This is the slightly edited text of an email I sent to coworkers and friends during my deployment. Names and most identifying details have been removed, and my 3 AM typos mostly cleaned out.
I have at last found the time to let you know where I have landed. I'm in one of three shelters in the town of Ferriday, LA. That's a little over 110 miles North and West of Baton Rouge. If you cross the Mississippi at Natchez, we are a little speck on the map due west of the river and Vidalia.
The view from the back door of the shelter. Barbed wire and barracks.
Shelter size is listed as 180, and we've got about 120 or so. Our situation is a bit odd. The shelter is officially the Concordia Parish Community Center, but is on the grounds of the Parish Correctional Facility. This is a minimum-security jail. (so much so that one of the inmates has been single-handedly dealing with the janitorial issues and most of the kitchen work while the shelter has been understaffed) The meals we serve are prepared by the jail kitchen, and are nutritious but institutionally bland. Now when I say "this is worse than prison food" I'll know what I'm talking about.
From where you are, you may actually have a broader picture of events around the area than I do. My concerns have shrunken to questions like: where am I going to find 10 cases of every diaper size in existence, right now? On that note, for those looking for a place to help, I'd like to pass along information about a group of people I've been working closely with down here-the ones I go to for the answer to that question. The local Baptist minister has been performing miracles with the resources of his parish. One of the other shelters is in his church-the staff dormitory is there as well. He has coordinated a massive supply effort for all of the shelters. They've been distributing supplies they've bought as well as donated goods to shelters, campgrounds, and area homes-several of which are sheltering upwards of a dozen evacuees, or housing the evacuees pets-something the Red Cross can't do. This morning I helped unload pickup trucks full of stuff from two families who'd driven down here from somewhere in Tennessee. Here is the thing. The money for this effort has been entirely raised in this town. As of yesterday, the effort was still in the black. This financially modest dust speck on the map has managed to create a significant operation overnight. If you want to give money knowing that it will go into direct support, this is the place. Every dime is going right back out to the local shelters, and anyone else who has need. There is also need for specific items, but I haven't got a list handy. But if you'd like to collect stuff and ship it down here, email the pastor and ask.
The folks that came down from Tennessee represent the very best impulse in people. They gave the idea some serious thought-including checking with relief organizations about what was needed in the area. Then they gassed up and headed south until they found someone (us) who represented a relief organization. After dropping their load-all of which we got distributed that day or the next, they headed north to do it again.
Dale Austin 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008