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Blog #13 - A new role for the Scotia Prince as a disaster relief shelter in New Orleans

September 28, 2005

The last two days have been a blur, so I apologize for getting a day behind. My photographer Tom and I spent a very long day in New Orleans on Tuesday, and Wednesday were in Slidell for another long day. Let me tell you about my impressions of New Orleans.

First a little background. Tom and I were returning to headquarters from an assignment on Monday and he suggested we stop by Red Cross warehouse #4 in Walker, just east of Baton Rouge. The Red Cross operation in Louisiana has established a number of warehouses around the state to store and then distribute a wide range of supplies to relief operations. “I get a lot of story leads from these guys,” Tom said. “Supply is always the first to know what is going on, and I’ve cultivated a relationship with the crew at Warehouse #4. I’ll introduce you to them.”

We pulled into a shopping center that had seen better days, and Tom parked in front of an old department store that was filled with rows and pallets of boxes. There were four or five fork lifts loading rental trucks with Red Cross decals on their sides. Hand printed signs warned us to enter through the left front door only. “Center doors are for forklifts only - Danger!” was posted on the double center doors, and yellow crime scene tape cordoned it off from pedestrians.

Watching out for forklifts we walked back into the bowels of the warehouse and found assistant manager Mathew Smith. He is a Red Cross volunteer from Lansing, MI, and greeted Tom like an old friend. He checked a clip board and told us where trucks were going tomorrow. “And here is one - we’re making a run to the three cruise ships in New Orleans with a load of clothes for the guests. It looks like we are delivering men’s underwear, socks, women’s shoes, plus garbage bags and paper goods tomorrow.”

He said that the trucks would be leaving about 9:30 a.m. and would be going to the Carnival Cruise Line’s Sensation and Ecstasy at the cruise ship pier in New Orleans, and then to the Scotia Prince at the Associated Terminals in Chelmette.

The Scotia Prince is here!

My ears picked up when I heard Scotia Prince. The ship is an auto ferry as well as a cruise ship and I remember traveling on it to Nova Scotia a few years ago. The Scotia Prince has been a familiar sight at Portland harbor.

Smith continued; “These three ships are being used as shelters for New Orleans police, fire fighters, medical personnel, and other evacuees and relief workers. FEMA has leased them for six months, and the Red Cross provides supplies to them. Cindy Dudley is the Red Cross liaison in New Orleans and she sends us the request for items. We fill the order from our inventory here and deliver it the next day. We’ll be going down tomorrow, if you’d like to meet us there.”

Driving to New Orleans

My partner and I decided that this was a story worthwhile to chase, and so did our assignment chief Ed Porter back at headquarters. The next morning we drove down to New Orleans to meet the Red Cross warehouse truck. Tim Orsen was driving the truck, and he gave us instructions for entering the city.

“You’ll need to follow my directions closely, because many of the city streets are not open yet. Even though they show on your map doesn’t mean you can use them. Much of Interstate 10 through the city is closed,” he said. “Be ready to show your Red Cross identity cards at the police checkpoints, and tell them where you are going and why. Otherwise you won’t be able to get south of Interstate 610.”

As we approached New Orleans I got my first look at the destruction that Hurricane Katrina had wrought. It was even worse here, if that is possible, than the damage I had seen in Slidell. Passing our first police checkpoint we drove south from I-610 along Canal Street heading for the Mississippi River and the French Quarter. The debris was everywhere, and abandoned cars had rings on them like you see in a bathtub. That was where the water had covered them, and as it was lowered the water left another ring. There were scum lines on all the buildings showing how high the flood waters had reached when the dikes had failed.

Prominent on nearly every building was a large “X” spray painted with the date, the initials of a rescue organization, and numbers. If the number was “0” it meant that the building had been searched and it was empty. If dead were found, that was shown. One of the buildings was marked “2 cats”, and a second notation SPCA. Hopefully the cats were found alive and rescued.

