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Blog #4 - We’re going to Louisiana!

September 16, 2005

At last we have received our assignments! We are being sent to Baton Rouge, LA to help out at the Red Cross shelters there. Baton Rouge is northwest of New Orleans and was spared the worst from Hurricane Katrina, and has seen its population swell with evacuees from hurricane ravaged areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. [Note - although the term refugees fits the definition of the folks displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the “politically correct” term is evacuees. The Red Cross uses the term clients. The main point to keep in mind is that these are folks who are in need of help, and that is what we are trying to do.]

Fiona Fanning, director of Emergency Services for the Southern Maine Chapter of the American Red Cross, addressed our group of nine volunteers at a pre-deployment briefing on Wednesday, September 14. ”Thank you for your patience while your paperwork was being processed, and thank you for volunteering to help out. Your contributions are important and are appreciated. You will each make a positive difference in the lives of our clients who are in need from Katrina.”

She walked us through the procedures for deploying to a disaster area, how to arrange travel and contact numbers to call once we arrived in Baton Rouge. There were more forms to fill out, and we received our Red Cross identification cards and an ID number. She also issued each of us a debit card pre-loaded with $900.00. “These funds are to be used for your expenses while you are on deployment,” she advised us. “There is a list of authorized expenses in the materials I’ve handed out this morning. I suggest that you withdraw some funds for travel expenses while you are still in Portland. You may find ATMs hard to find when you get there.”

Eric Sawyer’s media advisory about the briefing had attracted reporters and cameras from Channel 6 and 8. When Fanning asked if there was anyone in the group who wanted to talk to the media, Dave and Jason were quick to nominate me. My 10 seconds of fame ran on the evening news that night and the next morning, but thankfully the emphasis was on the Red Cross’ national response effort.

We were each given a work assignment for the deployment. It was, not unexpectedly, different from that that we had each discussed with Bruce Peters the day before. I have been told repeatedly by Red Cross veterans to stay flexible, “Your assignment will be whatever is needed when you get there”

Jason and David are assigned to work in food services and feeding at the shelter. This makes sense for David because he was a cook in the Navy and is now a cook at Olive Garden. Jason, however, says he has trouble boiling water. “You dummy. Just put the pot of water in the oven and set it to 212 degrees,” helpfully suggested David. I don’t think his suggestion was appreciated.

I am assigned to shelter operations, which could be any number of different things. I’ll find out more when I report to Baton Rouge.

Doing my homework about Baton Rouge

We were told in our briefing to be prepared for the worst - no electricity, no water, no air conditioning, spotty cell phone coverage. There would be lots of mosquitoes (bring bug dope), heat, humidity, stress and hardship. Not that I doubted this advice, but I wanted to find out for myself what the current situation in Baton Rouge was before I left.

Wednesday afternoon Penny and I drove down to AAA in Portland and picked up maps of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The staff there helped me get detailed maps of Baton Rouge, including directions from the airport to the Red Cross disaster relief headquarters in the Wal-Mart on 9598 Cortana Place in West Baton Rouge. From there we went to the Maine Mall to pick up a few last minute items on my list.

When I got home I called Arden Stitzell and picked her brains about Baton Rouge. Stitzell lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans, or did until the hurricane forced her to temporarily relocate back home to her mother’s place on Hancock Pond, just up the road from our place. She was out of the city when the hurricane hit, and was not able to return to her apartment and rescue her two cats. The French Quarter where her apartment is located was high-and-dry through it all. Her landlord, Keith Wagner, stayed behind to watch over things and take care of the neighborhood animals.

He left New Orleans and brought Arden’s two cats with him to Covington, LA, just north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain. Arden flew into Baton Rouge last Thursday and drove to Covington.

”What were conditions like in Baton Rouge,” I asked her.

”I saw some trees down, and some wind damage,” she said. “But they had power and phones, and I had cell phone coverage most of the time while I was there. The Baton Rouge airport was a zoo, and the town looked pretty crowded.”

