one of them has a license that he can easily drive that bus or something bigger. The coroner just said, "No, it's been checked out to me." He didn't hear about parting with the keys. "I can be over there within three minutes or so." that's what he said. So, there we sat, with the bus loaded, in the dark, the military Humvee with people and two vehicles loaded and ready to go, waiting on the coroner to show up. And it's raining. And, it's like, you don't know whether things are going to come out of it. Things just kind of go quiet, and then it sounds like a train coming down. Well, I kept listening to the thing, saying to myself, "Where the hell is the coroner?"

Finally, he shows up, parks, jumps on the bus - Vroom! We're off and rolling and we made it to the shelter. It went off like clockwork. No hitches, with the exception of the wait for the coroner. We stayed over at the courthouse shelter which is where we evacuated to. It was built in 1904, I think it was. Pretty solid building, certainly by comparison to the one we were in. Which I thought was a pretty decent building. Things went well. We had all these people in the hall. They had to sit on this slab floor. The Senior National Guardsman was a gunnery sergeant, had been in the military for thirty years, he wanted us to go upstairs into the courthouse, which actually was a little more comfortable than sitting in that hallway. But he said we should stay here until about twelve o'clock or so. And this is like 4 o'clock in the morning.

I'm looking at all these exhausted people. I'm kind of processing everything that I've heard the police chief say about the pattern of the storm, that this town itself has never been hit, but that the town just down the road just two miles has been hit a couple of times pretty bad. How quick it takes for a hurricane, what the squall lines were doing. I'm processing all this information, and thinking, "Well, should we stay here until 12 o'clock in which case it is gonna really affect all these people. Even upstairs in the courthouse where it is a little more comfortable because they actually had carpeting and stuff like that. It wasn't quite as hard. It would still be a hardship to stay there.

While safety was my paramount concern, the well-being of the clients was also high on my concern list. I knew that getting back to the shelter as soon as possible, and being able to get people back into bed. etc. was better for their well-being in the short run. I was caught in this dilemma of processing this information, listening to the various opinions of people I asked for opinions and what people thought. It was a mixed bag. Some wanted to stay, some people wanted to go back. Finally, after some thought, I said, "Okay, we're going back."

The one tornado had gone through the area. The all-clear was given. I just said, "Well, if we have to do this again (because there were squall lines coming through the area), then we're just going to stay. We'll bring some pillows with us the next time around, if we have to evacuate the shelter again; maybe some pillows and books. And this time we'll stay until afternoon or so, until after all these squall lines have moved through the area. And Hurricane Rita has moved up and away, far enough where it doesn't affect this particular part of Mississippi. So we did. We loaded everybody back on to the bus. We went back to the shelter. And we've been here since.

Now, it's 23:01. And again, there's hurricane watch on for tonight. I thought that would all be said and done by tonight. - Calixto Cabrera

Editor's Note: Walt, Judy and the others did find the new location, but they weren't willing to follow the rules. Calixto turned them away with a heavy heart, mostly because of Judy's contributions, appreciation and hard work. On the other hand, there was a lot to do, and cooperation was clearly the only way everyone could safe, warm and begin to rebuild their lives.

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