story by: angela brandt
page design by: stacy mantle
Spending a birthday in a shelter for evacuees might not seem ideal, but that's exactly what Havre nurse Cindy Smith did on Sept. 9. Smith spent two weeks volunteering with the Red Cross at shelters in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana. She returned home last week. The director of nursing for the Hill County Health Department likened the crowded conditions in areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina to "taking all the people from Missoula and Great Falls and plopping them down in Havre."
It was her first time in Louisiana, and she said one of the scariest parts of her experience was not knowing where she was going to be from one day to the next.
Smith said her experience with the Red Cross left her with the impression that the volunteer group needs to be more organized.
Smith arrived in Houston on Aug. 30 for staging. She wrote in her diary that day: "What seemed organized and comfortable now is turned into a new challenge." Smith then traveled in a rental car with three other volunteers to Baton Rouge, La.
Once they arrived in the city, the volunteers went to check in at a designated station where they were sent to another place, and then sent back to the original check-in.
The Red Cross wanted Smith to be a staff help nurse to make sure volunteers and the other nurses were healthy. She agreed to do that, but only after working in the field for a few days. Smith went along with about 48 special-needs evacuees, who were taken to the Revival Temple church down the road in Walker, La. Church members came to help load the patients onto the church's buses and local people also helped drive some of the patients. Smith went along to the church.
"Most of our refugees are on multiple medicines and have either just gotten out of the hospital or should be there or will be soon," Smith wrote in her diary.
"Some people didn't know the medications they were on or their social security number," Smith said in an interview at her house in Havre this week.
Smith said she struggled to obtain supplies for the evacuees. When she called the Red Cross to get supplies, the response she got was: 'You're not a Red Cross shelter.'
She then went to Wal-Mart and asked the manager for help with supplies. Smith bought strips and lancets for diabetics and Wal-Mart donated a glucometer. The store also gave the volunteers a charge card worth about $35. Wal-Mart also helped with Medicaid and Medicare patients and filled orders if the patients had an old bottle or prescription.
Smith said it was hard to get oxygen tanks for patients. A welding company gave them oxygen, which it wasn't supposed to do, but did, she said. Doctors in Walker got together and purchased $1,000 worth of prescriptions for victims.
"The community was great. Red Cross didn't do anything at that point," Smith said.
She recalled the story of an older woman named Evelyn whom she helped to the bathroom. Smith said Evelyn, who had been a nurse at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, was aided into a boat by her husband and son and hadn't seen them since.
"She needed help walking. I held her hand and from that moment on she touched my heart," Smith wrote in her journal.
She said the victims were sleeping on church pews with little padding. Later, someone donated foam mattresses to the victims in the church. For elderly and disabled victims, they put three or four mattresses down to make them more comfortable. The nurses would take turns sleeping in a back room of the church. Church members cooked food in the church's kitchen. The church had a washer and dryer, and a community member donated an additional set.
"One night, I stayed up all night washing clothes," Smith said.
On Sept. 1, the church shelter was on lockdown - nobody in or out. Smith said there were several rumors as to the reason for lockdown: someone had broken into a hospice, an escaped convict had threatened a nurse at the junior high she had just left in Denham Springs, and there was fear of looting at the local Wal-Mart.
"Everyone was already anxious and this just made it worse, especially for the smokers," Smith said.
The next day the lockdown was lifted. There was a curfew in effect in Walker, and the stores closed early. Smith said there were always police and National Guard soldiers around, so she always felt safe.
By Friday night, the church was messy and smelly, said Smith. There was a bathroom in the church with four stalls and no showers. The evacuees hadn't been able to shower in about a week, and some had been stuck in flood waters for hours.
"Some people think the victims are all bad people, but they're not. They are not all poor people, some just rely on public transit and had no way out," Smith said.
She spoke of an evacuee named Jack, who is in his 70s and has severe back pain. He had also broken his wrist about six weeks before the hurricane. Jack was separated from his wife, who had been in a nursing home in New Orleans. Jack's back problems and lack of proper medicines kept him awake at night. He talked with Smith while she was doing her nightly shift.
"Jack could be cantankerous at times, but I liked him," she said.
The crew in the Revival Temple sent a man they were afraid was going to have a stroke to the hospital. This angered another hurricane victim, Daniel, a shoe shiner from New Orleans. Daniel had been caught in flood water, had swollen feet and mental problems, Smith said. He was diabetic and had eaten lots of sugar and walked to get junk food.