”As I drove east to Covington the storm damage got worse and worse as I got closer to the track that the hurricane had taken. Homes and buildings there were really in tough shape. I heard that a lot of people have fled the areas hit by the hurricane and are staying in shelters in Baton Rouge until they can go home. The population of Baton Rouge is usually about 227 thousand, and it might be twice that now,” she concluded.

”And you have your cats all safe and sound back here in Maine?” I asked.

”They are settling in nicely. They came from Maine, so they are coming home too.”

In anticipation of deployment I tossed and turned all night long Wednesday, and finally about 3:00 a.m. gave up trying to sleep as a lost cause and went down to the computer in the office. I found that as of a few days ago there were 14 shelters in and around Baton Rouge, including three Red Cross shelters in West Baton Rouge. The local television and radio stations and newspaper websites were up and running, and local government websites had lists of emergency numbers and other Katrina information posted. All had current information, which said to me that a good part of the local infrastructure was operating and we could probably expect to find power and phones working.

I checked the local weather and was not surprised to see that Robin Williams had been making the forecasts, “…the weather is going to be HOT, and tomorrow it is going to be HOT…” I guess I’ll leave my down vest and wool cap with the earflaps at home.

Making travel arrangements

We were given a number to call at World Travel BTI to call and make air travel arrangements. I called early on Thursday morning (I was up anyway) and got a reservation on a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Portland on Friday, September 16. The agent I spoke with at World Travel was very friendly and helpful, but said that they had been “swamped” with Red Cross emergency workers traveling into and out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster area. There was no problem in flying people to Houston or Dallas/Fort Worth, but there was a serious bottleneck getting people into Baton Rouge. I was glad that I called as early as I had. David didn’t call World Travel till several hours later on Thursday, and the earliest that he could fly was Sunday because of the Baton Rouge.

I should have been suspicious of the fog Thursday night. It was thick enough so that the plane I was supposed to fly out of Portland Friday morning never made it the night before. The customer service lady at US Airways was very helpful in trying to make new travel arrangements for me on a later flight, but came up against a brick wall when she tried to find a seat on a connecting flight into Baton Rouge. I spread my Louisiana road map out on the ticket counter and she tried alternate destinations close enough to drive from to Baton Rouge. She booked me on two Continental flights from Boston to Lafayette, LA via Houston, gave me a free voucher for a taxi ride to Logan in Boston, and wished me well on my assignment. Lafayette is only 58 miles west of Baton Rouge, and the Red Cross has an arrangement with Greyhound to bus people there from the shelter at the Gater Dome in Lafayette.

The taxi ride through the fog and the morning Boston commuter traffic was fairly uneventful, and when I checked in at the Continental counter I was again met with wonderful service. The clerk there booked me on an earlier flight and put me on stand-by on a connecting flight into Baton Rouge from Houston. If I couldn’t get on that flight, I still have reservations on a later flight into Lafayette. She also wished me well, and waived the excess baggage charge (my duffle weighed 72 pounds).

I had about 15 minutes to make the flight, but the gate was not far from the ticket counter. It was a little tense when the security folks decided to spot-check me and pulled me out of line for a detailed once-over of my carry on and my person. The flight had been called and was boarding when security decided I wasn’t a terrorist risk and released me, but I made it with a few minutes to spare. I met another firefighter from Lawrence, MA who was also going to the Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge and we had a chance to compare notes.

I was on standby to continue on to Baton Rouge from Houston, and was the last person called. Plane was full, and about half are disaster relief workers of one sort or another.

Made it to Baton Rouge

I wrote this on the plane enroute Houston, and posted it from the business center at the Baton Rouge airport. Everything seems to be up and running here, with a very large contingent of military transports and helicopters on the parking aprons. Now I’m off to see if my bag has arrived, although I seriously doubt that it made the very short connection in Houston. The adventure continues.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree