The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005


Katrina Aftermath Strengthens Federation Family

by Norma Crosby


From the Editor: Many of us will look back on hurricane Katrina as we now do September 11, 2001--recollecting where we were and what we went through first- or second-hand, in this case when the wind and water struck. My son, who taught at Tulane in New Orleans at the time, called me Saturday morning, August 27, to say that he was evacuating the city but that he was not sure where he was going. Without thinking twice about it, I said, “You can go to Ruston for a few days; I am sure that Pam Allen would let you camp on a floor somewhere at the center,” the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB).

Julie Russell of New Orleans and her guide dog Lillith at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
Julie Russell of New Orleans and her guide dog Lillith at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.

Then I began trying to reach Pam to make sure that she was not already overrun with unexpected guests. She called me back almost immediately, and I will never forget the warmth and calm of her voice as she said, “We would love to host your son and his colleague in our apartments. Tell them to get in touch with me so that I can give them directions.” Steven and another professor from Tulane stayed from Saturday evening until Wednesday, when busloads of new evacuees were expected in. By that time the Tulane contingent was ready to drive to Dallas, where the planes were still flying.

I know, based on my family’s experience, how grateful many on the Gulf Coast are that the Louisiana Center for the Blind is well inland and that it is staffed by such loving, generous, and energetic Federationists. Despite everything else that the staff has taken on, I asked Pam Allen if someone could quickly write us a preliminary report on what has been happening and what they still need.

Pam asked Norma Crosby, who in ordinary times coordinates the Bridges Program, which you will read about later in this issue in Amy Phelps’s article, to prepare the report. Since Katrina’s invasion of the Gulf Coast, Norma and her husband Glenn have been everywhere at the center, checking up on people, helping, organizing, and generally making themselves indispensable. Here is Norma’s report on the aftermath of Katrina at LCB and across the stricken area:

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, millions of lives were changed forever. Some of those who left New Orleans and the surrounding area have found their way to Ruston, and at present the Louisiana Center for the Blind is home to about forty-five of them. Staff and students have been working hard to make them feel welcome, and Federationists from around the country have called with expressions of concern and offers of much-needed, more tangible help to assist the center in its efforts on behalf of blind evacuees and their families.

As just about everyone now knows, the storm hit just east of New Orleans on Monday, August 29. Most of those currently housed at the LCB had already evacuated by the time Katrina came ashore. Requests for help began to come in early, and Pam Allen and the other staff at LCB were glad to offer those who needed it a place to stay. The first evacuees arrived on Sunday, August 28, and a steady stream followed.

Jessie Hartle is employed at the National Center for the Blind. He is originally from Louisiana, and much of his family lives in the areas that Katrina hit the hardest. A number of them are currently here at LCB. They are not blind, but they are a part of our extended Federation family. They needed help, and they have gotten it from the blind of Louisiana. Mrs. Laverne Hartle, Jessie’s mom, lives in Tangipahoa Parish. She believes her home is demolished. She hasn’t been able to get back into the parish to see exactly what has happened, but the area was hit hard.

“I appreciate what the center has done for me so much,” Mrs. Hartle said. “I got here first, and, by the time everyone else living in my apartment arrived, everything was ready for them. Pam and Roland have been a Godsend for all of us.”

LCB apartment 4 is currently home to the Hauck and St. Pierre families. They are also related to Mrs. Hartle, and if it is possible, they were even harder hit. All of them live on a large piece of property in St. Bernard Parish. If you have been watching the news, you know that St. Bernard is just east of New Orleans, and it is likely that all 26,000 homes in that parish will simply be bulldozed. These families were not covered by flood insurance, and they have simply lost everything.

McLeon St. Pierre told me, “When we left, we went to a hotel in West Monroe. We stayed there as long as we could afford to, but we had nine rooms, and they were charging us about $90 a day for each one. We stayed there until the Wednesday after the storm, and then we came here.”

“We just couldn’t afford to stay there much longer,” said Joanne Hauck. “If it hadn’t been for the center, I don’t know where we would have gone or what we would have done.”

“The center and the NFB are definitely at the top of our list when it comes to giving from now on,” Kathleen St. Pierre said. The Red Cross is second, but the blind are first.”

Lydia Miller and her husband of thirty-five years came to the center after spending several days at the Days Inn here in Ruston. Mrs. Miller is a member of our New Orleans chapter, and she works at the New Orleans Lighthouse. Her husband is a retired budget analyst for the U. S. Navy. They live in Orleans Parish near the lake, and they believe that they also have lost everything to the storm. Mrs. Miller was also living in the New Orleans area when Hurricane Betsy destroyed much of her family home in 1965.

“I am so glad to be here at the center. Everyone has been so nice,” Mrs. Miller said. “Having this apartment makes our loss much easier to deal with, but it is tough having to buy all the things we had accumulated over thirty-five years. It is frustrating.”

“We’re lucky,” Julie Russell of Jefferson Parish told me. “My parents and I live in an area that seems to have survived the hurricane pretty well. The problem is that they won’t let us back into our neighborhood yet.”

