Like a crowded bus station where no one ever leaves

Shelter: Newborn babies, bedridden patients and entire families share sounds and smells and the cold, hard floor.

Mobile, Ala.

Hurricane Ivan

September 16, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MOBILE, Ala. - There won't be any witnesses here. No memories of the howling winds or bending trees, no visions of the flooding, the destruction, the deaths or whatever else they imagine.

Hurricane Ivan arrived in southern Alabama last night. That was clear from the television reports, and from the invisible beasts that rattled the metal doors. But the people who most respected Ivan's power - those who followed officials' advice and fled to the concrete-walled safety of the city's high schools and hospitals - will remember only the communal sounds and smells of shelter life, and always the cold, hard floor.

Thousands of Mobile residents went to the city's shelters yesterday, giving up the comfortable uncertainties of home in favor of the institutional safety of cinderblocks and generators. Nearly 2,000 people made camp along the blue-lockered corridors of Baker High School, the city's primary shelter for "special-needs" evacuees with medical or physical conditions. By nightfall, the halls were filled with the sounds of conflicting languages, crackling radio stations and the countless laments of people with nowhere else to go.

"It's not where I'd choose to spend the night, but it's better than having six pine trees fall through your roof and water dripping through the kitchen light, like happened to us the last time," said Thomas B. Campbell, 73, as he and his wife, Frances, sat in the cafeteria trying to scare up a game of Scrabble.

"This is quite an experience," his wife added, "though maybe not a good one."

Life in a shelter can perhaps best be compared to that in a bus station - one where no one ever leaves. Or, more precisely, 19 bus stations squeezed into one. Pregnant women, old men pulling oxygen tanks, children with stuffed animals and bare feet. Entire families reduced to living on one blanket, wedged into a patchwork of humanity covering every square inch of the hard tile floors.

On the floors of Baker High School, Hurricane Ivan was a secondary experience - supplanted by such primitive quests as the search for a tissue or space to lie down. By 3 p.m. only smokers dared venture into the torrent outside. By 5 p.m. Red Cross officials asked that the doors stay closed for good. And then the windowless building was effectively sealed off, a cramped and grumpy ecosystem of Mobile's hurricane refugees.

Julie Overstreet was in charge, which meant she had to patrol the halls like a disciplinarian in search of unregistered occupants, fire hazards and contraband. The squatters in the cafeteria had to go, for instance, to make room for the long lines of people seeking the free meals of hot dogs, milk and cheese curls. The rice cookers and hot plates had to be unplugged and stored outside.

Overstreet was happy to talk about managing the shelter, which she's been doing as a Red Cross volunteer for 17 years, as long as she didn't have to stop moving. At noon, the shelter held nearly 1,300 people and the rain hadn't started to fall yet. By 5 p.m. it was full, and new arrivals were turned away.

"I've got bed-bound patients in here, people on oxygen, newborn babies - it's a lot to deal with," Overstreet said, as she went to investigate reports of a video-game setup blocking a fire exit. "The biggest problem we have isn't helping the people, it's finding them the basic things they need, like cots or medicine. They should have brought it with them."

Life in a hurricane shelter has a unique class structure, defined not by wealth or power but by the extent of one's preparations - sometimes the audacity of them. The paupers, sprawled on low-rent real estate near the bathrooms or the clattering exterior doors, might have a book and a pillow. The elite sleep in alcoves or private offices, outfitted with televisions, inflatable mattresses, portable refrigerators or DVD players.

Greg Dees counted himself among the elite. He sat in a stairwell, surrounded by coolers and mattresses and 13 members of his extended family, tapping out a song on an electric keyboard balanced on his lap.

"I love all kinds of music - classical, jazz, rhythm and blues," said Dees, 41. "Why leave it at home just because of a hurricane?"

Like a lot of shelter residents, he and his family fled their home just to be safe, not because it is particularly flimsy or close to the water. They had been packing and preparing for days, loading food, radios, and toys and games for the children. The family luxuriated on three landings of the school's main staircase until Overstreet arrived to shoo them off.

Dees stood, leaned his keyboard against a cooler and sighed.

"Well, how comfortable could we expect to be anyway?" he said. "It is a disaster, after all."

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