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Blog #14 - “Please move to the second window for your order”

September 30, 2005

I traveled to Slidell on Wednesday, September 28, to cover a unique Red Cross operation to help Hurricane Katrina victims with emergency financial assistance. Tom the photographer came with me, as did Sharon Shogren and Peter Teahen from Public Affairs.

A Slidell shopping mall was converted into a drive-through service delivery site. Six lanes were set up for people to drive their cars through and receive prepaid debit cards. Depending on the size of the family and their need, families received up to $1,560 in preloaded Client Assistance Cards that they could use for food, clothing, or other items needed to help recover from the Hurricane.

The site was set up very much like the drive-through lane at McDonalds. There you place your order and drive to the first window to pay, and then go to the second window to pick up your order. With the Slidell operation Red Cross workers “vetted” the people in cars waiting in line to confirm that they had lived in the area hit by Hurricane Katrina. People were asked to show a picture id and some written proof of their pre-Katrina address, like a utility bill or phone bill. Once “vetted” cars were directed to a station where Red Cross workers had them fill out a form with name, address, and members of their family. At the second station their CAC was given to them, ready to use. The whole process took from three to five minutes per car.

Slidell, Louisiana - hard hit by Katrina

Slidell is a tight-knit community of about 25,000 in eastern Louisiana that was hit hard by the hurricane. Large numbers of its citizens were affected. Slidell Mayor Ben Morris estimates that more than 2,000 homes may have been destroyed.

To provide emergency financial assistance to victims from Slidell and other affected areas in Louisiana the Red Cross began offering emergency financial assistance for disaster-caused needs on September 11, 2005 through a Hotline. Since then nearly 50,000 families in Louisiana have received financial assistance totaling more than $32 million.

To augment this Hotline and broaden the outreach, the Red Cross has developed several different approaches for storm victims to obtain financial assistance in the form of client assistance cards. Partnerships with local groups and community organizations, such as the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the NAACP have provided venues for financial assistance.

The Slidell drive-through service delivery site is another outreach program that the American Red Cross has implemented to make it easier for people to receive relief assistance. It is the first time this innovative approach has been used to help answer the overwhelming demand for emergency financial assistance.

Long lines of cars

We left Baton Rouge early to get to the site well before the scheduled 9:00 a.m. opening. I wanted to talk to some of the city officials and interview some of the Red Cross workers. Tom wanted to get pictures of the set up. Sarah and Peter were there to talk to the national and local media that were expected to show up. This was going to be the first day of a two-week operation, but we were overwhelmed by the number of people who turned out. As we got within two exits of Slidell on I-10 the line of cars began. The local roads were just as bad, and the State Police estimated that the lines stretched six miles to the service site.

The operation took over the MRO mall. The mall was deserted except for a few people mucking out the sodden storm debris from their stores. Even in the bright sun of the day it was a little spooky to be surrounded by silent, blank buildings. The load of porta-potties was stuck in traffic and I was asked to escort some of the women Red Cross workers to the only working toilet within miles. The Men’s Room of the North Shore Baptist Church, located in one end of the mall, was still working. There were no lights, so I used a flashlight to lead the people back through the dark building and through the piles of rubble and soaked furniture to the bathroom. Then I stood guard outside and led them back out into the sunshine.

The Red Cross assigned 70 Client Services volunteers to process registration forms and distribute client assistance cards as well as water, ice, porta-potties, and tents for shade for the day-long event. The City of Slidell provided 12 police officers for traffic control and security. Additional traffic control was provided by Louisiana State Police, Parish Sheriff units, and a team of police from the City of Chicago who are in the area to provide disaster relief. Members of the Missouri 35th Special Troop Battalion National Guard were also on hand to help with security. The United Auto Workers (UAW) International Unit sent 12 members who helped set up tents and distribute ice and water to workers and clients.

“My boss called me about 10:30 last night and told me about the drive-through,” said Angela Bicklan. “I picked up my friend Sandy here and we drove right over. I live in Covington and she lives in Mandeville. We got here at 12:45 a.m. and were the second car in line.” Covington and her husband have four children and their home had extensive damage from downed trees during the hurricane. She was the second person to receive her client assistance card at the first day of the drive-through.

Her friend Sandra Johnson listed 2 children, her 71 year-old mother and 90-year old aunt in her household. “The roof of our house was badly damaged and we have black mold all through the house from water coming in. This money is going to come in useful to help get us back on our feet,” Johnson said.

We stayed at the site all day, and I got a number of good interviews. Tom filled a chip in his camera with images, and also found some interesting stories. He met “Squirrel” and his dog “Beauregard” who are living in a tent at the shopping mall. Squirrel is a street person who used to live in New Orleans but got forced out by Katrina.

A good first day

I met with Slidell’s Mayor Morris at the end of the first day. He told me; “We are dealing with a vast number of people. It was the same when they opened up the food stamp line, but this whole operation is going smoothly.” There were a few bugs to be smoothed out, such as minimizing traffic congestion so that the dump trucks hauling storm debris to a nearby disposal site would not be delayed, and addressing the long lines. In general, however, both Red Cross and City of Slidell officials were pleased with the first day’s efforts.

Carlos Garcia-Velez of the Red Cross said; “The cooperation from Mayor Morris and Slidell City officials, local law enforcement, State Police, National Guard, and labor unions have all contributed to make this effort a success. We are very appreciative.” More than 1,500 cars were processed and nearly $1 million in emergency financial assistance was distributed to Hurricane Katrina storm victims in the first day of the drive-through.

I talked with Carlos on Saturday and he was pleased to tell me that the total emergency relief paid out after three days of operation of the site exceeded $5.5 million.

On the way back I stopped off at Noah’s Wish animal rescue shelter to see if there were any new stories there and met “Raggs.” I’ll tell you about him next time.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree