Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Local Red Cross volunteer deploys to Louisiana


Spirits are high in an evacuation shelter three hours northwest of Baton Rouge, La., where more than 650 people are waiting out Hurricane Gustav.

Swirls of wind and rain keep kids from spending too much time playing outside on the campus of Northwestern State University, but the Red Cross shelter has escaped any serious weather effects.
People set up shop on cots and settled in shortly after arriving several days ago. Now many remain glued to news updates about the hurricane on a constantly illuminated television, taking brief breaks to chow down on food from a university cafeteria.
That’s the eyewitness account from Santa Barbara’s Ally LeClair, a 23-year-old who deployed to the shelter as a Red Cross volunteer.
“People seem very hopeful that they’re going to be able to go home really soon,” she said.
Many of those staying at the gymnasium-turned-village in Natchitoches, La., are from New Orleans. They are cheerful that the levees critical to the city’s existence appear to be holding off the storm surge from a weakened Gustav.
The storm — tagged as a Category 4 hurricane a few days ago but dropped to a Category 2 as it hit the Louisiana coastline yesterday morning — had drawn early comparisons Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005, according to Reuters news accounts.
But LeClair said the past is not a frequent topic of conversation among evacuees.
“There hasn’t been as much talk about Katrina, at least not as much as I had been expecting,” she said. “People mention it, that they did this with Katrina, but it doesn’t seem that people are spending a lot of time thinking about it.”
LeClair helped check evacuees into the shelter and got a chance to speak with many of them. Having only stayed on cots for a few nights now, they appear content with their temporary lodgings, she said.
“Hopefully that’s where it stays and we can get them back home soon,” LeClair said.
Close to 2 million people fled the Gulf Coast as Gustav neared, according to Reuters reports. As one of the first stops north of Baton Rouge, the shelter at Northwestern State University filled quickly, LeClair said.
After helping to register all of the evacuees, she has spent her time making sure they are comfortable and in good spirits.
“We haven’t had any real problems here,” she said. “We’re like a little town. People have been very good about following the rules.”
Although she is on her first deployment as a Red Cross volunteer, the 23-year-old visited the Gulf Coast last year, helping with rebuilding efforts in New Orleans following the devastation of Katrina, described as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history by a Reuters report.
“Obviously there is a lot to be done,” LeClair said. “But people are very hopeful and they are very excited about the rebuilding of their city.”
When evacuees will get a chance to survey the damage from Gustav, which hit about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, and return to rebuilding efforts, however, remains unclear.
Once Gustav moves through the area, LeClair said she should know more about when the shelter should start to empty.
“My parents are asking me the same thing,” she said. “I would bet tomorrow and the next day we’ll have a clear idea."

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