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Revelers dressed as Meals-Ready-to-Eat walk down Bourbon Street in New Orleans as they celebrate Mardi Gras.

Revelers dressed as blind levee inspectors walk down Bourbon Street in New Orleans as they celebrate Mardi Gras.

Students at Houston's New Orleans West elementary school throw beads and have their own Mardi Gras parade. The elementary school is a charter school set up in Houston for Hurricane Katrina refugees.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've only got twelve more hours left to finish off the rest of the Blue Bell King Cake ice cream in the freezer...
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Well it looks like my days of volunteering at Reliant Park may have come to an end: Katrina Evacuees in Houston Shelters to be Transferred in Preparation for Hurricane Rita.

I tried to go up there yesterday to volunteer, but they weren't letting anyone into any of the parking areas, possibly because of the First Lady's visit. I also tried to get in touch with a couple of people who were supposedly coordinating rides for evacuees looking for housing, but so far no luck. I'm considering signing up with Neighbors2Neighbors, but I hear they've got a waiting list for volunteers so I don't know if anything will come of that either.

In the meantime, I think I'm going to spend this week making sure that we're prepared for the potential arrival of Hurricane Rita. Houston doesn't have the river/lake levee situation that New Orleans does so things aren't nearly as dire here, but everyone's pretty paranoid after Katrina. I expect a run on batteries and masking tape to start any second now.

We're on the west side of town, outside of the evacuation zones, and our house is pretty decently elevated from the street, so I'm not panicking. But a good heavy rain will flood all the streets in our neighborhood and with the potential for power outages and wind damage it's best to be prepared.
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In today's Houston Chronicle there is a great article about the stories behind three of the more striking photographs taken of the evacuees in the aftermath of Katrina, and an update on where the people in the photos are now and how they are doing. It's very touching.
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My dad decided he'd rather have me do his errands today, so I was able to volunteer yesterday for [livejournal.com profile] snowdrifted. It was tres dull, however, and I have little of interest to report. They had been planning to have all the evacuees out of the Reliant Park shelters by Friday or Saturday, so they started to close down and pack up some of their operations there. The shoppers handed out their last clothes around noon and we spent the day boxing up and labeling everything in the warehouse for transport to other shelters around town. Whew, talk about hot, sweaty, dusty work. And I didn't even get to see the wedding.

Now, however, it looks like they've extended their weekend closing goal, which I'm kind of relieved about. It's great that the city and state are working so hard to find housing for people (with little to no help from FEMA or the federal government, who are still farting around trying to figure out what to do, thankyouverymuch), but I know some people are still waiting for their housing assignments to come in and I didn't want to think the city was going to be pressuring them to leave the shelter before they've got an acceptable place to go.

Today the volunteers are supposed to be consolidating everyone in the Astrodome and Reliant Center into the Astro Arena, and I have to admit I'm kinda glad I'm not gonna be able to go in for that. My legs are still protesting from all the bending over yesterday.

One nice thing I've noticed is that the mood at the shelter has changed a lot since last week. It used to be that the PA system was a constant litany of the names of the missing, as people desperately searched the various shelters in hopes of finding their loved ones. Every once in a while, there would be a joyous reunion in front of the message center and everyone would stop and cheer.

Early this week, though, the announcements had changed to things like, "Anyone interested in relocating to Nashville come to the message center," or "A representative from X is here with information about available jobs."

Yesterday the PA messages were all stuff like, "John Smith, your family is here to take you home," or "Paul Washington, you have a call from your sister in Dallas." It was nice to hear announcements about people reuniting with their friends and family and moving out of the shelters. Between that and all the packing up, it's taken on sort of an end-of-the-school-year feel.
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It's a good thing I've got ya'll pushing me on this volunteer thing, otherwise I totally would have wussed out this week. But I knew you guys were counting on me so I made myself go back in, and I'm really happy I did.

Yesterday I volunteered for [livejournal.com profile] em_meredith and was sent to the big warehouse in the Reliant Center to sort and fold clothes. It was pretty dull work, but it needs to be done. The clothing is organized into giant rows by size, and it was our job to try and keep everything folded and sorted into the right location so it could be easily found by those who needed it. You would not believe some of the hideous things people donate. Some of it was filthy, some of it was too worn to be usable, and some of it was just plain ugly. And there were tons sweaters, which, you know, are really useful in our 95-degree heat. Anything gross or dirty we threw out, and then we packed up some of the uglier clothes to make space for a huge shipment of nice new clothes donated by the Texans.

Today I went back to volunteer for [livejournal.com profile] alanao and was promoted to "shopper." When people need clothes/shoes/toiletries/etc., they come to the clothing distribution station and give their list to one of the shoppers. Then we go back into the giant warehouse and sift through the rows of clothing to try and fill their request as best we can. It's a lot of pressure because you want to pick out something nice that the person will actually like (and that fits them), but you don't have time to spend an hour digging through the clothes for the cutest outfit ever, because there are people waiting in line for their turn.

The Red Cross Volunteer who trained us tried to emphasize how important it is to do the very best job we can, because we're trying to give people back a little bit of their dignity. He was so passionate about everything and the way he talked totally reminded me of Vincent D'Onofrio's character on L&O:CI. Also, it was his last day, so he got a little teary when he started talking about how this experience has changed his whole life. He was very sweet.

Anyway, I got assigned to work one of the stations for men, which was easier because men's fashion is so much more straightforward than women's. Almost any man will look decent in a polo shirt and pair of khakis. The one time I went in search of women's clothes it took me forever and I wasn't at all happy with what I finally came up with.

Sometimes we didn't have certain things that people wanted and I had to tell them to check back later. Tennis shoes, slippers and men's belts were in woefully short supply. Also boxer shorts. We had stacks of brand new tighty-whities, but none of the young guys wanted anything to do with them, and I can't say I blame them.

I like to think I did a fair job of matching the clothes to the taste of the client I was shopping for. Most of the time I was able to find at least one or two pretty cool things for everyone I helped. Today we had a bunch of brand new Fubu shorts and Dickies pants that the guys were clamoring for. And whenever I could turn up a pair of name-brand jeans for one of the younger men his face would light up so much it made you want to cry. I never in my life thought I'd be so happy to get my hands on Tommy Hilfiger jeans.

No volunteering for me tomorrow, but I'll try to go back on Thursday if they'll have me.
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Ahhh, this is why they wouldn't let me into Reliant Park today. Those poor people. Hopefully they'll have some of this stuff better organized soon.
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Well, today was supposed to be [livejournal.com profile] em_meredith's day in the Katrina Volunteer-a-Thon. I tried. I was all excited about it and headed straight over to Reliant Park after I dropped the munchkin off at school. Unfortunately, they weren't letting any volunteers in this morning for some reason. So I drove over to the George R. Brown Convention Center, but they're being helped out by Operation Compassion now (not to be confused with Operation Blessing, Pat Robertson's organization), and all the volunteer lots were full. I drove around a couple of times looking for somewhere to park, but the only parking available was in pay lots and of course I hadn't brought any cash with me this morning.

Ah well. Em (and the rest of you) will have to wait until next week, because tomorrow I'm taking my dad to run some errands and then I've got my hot date with [livejournal.com profile] austin360 this weekend. But never fear, I'll go back next week and try to work a few days for ya'll.
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I know there are a lot of folks out there who don't have money to donate to relief efforts and live in areas that don't have any evacuees and wish there was something they could do to help. So I was thinking, I'm right here where there's plenty of need, so why don't I just do a volunteer shift in your place? This way, ya'll can feel like you're doing something because you're making sure that I keep going back to volunteer instead of wussing out and deciding that I'm too busy or too tired.

So here's what I'll do: for everyone who leaves a comment here expressing an interest, I'll do a four-hour volunteer shift in your place and I'll try to post at least a brief report about the work I did and the people I met during your shift.

This offer is open to anyone, not just the few folks on my flist, so feel free to let others who might be interested in taking me up on it know.

So, who wants me to go volunteer tomorrow?

P.S. For those living in the Houston area who are interested in helping out, the best site to get info on volunteering is http://www.volunteercenter.us/rsvp6.htm. It's updated several times daily with pertinent info and is a great resource, so please, if you know anyone in Houston, pass it on to them in case they'd like to get involved.
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Communication about the relief efforts here in town is still confused. Conflicting reports come out of the various relief organizations: donations are needed; donations are overwhelming but volunteers are needed; all volunteer shifts have been filled and people are being sent home; come to Reliant Center to volunteer; don't come to Reliant to volunteer; donations are needed at the Astrodome; don't bring donations to the Astrodome. It's hard to know how best to help, and the last thing I want to do is contribute to a traffic jam in the area where they're trying to get evacuees into shelters.

