Just nine days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, four UCSB students joined the Red Cross to help Louisiana’s residents deal with the aftermath of the disaster.
Senior computer engineering majors Brian DeRenzi and Matt Vlasach, third year psychology and Italian major Elizabeth Peterson and senior biology major Jennifer White, spent 10 days helping the Red Cross run the Lamar-Dixon shelter in Louisiana, located 20 miles south of Baton Rouge and 40 miles north of New Orleans. During their time in Lamar-Dixon, the students worked from 12-18 hours per day and performed countless tasks to help keep the shelter in operation, including everything from fixing its computer database to taking out the trash.
The group departed Sept. 7 after a short Red Cross training course in Santa Barbara, stopping for three days at the Red Cross headquarters in Baton Rouge before traveling to Lamar-Dixon.
“Basically, we dropped everything,” Peterson said. “We had three days of intense training with the Red Cross. Three of us were in finals. We talked to professors. I [had] a final due Tuesday.”
Before their trip, Red Cross officials warned the students that their deployment in Lamar-Dixon would be a ‘hardship assignment’ during which they might not have adequate food and shelter, Vlasach said. He said the shelter was located in a livestock exposition center and housed close to 700 people.
In spite of the harsh conditions, DeRenzi said it was extremely rewarding to be able to help people displaced by the storm — especially those who had become separated from loved ones amid the chaos.
“I worked with people to look for missing relatives — things that I thought I would never do,” DeRenzi said. “I helped one lady find her fiancé because she hadn’t seen him in two weeks.”
However, Peterson said the confusion caused by the large number of people seeking assistance at the shelter made it difficult for relief workers to always help everyone in need.
“There was a woman who came in and said, ‘My kids are here,’ and we never found them,” Peterson said. “All we had was a record that they saw the doctor. They just vanished into thin air. I am positive when the shelters close there will just be a lot of kids who have nowhere to go.”
Adding to the evacuees’ troubles, White said, many had difficulty contacting the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), despite their best attempts to reach the organization.
“These people would wake up on the hour, every hour — one, two, three — every night for weeks and still never actually get through,” White said.
Peterson said she believes some of the shelter’s inhabitants were so desperate for aid that they readily believed rumors and false information.
“There were a lot of rumors that the Red Cross was giving everyone $300,” Peterson said. “[Evacuees] would come to Lamar-Dixon to get aid and it was a total [disappointment]. People would flag us down and say, ‘Where do we get money?’ Everyone was searching for quick aid that didn’t exist.” Peterson said that on one of their days off, the students went to see the damage caused by Katrina in New Orleans. She said the reality of the situation in the beleaguered city is far worse than it seems on television.
“We went down just to see [New Orleans],” Peterson said. “My mouth was dry at the end because I just found my mouth gaping. Suddenly, for all of us it became much more of a reality. It was bad — it’s bad and I don’t know how they are going to clean it up.”
White said she thinks the destruction in New Orleans is so bad that it will take extreme measures to rebuild the city.
“They need to just burn it,” White said. “They need to just find a way to clear it all out.”