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U.S.: Volunteers Provide Shelter To Homeless Victims (Part 4)

The devastation wrought across the U.S. Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans is a story of hundreds of thousands of personal tragedies. At the same time, the disaster raises the question of how a country with as many resources as the United States failed to better anticipate and cope with the scale of destruction. Yet there are also encouraging tales of courage and perseverance amid the suffering. That includes efforts by volunteers to shelter and rescue victims and help them prepare to go home again. RFE/RL visits a shelter in Baton Rouge in the fourth installment of our five-part series on the hurricane.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana; 9 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Entering the living quarters of thousands of people affected by a major natural disaster, one might expect an atmosphere of desperation and flaring tempers.

But the River Center Shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, looks orderly, air-conditioned, and clean.

The shelter, housing more than 4,400 evacuees from New Orleans and its surroundings, is the biggest in the state of Louisiana. It was established by the American Red Cross in a large convention hall just days before Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"Right now the American Red Cross here, in Louisiana, is providing food, water and shelter still to these evacuees," said Jason Golden, the American Red Cross representative at the shelter. "These are not refugees, it's very important that we stress that point. These are residents of New Orleans and we're taking care of them here at the shelter. We're providing them with safe place to stay, safe drinking water and food, three meals a day, all the snacks they want. They get their mental-help opportunities, they have an infirmary in the back."

Basic necessities, as Golden described them, include Sony Play Station video-game consoles, free unlimited local and long distance calls, religious services, and a small movie theater on the second floor.

Privacy for families is provided by the bright orange tents that are set up all over the convention rooms.

Almost all of the evacuees at the shelter are African-American -- like Janice Reed, 58, and her mother, Amelia Francis, 79. They have been at the shelter since the day the hurricane hit.

Janice told RFE/RL that initially they wanted to go to the New Orleans' Superdome but then decided to evacuate instead to Baton Rouge.

"Well, I'm flooded," Reed said of her home. "It went to the rooftop, yeah. I'm close to what they call Seminola, I'm not in New Orleans' parish, but Seminola -- this is the next parish over. But water is up to my roof. My car, I had a car in my yard, and also I brought a car to drop us off. I had two cars. So the car that I've brought to drop off my mom is around the Superdome, and they tell me it's all flooded, the garage that it was in."

Reed said that she feels lucky to be alive and healthy and that she is trying "to make good of a bad situation."

Francis is disabled and in a wheelchair. She is the mother of 10 children -- six girls and four boys.

Amelia said she's happy about how she's been taken care of at the shelter but that she is concerned about one son who did not evacuate with the rest of the family. She hasn't heard from him.

Still, even as most evacuees show great resilience in the face of their personal tragedies, there is no mistaking that there is also confusion and anger over the disaster they have experienced.

One young man argued with two military police officers responsible for security inside the shelter.

He tried to convince them that the state police in New Orleans participated in looting after the hurricane as much as the looters whom they were supposed to arrest.
Amelia said she's happy about how she's been taken care of at the shelter but that she is concerned about one son who did not evacuate with the rest of the family.

It is a charge that has also surfaced in a recent U.S. television news report showing images of some police officers taking goods from a flood-damaged New Orleans department store. However, police authorities say the officers, also hard pressed for daily provisions in the disaster area, only took necessities like dry socks, water, and food.

The young man at the shelter, who introduced himself as Kundo, told RFE/RL that the police in New Orleans also indiscriminately beat young African-American men like him in the aftermath of the hurricane -- another charge police deny.

"They said 'Don't touch anything till we take everything,'" Kundo claimed. "When they took what they wanted they left and everybody in there -- it was everybody like see one person take something, the next person -- see monkey do. And that's how it was, the New Orleans police officers -- they were treating us really bad. They told us we would not get no food and nothing from [them]. We couldn't come up to the police officer without them wanting to shoot at us. It was ridiculous, we cannot do nothing out there. Nothing at all, they prevented my grandmother from getting water."

Sergio Olivas, 32, who is originally from Nicaragua, was a resident of West New Orleans for the past 10 years. He is at the shelter with his wife and six-year old son. His wife is three weeks short of another baby delivery.

Olivas told RFE/RL his son doesn't really understand what's going on and that he's playing with the other children at the shelter.

"A kid, I believe, he don't have the common sense of an adult," Olivas said. "He knows by seeing all the kids around here, playful. I try too to play along with him, try to keep his mind off the TV because he can see all the news on the TV, how's everything going on, all the houses and destruction and so on."

Olivas also said that he's been touched by the compassion that not only the Red Cross volunteers but also the other evacuees are showing toward his family.

"I cannot complain about, I cannot say nothing wrong because people you don't know, they're trying to give you a hand, with food, especially my wife, they bring clothes, little babies' clothes, left and right. It's been, you know, I say they are angels sent by God to help us out," Olivas said.

Neely Picquet is at the shelter with four of her nieces. Children are playing and jumping around the little playground in the middle of the hall. One of them is Asia Williams. She told RFE/RL that she likes it here.

"Because it's fun, I like to play with toys, and you got birthday toys, too," Williams said.

Golden of the American Red Cross says that so far over $440 million have been raised for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

He said that money will help the some 145,000 people from the severely affected areas that have been relocated in temporary housing across United States.

Audio Slideshow: Inside The Baton Rouge Shelter Real Audio, Windows Media

See also:

Despite Wealth, America Not Prepared For Disaster (Part 1)

Hurricane Devastates New Orleans, Unique American City (Part 2)

Only The Stench Drives Survivors From New Orleans (Part 3)

Damage From Katrina Poses Risks For Global Energy Market (Part 5)