Estimates are that Texas is currently hosting around a quarter of a million evacuees, and the governor is beginning to send them to other states:

Aid centers will be set up at airports in Houston and Dallas where incoming refugees can be given food, water and medical care before they are flown out. The governor's office said some of those flights could begin today...

Since Thursday, Perry's office has been in contact with several states, including Utah, Oklahoma, Michigan, Iowa, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, about providing shelter for Louisiana evacuees. West Virginia is sending three C-130 planes to Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio to help move refugees.

On Friday I went to Target and bought a shopping cart full of supplies--boxes of single-serving snack foods, juice, bottled water, diapers, baby wipes, and tampons--which I dropped off at an area food pantry. Then Saturday I went back to Target and did the same, this time concentrating on clothing--underwear, t-shirts, socks, flip flops, pillows, more diapers and tampons--and dropped them off at a collection point for the Star of Hope Mission.

I found a notice today on what seems to be one of the few web sites for the relief effort that's actually updated with any regularity, saying that volunteers with wireless laptops are needed at Reliant Center to help locate missing people. So Mr. Sus and I have arranged to leave the munchkin with my dad tomorrow and will be heading downtown with our laptops in the hopes being of some assistance.

In the midst of all the horror stories about New Orleans, here is a lovely requiem for this great city, focusing on its glorious culinary heritage:

The first great meal of my life unspooled in sharp relief, under the high faded ceilings of Antoine's in the French Quarter...

ETA: Anne Rice in the NYT -- "Do You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?" (I'm not a fan of her in general, but she is eloquent in her love of her hometown.)
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Okay, when Newt Gingrich starts making sense, you know shit is messed up.

"I think it puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years, because if we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?" said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
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Mayor to feds: 'Get off your asses

(CNN) -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin blasted the slow pace of federal and state relief efforts in an expletive-laced interview with local radio station WWL-AM

Read the transcript here.
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In more personal news, we finally heard from Mr. Sus' college roommate, a professor at UNO:

I'm OK. I evacuated New Orleans at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and spent two nights in Lake Charles, LA. Once the levee broke (relatively close to my house), it was clear that I'd be homeless and displaced for some time, so I'm now at my parents' in north Texas. Because my car was out of gas and there was no more gas in the city, I had to leave in a borrowed car; therefore, my car, my house, and most of my possessions are gone or destroyed. The best I can estimate is that my house is currently in 7 feet of water.

ETA: DomeBlog--the Houston Chronicle reports from inside the Astrodome.
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The City of Houston is facing a refugee crisis of immense proportions, and efforts here seem only marginally more organized than in Lousiana.

Fire marshals can't seem to decide how many refugees the Astrodome can safely accept. Obviously they want to offer shelter to as many people as they can, but the reality is that overcrowding the stadium will result in conditions hardly better than those they left behind in the Superdome. They've begun housing people in the nearby Reliant Arena and I predict they'll soon be sending them to the Convention Center and then begin busing to Dallas and San Antonio. The Astroarena has been turned into a giant medical facility and is already completely overwhelmed. Relief efforts seem barely able to deal with the immediate crisis of getting people food and water.

The munchkin's school has been collecting clothing, towels, blankets and toys, but now can't figure out where to take them. Many charitable organizations around town are no longer accepting clothes, because the logistics of sorting, transporting and distributing them are too much to take on right now, and they're trying to concentrate on getting people food, water and personal hygiene products.

One of the teachers said a friend had gone to the Astrodome yesterday to volunteer, but the police sent her away because there had been muggings in the parking lot. The neighborhood around the Astrodome isn't particularly safe under the best of circumstances, and the influx of thousands of desperate, angry people forced to wait in long lines to be given shelter, medical attention or just a bottle of water is a riot waiting to happen. Meanwhile, the director of the local Red Cross chapter was on the radio today directing volunteers to come to the Astrodome, apparently unaware that the police were sending them away.

