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.
Greetings once again;
I have a hard time believing that only three days have passed since my last email. My sense of time has completely eroded due to lack of sleep and stress. Much of my first few days were spent in a furious effort to catch up on all the basic sanitation tasks and organizing that had fallen by the wayside during the first days of this crisis. Part of the problem stems from the fact that this shelter was initially created by the local civil-defense official rather than the Red Cross, followed by a week and a half with only three staff for nearly 250 residents.
A four hour gap
The residents are at last settled down for the night. Most of the last few hours have been spent as a janitor, food servers, and day care operator. I seem to have become the designated terrorizer of uncooperative children, as I now only have to walk toward trouble to have it stop. After the initial chaos, establishing day-to-day control has been difficult, especially a short-staffed as we have been. The good news is that we at last have a set of fresh faces on the staff, two yesterday, and three today. This is good, as both the current manager and one of the most effective staff members are leaving this Friday. The overlap will let us play catch-up on some sorely neglected office tasks. One of the new women is a whiz at paperwork.
First Baptist Church, Ferriday LA
Horse trailer and downtown St Jo
I've spent most of the last few days at the Baptist church, either as a nighttime doorman, or working as a stevedore in the pastor's warehousing empire. Today was different. I drove north about fifteen miles or so, into Tensas (pronounced Ten-Saw) Parish to the towns of Waterproof and St Joseph with a nurse and one of the locals. Our job was to deliver a trailer full of supplies to these two places-mostly socks, underwear and t-shirts, with some food and blankets, along with some nursing time. Part of the mission was just to reinforce our presence in an area that had, until recently, received almost no support. Mind you, this was a horse trailer last used to carry an Angus calf-and not all that well cleaned out. So, now I'm trying to get the last remnants of cow flop out of my boots. Tensas Parish received some 1200 evacuees, but entirely unofficially, which is part of why they took so long to be noticed. Most of them went to homes of friends or family in the Parish, and there seems to be some reluctance to get involved with the official world. This is an area of extreme poverty. Certainly the worst I've ever seen. Description simply is not possible.
Doing the rounds tonight I see that R. and his family have left to a more stable place. Good thing, that. I should tell you a bit about R. He's about 5 or 6, and a pretty sweet kid, with gorgeous eyes. I didn't get to spend much time with him the first few days, just because of all the other things that had to be done. That changed the night he fell into a folding chair while he and another little boy were horsing around. I saw him go down. There was a gasp and then this little kid kneeling on the floor in the middle of a circle of children. That is a moment to scare anyone. The injury was slight, and I gloved up to treat it, all without a peep out of R. A bit of antibiotic ointment and a band-aid to the side of his head was all it took. We've been getting the kids enrolled in the local grade school. R. has been having problems. The stress was enough to cause him to start acting out in school-and he had to be removed one day. I hope that this behavior will go away under more stable conditions. This sort of acting out has shown up in different ways for different kids. More commonly, they revert to more childish behavior; pouting, whining, or even a case or two of thumb sucking. The stress has got to be incredible. And that is the group all of this will probably hit hardest.
And now we pause for a public service message from non-profits everywhere. If you wish to donate clothing, please sort it. (I sorted shoes for three hours this week-trust me) I suggest one of two possibilities; either a bag of one size/gender/clothing type (girls size six tops for instance) or as sets (socks, underwear, pants, top). Clear bags are best. Label the bags as to contents on a 3X5 card, visible through the bag, and tape 'em shut with packing tape.
As appreciated as efforts to donate materials are, they do pose a problem for most relief agencies. In the absence of specific material requests, it is best to assume that cash is best. For a good summary of why this is, see the Red Cross website.
Dale Austin 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008