Cruise Ships and the French Quarter

The two Carnival Line ships are docked at the Julia Street cruise line terminal on the Mississippi River. There were two FEMA checkpoints to go through to be to the dock, where we met Dudley. She is a Red Cross volunteer from Cedar City, Utah, and told us about her experiences with the ships. “The people staying on board have lost their homes and this is the only place they and their families have to live. They are still doing their job as New Orleans police and firefighters, and this is their temporary home away from home.”

The French Quarter was nearly deserted but was largely untouched, with no flooding and very little wind damage to roofs and balconies. An evacuee from the French Quarter, Arden Stitzell, is living in Maine with her mother until she can return to New Orleans. We made a stop at her building and saw no damage. Power and water in the French Quarter is back on, but residents are advised not to drink the water yet until the system is purged and disinfected. As I stood on her doorstep I called Stitzell and gave her a report. She had not seen her place since before Katrina hit, and was delighted to hear the news. A neighbor, Krista Marks, was sitting on her front stoop with her dog as we drove by. She said that people are slowly coming back in to their homes in the French Quarter, and there was little damage.

”And is the Café DuMonde open?” I asked. “Not yet,” Marks said. “Come back in a couple of days. They are just now cleaning it out and hope to open soon.”

Return to the Scotia Prince

To get to Chalmette where the Scotia Prince is docked we had to get back on I-10 east, go south on I-510 past Six Flags of New Orleans, and turned west on St. Bernard Hwy. The Scotia Prince is tied up at Dock #1 on the Channel Slip off the Mississippi River, just west of the Chalmette 1812 Battlefield and National Military Cemetery. On the map it was just a short drive from downtown New Orleans on route 46, but we followed our instructions and took the long way around. We learned later that route 46 is not open all the way through, so we would have been stuck if we’d just followed the map.

We pulled up to the slip and there she was, tied up to the dock with several trucks unloading. Our Red Cross truck was there unloading boxes of clothes, and bags of ice were being unloaded from another. We went on board and met with several members of the crew, some of the 440 police, firefighters and emergency workers living there.

The ship was much as I remembered her, with her crew neat and friendly in their uniforms. Police and fire fighters were everywhere, and the cruise ship “look” had been transformed into something much more utilitarian. I wonder what the Queen Mary and other cruise liners looked like when they were temporarily converted into troop transports in WW II. Probably something very similar to the Scotia Prince transformation. The gift shop is now stocked with personal items, free for any of the guests on board. Red Cross volunteer Dinah Leiin from Nicaragua was busily stocking the clothes from the Red Cross delivery on the shelves. The casino has been transformed into a communications center, and the bars are closed. In the dining room there was a full buffet set up, with white-coated waiters carrying trays of ice tea and water. The tables were full, however, with public safety and rescue workers.

I interviewed Judy Hoffmeister, Councilwoman for St. Bernard Parish. She lost her home to Katrina and has been living on board the Scotia Prince since it has been docked here. She had been taken off her roof by rescue teams and helped coordinate rescue efforts for many of the 67,000 who live in her parish. She is also a manager with the local Red Cross, and sadly noted that the chapter offices have been destroyed along with most of the homes of her constituents.

I asked her how her experience on board had been. “A lot better than sitting on a roof top,” she smiled. “Seriously, we have been treated very well here. We are all anxious to go home, but they feed us well and all our basic needs are met.”

”Is there anything you need?” I asked.

”Something to read. Books, magazines, paperbacks. Something to pass the time.”

”I’ll see what we can do. My wife and I have an antiquarian book business and have been shipping boxes of paperbacks off to the troops in Iraq. I think we can make arrangements to send some down here as well,” I said. Tonya McDonald, a Red Cross courier from Baton Rouge, was there and gave me mailing instructions.

We retraced our steps out of the city, passing a decontamination station on the way where firefighters were hosing down the tires and undersides of vehicles leaving the disaster area. They were all covered in the thick, black mud that coated everything. As we passed through residential areas many of the cars and houses were coated in the white residue from the salt water that had flooded them. Grass, shrubs and trees were all dead from the salt.

We drove back to Baton Rouge via the Lake Pontchartain Causeway and US 12 through Mandeville and Covington. Traffic was light, although the radio has said that several zip code areas in New Orleans will be reopened on Thursday. I expect the traffic will be a zoo then.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree