A do-it-ourselves shelter shines

A community bands together in civilized self-sufficiency, in stark contrast to the misery in official New Orleans shelters.

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - When their homes began to sink in Katrina's floodwaters, elders in the quarter here known as Uptown gathered their neighbors to seek refuge at the Samuel J. Green Charter School, the local toughs included.

But when the thugs started vandalizing the place - wielding guns and breaking into vending machines - Vance Anthion put them out, literally tossing them into the fetid waters. Anthion stayed awake at night after that, protecting the inhabitants of the school from looters or worse.

"They know me," he said. "If a man come up in here, we take care of him."

In the week after Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, Anthion and others created a society that defied the local gangs, the National Guard and even the flood.

Inside the school, it was quiet, cool and clean. They converted a classroom into a dining room and, when a reporter arrived Monday, were serving a lunch of spicy red beans and rice. A table nearby overflowed with supplies: canned spaghetti, paper towels, water and Gatorade, salt, hot sauce, pepper.

At its peak last Wednesday, 40 people called the second and third floors home. The bottom floor was under water. Most of those taking up residence at the school were family, friends and neighbors of the poor, forgotten niches of this community.

As the days passed, most chose to be evacuated by the Coast Guard who, they said, came every day to help ferry out the elderly and sick, and to leave water, food and clean clothes for whose who preferred to stay.

By Monday, just 10 diehards remained at the school.

Disillusioned, maybe. Disoriented, perhaps. Determined, without question.

In the week after Katrina devoured the Gulf Coast they ate, slept and bathed here, aided by the Coast Guard supplies. Men slept on the third floor, women on the second, using blankets and cots they brought from home.

It all worked out according to the plan of Allen Smith, 55, a Persian Gulf war veteran known to the group as "Sarge." Before Katrina pummeled the area, he advised neighbors to seek shelter in the school.

Sarge said he knew the school he had once attended would be safe and at least the third floor would remain dry. That's what happened when Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans in 1965. Sarge, who was 15 at the time, joined his family and about 200 other people who used the school for shelter.

"I just took the idea from them," said Sarge. "And it worked."

So as Katrina made its approach on New Orleans, they gathered blankets and canned food, bleach and cleaning supplies, a radio and a good supply of batteries, and began moving their stash to the school. They decided to rely on the building's supply of paper towels and toilet paper.

In the days after the storm, the Samuel J. Green school also served as their base for helping others in the neighborhood.

They waded through filthy water to bring elderly homebound neighbors bowls of soup, bread and drinks. They helped the old and the sick to the school rooftop, so the Coast Guard could pluck them to safety by helicopter - 18 people in all.

All the while, they listened to radio reports of the calamity at the Superdome and the Convention Center. They heard that evacuees were dying and left to rot. There were reports of looting, gunshots, rapes, and no food or water. "There was no way we were going down there, to be treated like that," said Sarge.

Life at the school seemed far more civilized.

Clad in a white apron and plastic gloves, Greg Avery, a 53-year-old photographer on normal days, scooped hot beans onto a plate. Sierra Smith, an 8-year-old boasting a head of perfectly combed ponytails, handed them out to her neighbors with a smile.

She had been Avery's helper all week - between card games of Old Maid and Crazy Eights with her grandmother.

She arrived at the school with her mother, grandmother and grandfather. Her mother was airlifted earlier in the week, to find lost relatives. Sierra could have gone with her, but she wanted to stay with her grandmother and the community of exiles in the school.

"I eat food, I play games, I have fun here and I have people to take care of me," she said. "I get to pick out my own clothes and I take a bath every day, with some water and baby wipes and lotion and powder."

She pays special attention to her neighbor Anthion, 57, a 6-foot-5, weathered Vietnam veteran, whom she calls "survivor."

He might be known as the enforcer, but he is also a broken man.

"Don't ask him about his wife," Sierra warned, "or he'll start crying."

When the storm hit last week, he carried his wife, Angela Gwinn, 49, to a nearby vacant laundromat. Anthion, his wife and son Glen Gwinn, 34, climbed to the roof seeking higher ground. Hours passed, and no helicopters came to their rescue.

A neighbor on a nearby roof said he heard people were being rescued from St. Charles Avenue, so they all waded to the tony section of Uptown that remained dry while the poor neighborhoods all around it flooded.

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