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Blog #23- Katrina victims leave the Scotia Prince

March 2, 2006

The Scotia Prince has been a familiar ship in Portland harbor for years, ferrying cars and passengers from Maine to Nova Scotia. Since September 2005 however, she has had a new role as temporary home to Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana. The Scotia Prince was one of the three cruise ships leased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for six months to house Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans.

When I went aboard in late September last year she was tied up at a pier on the Mississippi River in St. Bernard Parish. Since then she has moved down river a short distance to another mooring.

There were 440 police, fire fighters, EMS and parish leaders staying in her very small cabins. I remember how small the cabins were from booking one on one of her overnight crossings from Portland to Nova Scotia several years ago. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to live in one for six months, but that is what these Katrina victims did. They worked their regular jobs during the day, and came “home” to the Scotia Prince at night. It wasn’t the easiest of situations, but they made the best of it.

The ship fed them their meals, and while I was there the galley had laid on a large buffet. I met Judy Hoffmeister, councilwoman for St Bernard Parish and an official with the local Red Cross chapter. Her chapter building was destroyed in the hurricane and she was rescued from a rooftop with many of her neighbors. She has been active in leading the effort to rebuild St. Bernard Parish, but it has been a slow and difficult process.

In the six months since Katrina only about 12,000 of the 65,500 pre-hurricane residents have returned. Here and there people are gutting out their houses and are living in FEMA trailers, but the streets are still largely deserted. Only about 2% of the electric power has been restored, and more than 80% of the schools are still closed. It is a sad situation to see. Still, the people who have returned are true pioneers and are showing both remarkable strength and faith that their community will return.

In St. Bernard only about 1/3 of the requested 8,300 FEMA trailers have been supplied, and the wheels of government are moving slowly. A lawsuit has been filed to keep the Scotia Prince where she is for a short while longer, until the people on board have places to stay. The owners of the ship say that they are open to a continuance of the lease, but FEMA has said that it will not extend the lease past March 1 and all people on board must vacate to other quarters by then. There were only a dozen left on board on the morning of March 1, and by mid-afternoon all were gone to hotels or to FEMA trailers.

The Carnival Cruise Line ships

The sixth month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina also marked the end of the contract between FEMA and the Carnival Cruise Lines to house Katrina victims in New Orleans on two of their cruise ships. The Mississippi River terminal in the heart of downtown New Orleans was a bee-hive of activity as New Orleans policemen, fire fighters, emergency service workers, and municipal workers and their families left the ships for new housing in FEMA trailers and in contract hotels. Many of these workers are returning to their own property in trailers for the first time since Katrina displaced them. At the peak the Carnival Lines Sensation and Ecstasy housed 4,675 Katrina victims, but by 3:00 p.m. on March 1 the ships were completely empty of their guests.

During the six-month emergency phase following Katrina, the American Red Cross provided clothes and supplies to the workers living on board the cruise ships who had lost everything in the hurricane and were left with no place to replace even the simplest items needed for daily living in a city bereft of stores.

During this phase a Red Cross worker was assigned to the Sensation and Ecstasy ships to coordinate deliveries. Cindy Dudley, a Red Cross volunteer from Cedar City, Utah, was there in September 2005 when the program was well underway.

“We have a daily supply run from Warehouse #4 in Walker, and the Red Cross provides everything from toothpaste to underwear for the police and firefighters and their families living on board these ships,” she said, checking items off her list as boxes were carried up the gangway to the ship.. “I gather a list of needs from the ships and pass them along to Tim Orsen or one of the other workers at the warehouse. The next day he makes a supply run to each of the three ships with supplies. These are then provided free to anyone living on the ship that needs them. Many of these people have lost everything, and they are still out there every day, doing their jobs protecting the city. They are living in pretty close quarters, but they have developed a wonderfully supportive community on board.”

The Red Cross support role transitions

Six months later the workers have left the cruise ships and the support role of the Red Cross for them has changed. This is one of many areas where the American Red Cross is transitioning from its Katrina emergency disaster relief role to a longer-term community recovery effort. As the people of New Orleans begin to rebuild their lives the Red Cross has stepped up its traditional post-disaster role to help survivors access health and mental health resources to meet ongoing disaster-caused needs, assist families in finding the community resources they need to recover, and work with long-standing partners to help communities meet the needs of those affected by Katrina.

Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) will continue to provide hot meals, water, and supplies from a contract kitchen in New Orleans for those in need, particularly those living in temporary trailers and rebuilding their homes. An ERV was stationed at the passenger terminal today distributing water, meals and snacks to people leaving the ships.

Dorothy White, Red Cross volunteer from Hillsboro, Oregon, has been on Katrina relief assignments since October, 2005, and was at the ERV. “We have plenty of Meals-Ready-to-eat (MREs) and Heater Meals on board to distribute as well as water and snacks,” she said. “And when people go back to their neighborhoods to live in their trailers and work on rebuilding their homes, we will be there with our ERVs to supply them food and water.”

“For many this is going to be an emotional change, as they move from the close community that they have experienced on board the cruise ships to situations where they may be isolated in their FEMA trailers,” said Mary Sutton, Southeast Louisiana Chapter Red Cross Board Member. “Our mental health counselors are sensitive to this need and will offer help to smooth the transition.”

Roslyn Thomas is the wife of a New Orleans policeman, and is a little apprehensive about their new quarters; “We’re going to be cramped in our new trailer,” she said. “I will miss the company of the other families we have been living with for so long on the Ecstasy.” She then added, “I really appreciate what the Red Cross has done for us since we have been here. When I couldn’t buy any clothes because all the stores were closed, the Red Cross took care of our needs. I know that the Red Cross is there to help me through this next stage as well.”

The Carnival Line ships return to their traditional role

As people filed off the ships onto waiting buses their luggage was packed into box trucks following each bus. They symbolically marked the end of a phase in the long road to recovery from Hurricane Katrina. As they left, a group of new people filed on board. These were the crew and technicians who will begin refitting the two ships.

David Moorman from Melbourne, Florida is a communications specialist who came aboard. “I am going to be working on refitting and restoring the communications for the Sensation to get it ready for the cruise season.”

The two Carnival Line ships will leave New Orleans on March 2, bound for Mobile, Alabama and dry dock to refit and clean the hulls. According to crewmember Joan Sterling the Sensation will be in dry dock for about 19 days and will then sail to Cape Canaveral where it will resume its Caribbean cruises. The Ecstasy will refit in Mobile also and will then sail to Galveston where it will begin its cruise season on April 8.