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New Orleans: Weathering the Storm with some Help

Weathering the Storm with a Little Help from New Friends

Written by Jack Shock , Special to Redcross.org

Monday, August 29, 2005 — Batesville, Miss. – By late Sunday afternoon, the line of cars, trucks, buses and vans stretched from New Orleans to Memphis and motels along Interstate 55 flashed a disheartening "No Vacancy" sign. Weary travelers, evacuated from their homes, have found a safe haven from the threat of Hurricane Katrina in the American Red Cross shelters that have opened across Louisiana and Mississippi.

Ricardo Mesa and his wife Sandra were scheduled to leave New Orleans Sunday afternoon on a medical mission trip to Peru. Instead, cancelled flights changed their plans and led them 300 miles north to a Red Cross shelter in Batesville, Miss. The Mesas and their three children were among more than 100 people who spent Sunday night in the Red Cross shelter at the First Baptist Church Family Life Center.

"We were all ready to go on our trip, but at 8:00 this [Sunday] morning we got a call saying our trip was cancelled, and I started thinking about where to go," explained Ricardo Mesa. "I've been through some really bad storms and didn't leave New Orleans, but this one has a bad feeling about it. We had to get out of there – we left everything."

Mesa and his family heard about the Red Cross shelters on their car radio as they made their way north on the crowded interstate.

"I had to make a decision on whether to go north or east or west," he said. "We were listening to the radio and heard 'if you need shelter, go to the Red Cross in Batesville.' I wrote the number down and called, and the guy at the shelter said 'come on'."

Mesa and his family found a helpful staff waiting for them at the Batesville shelter, which is associated with the Greenville, Miss., chapter of the Red Cross located more than 100 miles southwest of Batesville. Beverly Martindale, a retired nurse, has volunteered for the Red Cross for about one year and helped open a shelter last year during Hurricane Ivan.

"All my life I wanted to work for the Red Cross," said Martindale. Her enthusiasm and dedication to shelter operations are evident as she talks about the Batesville shelter and its occupants.

"We have an 86-year-old, two 79-year-olds, a boy with asthma and a woman on kidney dialysis," Martindale said. "She's due for a treatment Monday, and we have to find a place to get her dialysis."

By 10:00 p.m. Sunday, Martindale had located a dialysis center in Sardis, Miss., just eight miles away.

"We had to get her in because she has to have her dialysis. She has a big family with her in our shelter to take care of her, but I'll drive her over there myself if I have to," she said.

Dennis Jacobs has been the Minister of Students and Activities at the First Baptist Church for 11 years and helped open a Red Cross shelter at the church for Hurricane Ivan last September. Jacobs relied on lessons learned from that experience as he worked to get the shelter ready for its 1 p.m. opening Sunday.

"About 25 percent of the people in the shelter speak Spanish," explained Jacobs. "We do all the signs in the shelter in English and Spanish to take care of the Hispanic population. I just went to the computer and printed all the signs we had saved from opening the shelter during Hurricane Ivan."

Midnight in the shelter found Jacobs and Martindale among others getting things ready for a 6:00 a.m. breakfast of donuts, cereal, coffee, juice and milk. Other workers were already busy making a list of ingredients for Monday's spaghetti lunch while shelter residents huddled around a television to follow the hurricane coverage.

As the Mesas settled their children into cots set up in the church's gym, they recalled their long trip, their arrival at the shelter and their first interactions with its staff.

"It took us forever to get here," said Mr. Mesa. "When we arrived they greeted us outside and were so helpful and courteous – very professional. They even found a kennel to take care of our dog.”

While most Red Cross shelters are unable to accept animals, the Batesville shelter is working with a local veterinarian who was able to kennel the family’s pet while they stayed at the shelter. Mesa and his family planned to stay in the Batesville shelter at least through Katrina's landfall.

"I'm going to stay here until I get news from home about what's going on – this is a good place,” said Mr. Mesa, who appreciated the way the shelter staff doted on his children and spoiled the youngsters with cookies.

"You see people walk in, and they don't know what to do," he said. "They have a worried look on their face. But there's someone here to help you."

All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of this disaster and thousands of other disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to those in need.

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