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Blog #5 - Welcome to Baton Rouge

September 17, 2005

”My parent’s home was in Slidell, and it is completely gone,” said the man seated next to me in the plane from Houston to Baton Rouge. “Nothing is left but a pile of sticks and the foundation. I’m going back to get the cleanup started for them.”

”Do you live in the area?” I asked.

“I live in about 20 miles west, near Covington,” he replied. “We lost several trees in our yard but only had a little wind damage to our house. There were a couple of big pines behind the house that were starting to die. I had ‘em taken down and it turned out to be a good thing that I did, because they would have come down right on the house in the hurricane.”

Too many people here in Louisiana have similar stories. Many have worse ones. Appearances in Baton Rouge are deceiving, however. The city didn’t get a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. There was wind damage and trees down, but the heaviest damage in Louisiana was along the storm track further south and east. But the population of Baton Rouge has nearly doubled with the influx of hurricane survivors. You meet them in restaurants and stores, and the roads are clogged with traffic. They all have stories to tell, and over the next few weeks while I am here I’ll tell you some of them.

Arriving in Baton Rouge

Every seat on the airplane to Baton Rouge was full and more than half of the passengers were disaster relief workers of one sort or another. There were nurses and paramedics, Red Cross volunteers with their red jackets, fire fighters and police from every part of the country. There was a tangible tenseness in the cabin as the pilot announced over the intercom that we were on our approach into Baton Rouge.

”What am I getting into,” I wondered, “and am I going to be up to the challenge?” I’m sure that most everyone with me had the same concerns.

As we taxied to the terminal every eye was on the bustle of activity at the airport. We passed several C-130 transports and dozens of helicopters, all in military drab green and some with red crosses on them. When we entered the terminal it was a mass confusion of people coming and going.

My bag didn’t show up at baggage claim. There was little comfort in learning that there were a lot of other missing bags to keep it company wherever they had been sent. I waited in line at the Continental counter for about 30 minutes to file a lost baggage claim while one harried attendant tried to calm the tired and warm customers as she processed everyone as best she could.

I was in line behind a crew of four TV journalists from Paris heading home to France. ”How long have you been here working on the hurricane?” I asked one of the journalists.

”We’ve been here eleven days, and have been all over the state filming,” he said. “It is hot, and very sticky, and we’re ready to go home. We’ve gotten some great stories though and it has been worthwhile.”

Getting my Red Cross assignment

I filed my lost bag claim and called the 800 number for instructions for incoming Red Cross volunteers. A taxi took me to the Red Cross disaster headquarters in Baton Rouge. The headquarters has taken over the building that used to be the Baton Rouge Wal-Mart until a new “Super Store” was built. I entered through what used to be the garden store entrance after showing my Red Cross ID card to the security guard and walked into a sea of people milling around. Red Cross staff completely fills the cavernous space, and each department has marked off their work areas with tables. At this central headquarters the stream of incoming staff are registered and given their assignments to one of the many shelters, feeding stations, warehouses or other operations in the area. Three weeks into the disaster, there now is power, phones, cell phones, and wireless internet connections.

On Wednesday when I talked to the Kendall Hebert, Manager of Public Relations for the local Red Cross Louisiana Capital Area Chapter she suggested that I report to the Public Affairs supervisor at headquarters. A number of team members are approaching the end of their assignments and there was a need for replacements. I found the Public Affairs area and introduced myself to team leader Bob Howard.

”I’ve done some writing for local papers and a lot of briefing in my time. I’m new to the Red Cross disaster relief operations, but have worked on other disaster relief operations here and there. Can you use another writer on your team?” I asked.

”Yes,” Bob said. “When you register tell them you’ll be working with us. I’ll see you when you get all processed in.”

The folks at the Southern Maine Chapter had done a wonderful job of getting us prepared for this assignment, and we had our Red Cross identification cards, debit cards, and all our forms completed and in hand. From the time I sat down at the registration desk to be interviewed until I was all processed took only 20 minutes. I felt sorry for all those who arrived unprepared and had to wait in long lines for identification cards, to fill out forms, to get their debit cards, etc.

After going to the obligatory orientation briefing (which was nearly identical to that we had received from Fiona Fanning in Portland), I reported to Public Affairs. There Barbara Wade took me under her wing and walked me through the process of getting a cell phone, car, shelter assignment, and maps of the areas that I would need for my writing assignments.

I take every cynical thought I had about how a huge organization like the Red Cross cannot possibly match people’s experience and skills up with assignments. This assignment seems perfect for me, and I am looking forward to writing feature articles about the Red Cross shelters and feeding operations, interviewing staff and clients, and generally getting the word out about the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief operation. There are several writers and photographers on the team and they are assigned all over the state. It should be a very exciting and useful assignment, and will be both challenging and fun.

Continental found my bag and I picked it up at the airport. I am assigned to sleep at the Woodlawn Baptist Church where a staff shelter has been set up for about 80 Red Cross workers. It is about 5 miles from headquarters, and I get there to unload my bag and stake out a cot in the gym just as a torrential thunderstorm begins. Staff briefing is at headquarters at 07:30 every morning so tomorrow I’ll find out more about my assignment and fellow Public Affairs workers.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree