Hurricane Katrina never counted on Baton Rouge

[post-game analysis will be provided in a later post. here be raw details, apologies for the length.]

Thursday 9/8

Left work at about 4:30, biked home, packed for the weekend, bringing enough food/shelter to basically camp out for the weekend if need be. Dave picked me up at 6:30, drove to PJ Anderson's house, he used to be a coworker and is now a youth minister for St. John's parish Hammond, IN. He had gotten us a discount ($700 instead of $1,100) on a 17 foot U-Haul one-way rental to Baton Rouge. PJ was there with a group of people receiving donated items from parishioners - food, clothing, toiletries, even a couple boxes of medical supplies including blood sugar level monitors - and working on packing everything into boxes, sealing, labeling, and filling the truck. Items were continuing to arrive as we packed; we finished up around 9:30, with the truck about 3/4 full. We met PJ's Dad, took a picture of everything before closing it up, and then dropped PJ off at his car at the U-Haul office. Dave was driving his car and I was getting a crash course in driving a box truck. Due to it being a one-way rental, we needed to drive both vehicles to Baton Rouge to have a car for the return trip, and Dave's car wasn't setup for being towed. We then drove to Gary Buell's house in Whiting, IN. Him, his wife, and his young son were waiting for us with a garage full of more items he'd been receiving from friends to fill the remainder of the truck. We hadn't picked up a padlock for the back so they let us leave the truck parked in their driveway while we went and grabbed some dinner. They ended up also donating a padlock they had because Wal-Mart was already closed, we quickly ate on their back porch, and then hit the road at about 11:30PM. We'd be taking I-94 to hop on I-57 southbound.

Friday 9/9

A few hours into the drive Dave and I were both fighting to keep our eyes open. We pulled into a rest stop and got 2.5 hours of sleep, then got going again. We finally got out of Illinois - the largest portion of the drive - merged onto I-55, made it through Memphis rush hour traffic without too much hassle, and stopped for breakfast at a TA truck stop and paid a few bucks for some wireless internet. We stopped for lunch at another truck stop, this time in Mississippi, far enough south to get some good food. A little later in the afternoon as we dropped into Louisiana, we stopped at a rest area to stretch and chatted with a few other people coming through. One woman was from New Orleans who was now staying with friends, another couple of guys were making repeated drives of a semi from Coldwater, MI to various places in the south, loaded with donated items. They seemed to be having some last-minute miscommunication on who would be at the receiving end of this particular load. Cell phone reception was very spotty. We were worried about the highway (12) we'd be taking from I-55 to Baton Rouge since it passes relatively close to New Orleans, but the woman let us know it was open. In general we were getting more tense/excited with each passing mile. We passed many caravans of utility trucks, military (mostly state-level) convoys, rental trucks, and a large caravan of semis labeled "Incident Catering Services". Highway 12 was full of heavy traffic, but it didn't slow down too much until a few miles outside of Baton Rouge.

We followed the directions we'd been given and came into BR, found our way to a retail store called The Backpacker (www.backpackerbr.com) and met the owner, Dale Mathews. A few days after Katrina, Dale had emailed all of his suppliers asking for any material support they'd like to have delivered to evacuees. He had rented a ~30 foot Penske truck and was receiving thousands of brand new items from various outdoor clothing manufacturers. Shared Marketing Services, where Dave and I work, helps manage a portion of The North Face's marketing strategy, and so we had received Dale's original email. John Pacini was the contact at SMS, a friend of both Dave and I, and longtime friend, band member, and roommate of PJ Anderson's. John knew that Dave really wanted to do something more than send money down to Louisiana, so after receiving Dale's email he connected the dots.

We went into the store and met Dale's son Michael, an outdoor guide and soon-to-be graduate of Louisiana State University. We left the U-Haul locked up next to their Penske and followed Dale to their home right next to LSU's campus and on a small lake. We met Dale's wife Carol, were shown to a couple of beds where we could crash for the few days, even with internet access, and then Michael, his sister Catherine - a professional photographer - and their dates, all showed up to join us for some crawfish gumbo and homemade garlic bread. Dave and I promptly passed out shortly thereafter, no later than 9PM.

Saturday 9/10

We got up close to 8AM, had some quick breakfast, and drove over to the store. Dale owns the building but only uses a portion of it for the store, leasing out other chunks of it to about 3 other companies. One was not currently in use, so it had been designated as temporary storage for donated items. When we arrived, there were already 8-10 people people in there unpacking the boxes of new items and dividing them up by type, gender, and size, to be put back in the boxes with bright labels affixed. We wouldn't be touching our U-Haul quite yet. The group consisted of Dale, Carol, Michael, Catherine, two journalists from Outside Magazine who were working with us while passing through the entire region taking notes, and some friends of the Mathews family. Michael had us organize the boxes in the truck by gender and type so we could quickly unload/load at our destinations. There were shirts (including many dri-fit), pants, shorts, briefs, shoes, sandals, and socks - all brand new and in the various sizes that you typically find. Dale had compiled a spreadsheet of all of the evacuee shelters he could find in town, mostly churches that had pulled together their resources, and each day he called each one for an updated count on their capacity, their current load, and any specific needs they had. What we would do is drive to some of the larger shelters (~75-100 evacuees each), and unload the truck into an open space to allow everyone to come through and pick out what they need. Dale would setup an appointment with the shelter managers so that they could have everyone ready when we arrived, and about an hour later we'd pack up and go on to the next shelter. This way more people could benefit from these good items and there wouldn't be the waste of just dumping an arbitrary quantity of sizes/types/genders at shelters that have very transient membership. We went to four shelters today, meeting various other volunteer groups. In-between two of the shelters, one of our group picked up McDonald's for all of us and we ate together outside under some trees. It was about 85 degrees each midday of the weekend, no rain. Traffic was horrible, even the shortcuts that the locals knew of were all jam packed. But the city seemed to be running smoothly with the doubled population.

We returned to the Mathews home, and Dave went to a pub on LSU's campus with Michael and his girlfriend Margo. They planned on catching some of LSU's home-but-not-at-home football game. I was interested in looking for stuff to do at a shelter if possible, and Dale helped out by calling the River Center which has been the primary evacuee shelter. At one point it was holding over 10,000 evacuees, but currently it's somewhere over 1,000. I drove Dave's car there, it was in downtown and there were a lot of police around, a lot of military, a lot of news trucks, and a lot of emergency relief vehicles. I stood in line for about 20 minutes to get through a metal detector, then went up to the volunteers room. The entire shelter was being run by the Red Cross. Since I was just in for a few hours I couldn't take a specific shift (shifts are 7 to 7) but was told to walk around looking for stuff to do. The center operates as two autonomous shelters - one in an arena, another in an exhibition hall - sharing one kitchen and medical station. Each shelter has a table functioning as an information desk filled with current information and manned by a shelter manager with a microphone for making announcements to the entire shelter. Mail, phone messages, and current events would be delivered to the shelter manager, to jot it down on a note, and periodically announce all the notes that had been received in the past 15-30 minutes. I ended up as a shelter manager assistant, manning the table whenever Wil - a Red Cross volunteer beginning his 3rd and final week of duty, from Rochester NY - needed to leave it, delivering any items to other areas of the center, taking announcement notes, and folding blankets and cots. We were running short on both of those items, as people would keep them when they left but we'd occasionally receive new evacuees when smaller shelters shut down. I intended to stay at this post until things settled down after the 10PM lights out. But tonight being the LSU game, an exception was made and the lights were left on along with a large projection TV in one corner playing the game, with some tables & chairs filled with evacuees clustered around it. There was a lot of hustle and bustle, people enjoying the game, little kids running around in a tshirts and diapers. Things got loud as LSU wrapped up a decisive win, and the mood generally seemed upbeat. I got out of there a little after midnight, stopped for some not-so-fast food on my way back, and in bed by 2AM.

Sunday 9/11

I got up in time to join Dale & Carol at their 8AM Episcopal service, followed by a little tour of LSU's campus to show me where the Catholic church was, and I drove there for the 10AM mass. I met everyone around 12:30 at the store, after filling up Dave's tank, they'd all arrived at noon. Interestingly, gas prices had dropped when we got farther south, to about $2.50/gallon. We had no problems obtaining gas, other than the requirement of prepaying and two stations imposing a $20 limit. At the store the Penske truck was replenished with yet more new items, and we drove to one shelter this afternoon. At all of the shelters, the volunteers were very appreciative of our help and the evacuees were happy to actually have choices. It was inspiring to see the ways churches and volunteers pulled together to support the so many people who were experiencing homelessness for the first time. At today's shelter we left many of the boxes in their storage because they intend to remain as a permanent facility long term. A young woman who is a youth minister and friend of the Mathews joined us for today's work, bringing 5-7 teenage boys with her to help us. They didn't stay focused as much on the tasks at hand, but enjoyed the opportunity to directly help folks who needed help finding particular sizes or types.

The previous evenings, the two journalists with us had been staying in another home, but were expecting to need to camp out tonight. Dale offered to let them sleep on open couches in his living room, so tonight the number of strangers in the Mathews home increased to four. The day after Dave and I arrived Carol gave us a house key, and they also gave one to Kevin and Alex. These guys were in from New Mexico, with a pickup truck filled with camping gear. That morning before we'd gathered at the store, Kevin & Alex had volunteered for a morning shift at Baton Rouge's center of operations for animal rescue on the LSU campus. Dave and I decided to join them for the evening shift, 5-9PM. We all drove together to a large 4-H type of building: a huge room of horse stalls and a large showing arena surrounded by stadium seating, all indoors. The horse stalls were dedicated to larger dogs, each had one dog unless two or three had the same owner. The arena was filled with cages for the smaller dogs, the hallways around the arena were filled with cats in cages, and there were a couple of siderooms, one for pugs that couldn't quite handle the dusty air, and another called the "Chill Room" for cats in their cages who had been known to try to bite handlers. There were over 1,000 cats and close to 1,000 dogs. The cats were mostly mellow, while the dogs were generally nervous due to a few bad apples incessantly elevating the anxiety levels. Understood, considering the trauma they'd been through. The majority of the pets had been "claimed" by their respective owners but could not be collected because they had no suitable home to return to. Volunteers would clean cages, replenish food and water, and take the dogs for walks. Each dog had a historical chart to track it's physical and mental health. The mental health aspect was helpful in volunteers determining whether to think twice before putting their hands in a cage. The majority of the pets were anxious, attentive to passers-by, and timidly responsive to affection. My favorites: a healthy cat meowing for attention, and when I took it out of it's cage, it gripped me as tightly as it could, extending it's claws, as I held it, not wanting to be left alone; two Labradors housed together, one chocolate one white, the white one would immediately get up and walk over to you to be petted through the slats of the stall, and the chocolate one, much more feisty, would immediately grab a toy bone and run it over to you to play tug-of-war with you. Very lonely, very friendly. Kevin had what he claims was his low point of the trip: crawling into a cage with a roll of paper towel and scooping out poop of about the consistency of gumbo. Dave's low point was failing to catch a Dalmatian that he chased across campus after it dug out of it's stall. (Many of the dogs had "escape artist" notes on their charts.) We returned home that night, warmed up some gumbo Carol had cooked for us, watched the Colts wrap up a win, and crashed relatively early. It wasn't until the next morning that we learned of Alex's low point that night: he stepped outside to talk on his cellphone around 11PM and was out by his truck, when a car pulled up and four guys got out and began verbally threatening him and approaching him; Alex ran, one guy swatted his cellphone out of his hand, but didn't catch him before he made it into the house. Increased population brings with it increased criminal activity.

Monday 9/12

Alex didn't tell anyone about the incident until this morning, and Carol convinced him to report it to the police. An officer drove out to get details and chide him for not reporting it immediately last night.

Carol presented Dave and I with some bags of chips you can only find in the south (including "Crawtators") and a styrofoam cooler full of sausage. She would have done the same for Kevin & Alex except that they expected to be camping without electricity for an indefinite amount of time. We said goodbye, as we wouldn't be seeing her after leaving for the day, and we were hugged like close friends.

The four of us met Dale and Michael at the store, we loaded up a few last items, and then drove to a large distribution center run by Bethany Church to drop off the majority of what we had left. Dale will be continuing to receive items over the next few weeks from various manufacturers, including a donation of 4,000 specialized shirts that have insect repellent woven into them, specifically reserved, by the donor, for relief workers only. Dale will make sure these get to the right place. Bethany Church has been sending trucks to fill barges on the Mississippi to get supplies to relief workers in the middle of the devastation.

Lastly, we drove the Penske back to the store to pick up the U-Haul and return to one of the earlier shelters that would be able to distribute miscellaneous used clothes along with food and toiletries. They accepted our entire truckload, as well as the remainder of the new items, and were especially excited about the two boxes of medical supplies, but grateful for everything.

Back at the store, Dale and Michael presented each of the four of us with a $40 book he carries, journalizing an environmentalist's recent survey by air, boat, and car, of the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana. The Mathews family is obviously very environmentally aware. Carol teaches Interior Design at LSU and specializes in "sustainable design". Michael had long since explained to us how as civilization has placed bounds on the normally transient mouth of the Mississippi, it has started dumping sediment off the continental shelf, thus the rapid advance of the coastline inland.

Dale needed to get back to the busy store, Kevin & Alex left to continue their journey, and Michael, Dave, and I left as a caravan to drop off the Penske and U-Haul at their respective locations, and drop Michael back off at the store so he could head to his classes in the afternoon. Dave bought a pair of boots from The Backpacker and we began our drive back north.

The return drive was much faster with one vehicle, we'd each drive 2-3 hours and then switch. There was an overturned semi in the middle of Illinois that we had to stop and wait to get it pushed off the road, about 20 minutes, we chatted with a trucker next to us who wasn't much older than us. We got back into the Windy City around 2:30AM of Tuesday.