A woman who works for the local YMCA said that Y's all over town are overflowing with refugees, and YMCA employees are each sheltering 10-20 people in their homes. They're desperate for food, water, and new underwear. The food banks are also desperate, and have gone from asking for cash donations to begging people to bring in all the food and water they can. One fire station in Katy has 30 refugees sleeping on the floor.

The school secretary found out that a woman with five children under the age of eight is staying at the La Quinta nearby and is organizing a fund-raiser in her neighborhood to help pay her hotel bill. One mother reported that the Shrine of the Black Madonna (a Pan-African Orthodox Christian cultural center) is swamped with refugees and desperate for donations, and others told of a similar situations at St. John Vianney, the Chinese Community Center and the Jewish Federation. I can only imagine that churches and shelters all over town are facing the exact same crisis.

Everyone wants to help, but right now relief efforts are still disorganized and communication is poor. It's incredibly difficult to match up goods with the people who so desperately need them on a scale this large. And local shelters are so swamped that it's nearly impossible to get through to anyone on the phone to find out what help they need.

And the Houston SPCA is trying to take in the pets of refugees, because they cannot take them into the shelters with them:

Due to the hit from Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region, the Louisiana SPCA moved all animals out of their shelter to the Houston SPCA. We are now accepting animals from those who are staying in Houston Area Shelters. For those needing shelter for their pets, please call our hotline at 713-802-0555.

Monetary donations are needed to help us care for the over 260 extra animals in our shelter and to help us help the Louisiana SPCA respond to the needs of the animals still in the area.

And then, of course, there are the asshats who will raise their ugly racist heads, concerned only with their own welfare, complaining that Houston's humanitarian efforts will interfere with their own comfortable lifestyles.

Unfortunately, their concerns are not completely invalid. People cannot be expected to live under these conditions for weeks or even months. How can Houston, a city with its own not-insignificant poverty problem, possibly absorb thousands of destitute and homeless families? And what happens a few months from now, when the media coverage has dwindled and the Red Cross has packed up, yet people still have no homes to go back to and no means to care for themselves?

ETA: Racism in reporting on events in New Orleans. Apparently blacks "loot" food from grocery stores, while whites "find" it.

ETA2: Looks like I was right--"Mayor opens Reliant Center, George R. Brown to evacuees."
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I am utterly heartbroken by the devastation of New Orleans. Although I have no close family there any more, I have deep roots there, and it is, unreservedly, my favorite city in all the world. My mother's parents came from New Orleans--the Badeauxs originally hailed from Hammond, La., the Formans from New Orleans. My favorite picture of my grandmother is of her as a teenager, posing on the porch of their house on Octavia Street with her sister. My grandmother's family has been interred in our family tomb in Metairie Cemetery almost since the Civil War, and I had been planning a trip there this fall with my mother's ashes. Now I am grateful that I waited, because I have no idea whether that tomb is even still standing.

They're estimating there could be as many as 100,000 refugees in Houston now, and if New Orleans remains uninhabitable for months it seems certain that number will grow. The hotels here are full, but people are quickly running out of money and finding themselves suddenly homeless and living on the street with their families and pets. The Vietnamese community here has rallied to find host families for 500 displaced Vietnamese refugees ("Nguyen, the mother of two, was at the market to pick up some groceries. She ended up taking home the entire 11-member Tran family instead.") Churches and organizations all over town are providing free meals to refugees and their pets. School districts here are preparing to accept masses of newly homeless refugee children and Rice University and TSU are opening their doors to displaced college students from Louisiana.

The first refugees from the Superdome arrived at the Astrodome last night, but this morning brought the sad news that evacuation efforts have been interrupted because of gunfire and arson around the Superdome. The stories coming out of New Orleans are of horrors beyond imagining. Meanwhile, refugees here are being turned away from the Astrodome, forced to find space at other shelters around the city. And people continue to pour into the city, by any means necessary, hoping to find shelter and safety.

I am sad, and I am angry. Angry at the Bush Administration's criminal lack of foresight and belated reaction to a disaster that has been predicted for a long time. The dissolution of FEMA in favor of so-called "Homeland Security" and the diversion of resources to the war in Iraq have taken my disgust for this administration to new heights.

For those of you who want to help and are looking for alternatives to the Red Cross, here are some other organizations that are reaching out to help:

National Organizations )

Local Houston-area Organizations )

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