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Blog #10 - Hurricane Rita comes knocking at the door

September 23, 2005

When we left for headquarters this morning a warm rain was just starting to fall, and by the time we got there it was coming down steadily. Inside the cavernous and windowless building we could neither hear nor see what the weather was doing outside, but the four television monitors we have in Public Affairs were full of news about the steady advance of Hurricane Rita towards Louisiana and Texas. Jim called me several times with updates, and twice there were tornado watch announcements for our area.

The weather guy reminded us that the eastern edge of the hurricane usually has the worst winds and rain. With landfall expected at the Texas-Louisiana state line, we are going to get some severe weather here in Baton Rouge. I called David Littlefield who is assigned to a shelter in Houma, down in the delta, and he said that they were bringing in people from the outlying shelters to sturdier and better protected shelter where he was. He is a lot closer to the gulf than I am, and I was concerned.

Carol Brown from Sebago called me from her Red Cross call center in Virginia. She had just arrived and was having computer training before starting to answer phones. She couldn’t help rubbing in that she was staying at a motel with a pool, queen sized bed and private shower.

Emergency shelters and storm instructions

By noon the rain was coming down in sheets with a heavy wind. We were told to clear out of headquarters by 3:00 p.m. and return to our assigned staff shelters.

Several new shelters have been set up to receive the new stream of evacuees from Texas and the Lake Charles area of Louisiana, and people from each unit have been pressed into service to man them. Sarah Shogren, who has been working with me on story assignments, was assigned to the North Point shelter being set up in the community center in Denham Springs. I drove her over there on the way back to my staff shelter.

We arrived at the community center before the Red Cross truck with supplies to open the shelter showed up, but not before several evacuees had gathered looking for refuge from the storm. I carry a big Red Cross sign in the car for photo opportunities, and stuck that on the front door. Sarah got on the cell phone to find out where the supply truck with cots, blankets, food and supplies was. The shelter manage said that it was overdue. One by one other shelter workers showed up and started to register the evacuees, organize a shelter area in the gym, etc. I joined another Red Cross volunteer from a nearby shelter and we borrowed enough cots, blankets and drinking water to buy a little time. I donate some of the supplies I brought from Maine and haven’t needed including my roll of duct tape, toilet paper, rubber gloves, etc. The shelter needs them more than I do at this point.

I left Sarah and several other Red Cross volunteers there and drove back to my staff shelter. By now the streets were flooding and the rain was more than the windshield wipers could handle. It was a relief to pull into the shelter and get out of the rain.

With all of the emergency deployments to new shelters the crew here tonight is small. Only about 25 are staying overnight at our staff shelter.

Jambalaya and Gumbo

I have heard about hurricane parties, where people stock the strongest building in the neighborhood with food and beer, and then gather to have a party and wait out the storm. We all gathered in the dining room about 6:00 p.m. and sat down to a big feed of homemade chicken, sausage and pork Jambalaya and chicken and sausage Gumbo.

The cooks in the kitchen are all neighbors, but are not members of the church. Earlier in the week two of the guys from the shelter, Bill Otwell from Laurel, Delaware and Scott Gray from Ventura, CA were having dinner at the Outback down the road. They met Tony Easterly and Tina Scott there and struck up a conversation about food. Bill and Scott complained that they had not had any good southern cooking since they’d been here, and were concerned that they might finish their tour before sampling any.

Tina and Tony recruited their neighbor, Julie Edmonson, and the three of them cooked up enough Jambalaya and Gumbo for 100 people. Tonight they brought two big pots over and served everyone at the shelter. They also brought supper to four families of evacuees from Houston who were staying in the neighborhood.

And now we wait

The storm is roaring outside and the rain is beating on the metal roof of the gym in sheets. Ted and Bill have broken out a big box of flashlights for everyone and have checked the generator and spare supplies. All we have to do now is wait for the storm to pass, but Rita is not due to make landfall until early tomorrow morning. It will be a long night.

I received a text message at 6:34 p.m. from David Littlefield down in the delta. “Getting to set up another shelter. Don’t know where yet…,” he sends. So I know that he is OK, and probably too busy to answer his cell phone.

My cell rings. It is Tom Jacobson, one of our photographers. “Al,” he says. “Be at headquarters at 8:30 tomorrow morning. We are going on assignment down in the delta as far as we can get on a story/photo assignment. Bring a bed roll in case we have to spend the night.”

”OK,” I said. “I’ll be there.”

The hurricane will have passed, and I’ll be able to see first hand how our shelters have faired. I sent a text message to David telling him I’m coming down tomorrow. “K,” he replies.

Time to go in and pack a travel bag for tomorrow. I may regret giving away my toilet paper and other stuff to the shelter, not knowing where we are going to spend the night tomorrow.

The wireless connection is down here, and the phones are out as well. I’ll have to send this off from headquarters tomorrow. I’ll also send up some images of the hurricane damage from Katrina for posting on the blog as well.

The night passes fitfully. The gym at the shelter has a metal roof and the rain pounds it like a hammer, peaking about midnight but continuing till dawn. Finally around 6am the rain slacks off to brief furious bursts. It has been like trying to sleep inside a 55-gallon steel drum with a band of insane monkeys hammering on it with sticks. But we are dry and safe, and I hope that those we are going to visit in the delta will have fared as well.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree