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.
It seems I can only find the time to write when manning the night desk at the Community Center shelter. In the last week most of the residents have managed to find permanent or semi-permanent accommodations with friends and relatives. This shelter is down to about 25-30, and will lose a few more tomorrow. We will also gain as much as 40 more, when the Baptist Church shelter is consolidated with ours. The really good news is that the Vidalia shelter is already closed, with all of their people having found a place to go. The bad news is that these moves always upset and agitate everyone.
Perhaps you recall the stories of the flooded New Orleans Jail? Last night we acquired 8 recently rehabilitated citizens courtesy of the Parole Division. Which is just fine, except for the fact that they were delivered by armed guards. Some still wore prison jumpsuits, which agitated everybody. In fact, they are model citizens here. No doubt this is because the daily routine of a shelter resembles a jail (unfortunately). They've fit right in, helping out, keeping their space clean, and generally keeping to themselves. There is a natural leader among them, a young man who was clearly a former Marine. He came out of the waters of New Orleans with a full blown plan of action for the next six months-the VA facility in Little Rock, so now all he needs is the little bit of cash the Red Cross can provide for a bus ticket, and he's relocated. Their lives over the last few weeks have not been pleasant, standing in water up to their necks expecting to drown, being rescued by the SWAT team that was sent in, then released on their own-to end up sleeping in fields, only to be picked up again and released to us. We don't ask, but from what the gentlemen have said, the charges were mostly alcohol related. As one said, all he could think of was not wanting to die for being drunk in public.
That R was a former Marine (there really are no former Marines) was clear from the moment I laid eyes on him. I was at the other end of the room, maybe 80 feet away. R went to talk to the shelter manager. Something in his stance-the carefully measured distance from the table, the hands behind the back with his feet slightly spread, the unflinching form of direct address-all of these spelled Corps.March 1, 2006
Went back to St. Joseph today to deliver more supplies for the evacuees living in homes there and to check blood pressures and generally look into the health of people there. One of the volunteers in the church there has appallingly high blood pressure-despite being too poor herself to afford the medication she needs, she's been helping others and putting in the same sort of long days that we are. After today's trip, the deacon arranged for the community to chip in to pay for medication. There I also met two survivors of the I-10 bridge group. Later on I'll talk a bit about their experience.
Yesterday I drove two of our staff-the shelter manager and another volunteer-back to Baton Rouge for their flights home. It was my day off, but didn't really rest me much. Inside the huge headquarters building, I ran into another volunteer I'd met on the plane down from Memphis. He's a military medic and has been driving into New Orleans from the west bank everyday with one of the Red Cross food vehicles. He'd been sent back to Baton Rouge for a mandatory R&R. And after the chat we had, I can see why. The content of that talk must remain private but it is safe to say that after this is all over, all he wants to do is spend the next year sitting on the front porch of his house and watch the lake. He got the assignment I both dreaded and wished for, and I'm not sure I could have done it.
I find that I still can't share his experience. That is for him to do. What I can is say that after a few days on his assignment, his crew had to locate a source of cheap hiking boots they could throw away after each shift. March 1, 2006
It's 2:00 AM here, and all of this has happened in one stretch with three two to two and a half hour naps. I'm being relieved in about an hour, and that god-awful folding cot in the back room is sounding better by the minute.
Dale Austin 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008