Daniel started getting riled up when they sent the man to the hospital - he said he was worse off. The doctor told him to put his feet up and stay out of the heat, but Daniel kept fighting and yelling. About a dozen officers showed up to deal with Daniel.
"When police arrived, he got out his Bible and started acting like a saint," Smith said.
She said Daniel was taken to Baton Rouge for mental treatment.
The next day, Smith and two other nurses were given a break and went to eat at a fish restaurant. She said they had their first laugh since they'd been there during the meal. They returned to the church and helped transport people to showers.
Sunday, the evacuees and volunteers attended services in the church. Smith said she was exhausted after being up all night.
"I just wanted to cry for sadness, joy and just thanking God for all I have: my family, friends and my life," Smith wrote in her diary.
She was told she had to check back in at Baton Rouge and become staff help. Smith said she didn't want to, because she didn't want to go sit in the "chaos" in Baton Rouge.
She ended up sitting at the front desk checking other volunteers' paperwork, which she said was supposed to have been done before people left their home states. Smith said she was antsy to get back in the field because "that's what I came for."
She wrote in her diary that she was getting mad and teary- eyed and wanted out of staff health.
She was supposed to sleep in a staff shelter that night, but the shelter was full. Smith and other volunteers stopped at a Wendy's and met a couple who opened their home to the group.
The next day, she was sent to the River Center in Baton Rouge where 6,000 evacuees were housed in wall-to-wall cots. She said she talked to the manager of the center, who informed her that they already had a whole team of doctors and nurses and didn't need her.
"There was a room full of medicines, everything you could think of, and here we are with our little boxes (of basic supplies)," Smith said.
Smith was sent to Monroe, La., the next day. She was to help move evacuees from the Monroe Civic Center to a 300,000-square-foot State Farm Insurance building. In Monroe, she dealt with about 350 people who had been trapped in flood water for more than a day. Doctors were seeing patients in mobile vans.
"Some people came into the shelter on Sept. 4 and were given a cot, but no one followed up. I didn't know who they were or what they needed," Smith said.
The crew expected 2,500 people to arrive at the State Farm Insurance building, but only about 650 evacuees showed up. Some people had gotten vouchers to stay at local hotels.
Smith said she was discouraged by the way the evacuees were treated. Some of the hurricane victims told her, "We're not refugees. We're from this country."
"They were treated like lepers or something," she said.
Smith said she was looking over a file for an HIV-positive woman in the shelter in Monroe that stated she was given bleach and water and was instructed to clean up after herself wherever she went. When Smith inquired about the file, another nurse said she had written it and took it out of Smith's hands.
The shelter's lights were turned off at 10 p.m., and there were no lights to guide people to the bathroom or in the bathroom itself. A dining room was designated, and an hour set for each meal.
A makeshift store only gave people four diapers or two aspirin at a time, while there was a warehouse stocked with supplies at the back of the building. There were people with no shoes on when there were new shoes in the back, along with bedding, toys and toiletries, she said.
"No lights, no snacking at night, good grief," Smith said.
She said members of the local Red Cross chapter in Monroe didn't know how to be around poor people. Smith said she wouldn't want to be treated that way.
After two weeks, Smith returned home. She said she felt sort of guilty leaving.
"I would have stayed day and night giving people stuff from that warehouse," Smith said. "I couldn't stand it in Monroe, and thought I could do better things from home."
She said she doesn't want to be negative against the Red Cross, because great people responded to their call for help. She is not walking away from the group, but she is trying to get answers and make the Red Cross a better response unit. There needs to be better organization within Red Cross and consistent management, with consistent practices in place, she said. The group needs to track where victims and volunteers are sent.
She added the Red Cross needs more young people. Some volunteers are retired and have never used a computer before.
"We need Red Cross. I don't want to see them go away," Smith said.
Smith said she brought back ideas to help in Havre. One is to have forms for the area's special-needs population, like homebound, sickly or poor people. She thought of how one would go about evacuating Havre if the need should arise. Smith said she's going to talk to local and state representatives about what went right and wrong with her volunteering experience.
"You need to have a plan of action," Smith added.
She remains in contact with the church in Walker and a few of the evacuees she helped, including Jack.
"I'd probably go again," Smith said.