East Baton Rouge Parish, which includes Louisiana’s state capital, has roughly doubled in population from the pre-storm count of 412,000. But on a Saturday afternoon with temperatures in the 90s, the streets around Louisiana State University are all but deserted. The Pete Maravich Center, the basketball arena that served as a field hospital from the days after Hurricane Katrina until September 8, is empty except for a few families outside who have come to see the new, shiny home of Mike the Tiger, the LSU mascot.
Fred, a young redheaded guy who whistles a little through his front teeth when he talks, is the general manager at Louie’s, a 24-hour diner just off campus. “The first day after the storm was like a big game day,” he said. “The first week after the storm was the busiest week we ever had. The second week after the storm was the new busiest week we ever had.” He says it’s calmed down a bit now, but they already have New Orleans regulars who come in every day for breakfast, not to mention the emergency workers, who stop by before and after their 12-hour shifts. “You can tell the New Orleans people because they have more tattoos,” he says. “All of this is like one of those stories about the apocalypse, or the aliens landing.”
The largest single storm shelter in the state is at the River Center, a newish, municipally owned sports and entertainment complex that is yet another attempt to bring people to Baton Rouge’s perpetually depopulated downtown. The sleek, glass-fronted mothership sits next to a Sheraton Hotel and a casino named the Argosy. Sheila, a Red Cross volunteer from San Jose, California, shows me around. She’s an Asian woman in her early thirties, a mother of two who came out of Red Cross “retirement” to answer this call. She tells me the shelter currently houses 1,300 people, down from a peak of 6,000. The place is emptying out as people get cash assistance, up to several hundred dollars from the Red Cross and a $2,000 payment from FEMA, if they can manage the red tape.
Inside, the place seems subdued. People file through the metal detectors and submit quietly to National Guard searches. There’s an alternative school here in the building with 60 students–their paper cutouts decorate the huge windows on the second floor, where some volunteers are blowing bubbles with the kids. There’s an acute care clinic serving people on respirators and a couple of very pregnant women. There’s a stage outside, in front of the Navy memorial ship U.S.S. Kidd, that has seen everything in the last two weeks from a prayer service to the Hot Eight Brass Band, complete with second line.
“The Red Cross has never responded to a disaster this big before, ever,” Sheila tells me. “So we’re learning as we go along.” There are phones donated by Cox Communications, the former company of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagins. There’s a housing and employment board, with offers to relocate all over the country–apparently a guy is coming with a bus next week to take people with him to Minnesota. Also among the amenities, the Scientologists have set up yellow tents both inside and outside the building. They are offering “assists,” which look like head and neck massages, L. Ron Hubbard tracts, and most popular, bottles of cold water.
On our tour of the dimly lit shelter floor, Sheila stops to talk to a saucer-eyed two-year-old girl with her hair in about six frilly bows. Her grandmother, Cynthia, asks if Sheila can get a better pair of socks for the girl. “They gave me the ones she has on now, and I said, they’re all right for running around in here,” she says, indicating the tiny red socks with glitter hearts. “But I want to know if you can get some white socks, with some lace or plain. To match her outfits.”
Charles Vigee, who is cleaning up the outdoor showers, says it isn’t always so placid in the shelter. “People get arrested every night. They arrested a woman last night, she didn’t have her wristband on,” he says, indicating the fluorescent orange band around his own wrist. “She got all up on them.” Vigee escaped from his home in New Orleans East, where the waters rose up to nine feet. Although still a shelter resident, a photo ID clipped to his shirt shows that he is now a Baton Rouge city employee as well. “The second or third day, I picked up a mop,” he says. “I got to keep occupied. I don’t sleep much, and my family’s not talking to me. I get mad at them.”
By all accounts, getting the assistance people need has been a maddeningly slow process. I talk to an elderly man named Camille Morris. He’s in a wheelchair, foot bandaged from what he says is a brown recluse spider bite that had him in the hospital for a month prior to the storm. He is here alone and has nothing to wear other than the blue plaid pajamas and Yankees cap he has on. “I’m broke. I got nothing of my own. I’ve been having problems getting benefits. I don’t know where my family is.” He hasn’t spoken to his brother and sister, Elmo Morris and Gloria Carter. “I think my sister was in the house, by Ochsner Hospital,” near the border between Jefferson and Orleans Parish, an area that did not see major water. “I don’t know what to do. FEMA has got to get me some clothes. I ain’t got nothing.”
Outside the River Center, it is nearly dusk, and a few fat raindrops start to mitigate the heat. Nearly 50 people are still standing or sitting limply outside FEMA’s makeshift office, in a commercial building next to the convention center, waiting to register for help. According to many who have gone through the process, the easiest way to register with FEMA for your $2,000 is also the least accessible: online. Getting through on the phone is a crapshoot that may take days of repeated calls. Applying in person takes hours.
Kevin Bastian, 45, is a professor of psychology at Dillard University. He has been waiting here to talk to a FEMA representative since noon, with his wife, his two sons, aged four and eight, and his mother-in-law. They are staying in tiny Greensburg with his wife’s grandparents and drove an hour and a half to get to this center after they saw it on the TV news. There is no closer place for them to apply for help. “We’ve called FEMA to no avail,” he says. “Three in the morning to 3 at night. Same thing with the Red Cross.” After waiting for six hours today, they are going to have to come back tomorrow and do it all over again. ” It’s been a total waste of time so far. It’s ridiculous that the number one relief agency in the country can’t have a better program than this. If I didn’t have a car, how could I get here?” Among other worries, Dr. Bastian is waiting anxiously to see whether Dillard, which is closed for the semester, will continue to pay its faculty.
Dr. Bastian’s house in New Orleans East is completely flooded. He was born and raised in the city, got his undergraduate degree at Xavier University and his doctorate at UNO. He has known his wife since the second grade. “My wife always makes fun of me because she says everything in my world is just 10 to 20 minutes apart,” he says: house, family home, school, work. When asked if he will return to the city, he immediately says, “I’m going home. We’re going to rebuild. It will come back.” Even those who now say they will never come back, he says, will return in three years or so. “All this will just be a memory.”