For victims, answers as scarce as food, water

Katrina's Wake

September 01, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GONZALES, La. - The people kept coming, long after the shelter floor was filled to capacity, and even once a highway sign was erected telling them not to come.

In vans packed two to a seat, in pickup trucks stuffed with children and pillows, in old cars breathing their last whiff of gasoline, the refugees of Hurricane Katrina pulled up to the guard post outside the public shelter in this town 40 miles from New Orleans and were sent away. And so they turned around and slowly filled the parking lots of the town's grocery stores and shopping centers with the sweaty crush of New Orleans' castaways.

Even as the disaster in southeastern Louisiana seemed to worsen, with rescuers uncovering more bodies and finding still more destruction with fan boats and helicopters, the masses of people fleeing the wreckage and flooding began to emerge yesterday as perhaps Katrina's most vexing problem.

President Bush said more than 78,000 people are housed in shelters in and around the hurricane's strike zone, yet thousands more crowded the region's security barricades, waited in parking lots or sat helpless on roadsides with no gas and nowhere to go if they had any.

Floria Washington was typical, as she stopped on the side of Highway 61 outside New Orleans, leading a caravan of six cars and nearly 50 friends and relatives, and wondered aloud what indignities were in store for them next. They had fled to a Comfort Inn when the water came, pondered wading to the Superdome when the toilets stopped working and then left altogether when the rumors of violence began to spread.

"What else do we do? Where can we go?" asked Washington, a 58-year-old minister. "We have babies, little children. We need food. There are no toilets. All we can do is keep moving until we find an answer."

But answers were as scarce as food and water. Every hotel within at least 100 miles of the city was full, and even their lobbies were often packed with hopeful would-be residents. In Lafayette, 120 miles west of New Orleans, officials said the city's apartment stock was approaching capacity.

And the exodus continued. Inside New Orleans, residents appeared on bridges and overpasses, and drove or walked down the city's freeways to escape. On Interstate 10, exits from the city to Baton Rouge, 75 miles away, were paralyzed by people searching for refuge.

`Not living conditions'

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimated that as many as 100,000 people remained in the city and said that 14,000 to 15,000 a day could be evacuated in convoys. "We have to," Nagin said. "It's not living conditions."

Barry Scanlon, former director of corporate affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Katrina was so profoundly destructive that the government might have to house people in hotels 200 to 300 miles away, set up tents, or find campgrounds equipped to handle trailers and mobile homes.

"It's a mammoth proposition," Scanlon said. "You find housing where you can find housing."

Inside the state's public shelters, volunteers said they worry about finding enough food, clothing and medical supplies for the residents they are caring for, much less those they turn away. Volunteers at the shelter in Gonzales, one of the first that evacuees pass along the main route out of New Orleans, said they were subsisting yesterday on donations, with no firm source of supplies for the days and weeks ahead.

"We have enough to feed everyone today, but we need a lot more," said Grant Myers, a volunteer coordinator for the American Red Cross. "The community has really responded with donations and volunteers, but the problem is just so huge."

Lloyd Gueringer tiptoed among the cots and resting bodies with a stethoscope dangling from his neck, feeling kids' foreheads, listening to chests and talking to elderly evacuees about blood pressure medication. The New Orleans hospital where he works as an emergency room physician is closed, and his home in the city is either underwater or washed away, so he decided to help out in Gonzales. No one is sure what will happen when people like him return to their homes and their jobs.

"We're doing as best we can. Everyone is," Gueringer said. "Hopefully things will improve rather than deteriorate."

Long-term worries

Still, many of the shelter's residents say they are most worried about their long-term fate, after what could be months without jobs or school for their children. Many said they will most likely have to find new work, find new schools and put down roots that might preclude them from ever returning to the city they left behind.

The governor of Texas said yesterday that Louisiana's displaced children will be allowed to enroll in Texas schools, and that the state would also try to assist with books and transportation.

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