Julie is one of four former LCB students who are back in LCB apartments. She told me during a recent conversation that she is glad that her family home is still intact, but she thinks it is likely that her office was destroyed. “I don’t know what I’ll be going back to at work, but I think we are very lucky. Some people lost everything,” she said.

Many Federationists know Roland Allen. He is a cane-travel instructor at LCB, and he is married to Pam Allen. His family is also from the New Orleans area. They arrived in Ruston on September 4. The good news for their family is that their houses are likely salvageable. The bad news is that some of them are unemployed as a result of the hurricane. Mrs. Allen worked in a gift shop at the New Orleans Amtrak station. That station is not operational at present, so she is without a job. Other family members are also looking for work. One of Roland’s nephews has been able to find work at a local Domino’s Pizza because he was employed by Domino’s in the New Orleans area. Everyone else in their apartment is suffering from boredom. They are active people, and having to wait to get back into their homes is frustrating for them. The best news they have had in some time is that they will probably get to go back into their neighborhood soon. No one is sure whether they will get to stay, but they are hopeful since their neighborhood is apparently dry.

In an effort to liven things up a little for our guests, LCB staff, students, and NFB chapter members decided to prepare a potluck dinner for those living at the apartments last weekend. Everyone brought so much food that many of us are still groaning from our overindulgence, and everyone seemed to have a good time. We have lots of adults here, but there are children too. Until a few days ago, we had a guest who was only seven weeks old. She and her parents have left, but we still have young people ranging in age from six to seventeen. Some of them have begun to attend school here in Ruston, while others are waiting to start school in their home parishes.

Everyone seems to be getting signed up for FEMA assistance, and the Red Cross has been able to offer additional help. Money will continue to be an issue for some families because so many people are looking for work in the area that there is no way for our local economy to absorb them all. But as long as they need help, the LCB will be here for them.

Three of our current students have also been adversely affected by the storm. Sandra Darling and Nile Vincent are from the New Orleans area, and they both believe they have lost their homes. Mac David is from Waveland, Mississippi, and his family’s home has been damaged as well. For a time Nile was not able to locate his young son, but he has now been located and is apparently doing well. Sandra told me during the potluck dinner that she knows she has lost everything, but she is happy just to be safe. Mac is still working hard at his training and seems to be coping well.

Before any of us knew about the possibility of Hurricane Katrina, Nile was working on his major project for shop class. He decided to make a grand door for his home. I saw it a few weeks ago, and it is beautiful. It is a substantial door, made of solid wood, and in the middle of the outside is the word “Welcome” in Braille. The door represents a lot of hard work and hope for the future. Nile is justifiably proud of what he has accomplished. Now he has no home to go with this wonderful door, so he has decided that it should stay at the center. Someday soon it will become a door for one of the buildings at the LCB.

Many Federationists not now housed at LCB were also affected by Katrina. Don and Jewel Banning live in Jefferson Parish. The parish as a whole was less damaged than Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, but the Bannings will not soon forget their ordeal even if they have a house to go back to. They are both safe, but they and all the other evacuees are grateful for the prayers of everyone who is a part of the Federation family.

Since the hurricane tore through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the LCB has been involved in extensive relief work. Housing evacuees is just one part of what the staff has been working on. Zena Pearcy, who serves as the center’s receptionist, and Pam Allen have been working tirelessly to assist blind people, their families, other rehabilitation professionals, and other relief agencies. The LCB has become an information clearinghouse for former students who are checking on other former students, shelters needing help serving blind evacuees, members of the public looking for blind family members or friends, rehabilitation professionals concerned about clients, and guide dog schools, checking on both people and animals.

Pam, Zena, and other staff have also worked hard at offering concrete solutions to problems as they have arisen. When LCB had no more space, Pam helped to find housing for a former student who is currently in Houston. A blind woman was stranded in New Orleans for many days, and she was frantic for help. No one from LCB could get to her, but Pam was able to talk with her by phone and offer comfort until she could be evacuated. Both Pam and Zena also called every agency they could think of to make sure someone knew the woman needed to be evacuated. She has now been evacuated safely, and she is well.

The Louisiana Center for the Blind has a lot of work to do during the next few months. Service of all kinds has been disrupted for a significant population. Pam and her staff will need help from all of us. Contact the LCB if you can offer one or more of the following:

Contact the Louisiana Center for the Blind at (318) 251-2891 or (800) 234-4166. Donations should be sent to National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana, 101 S. Trenton Street, Ruston, Louisiana 71270. Please write “Hurricane Relief” on the memo line of your check. Funds collected will be used to help people from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Pam Allen, Sam Gleese, and Michael Jones have been in close contact since the hurricane came ashore, and they are working hard to insure that blind people throughout the affected areas are served.

I have mentioned the hard work Pam Allen and Zena Pearcy have been doing, but other center staff should be recognized for their contributions to this effort as well. Brawyn Evans is the apartment manager for the center, and everyone who spoke to me for this article mentioned how wonderful she has been. She has kept them comfortable and has been welcoming to all LCB’s guests. Merilynn and Jerry Whittle have taken people shopping and provided clothing. Patti McGahan, Angela Grafton, Bethel Baragona, Susan Clark, and Kelly Womack have delivered supplies to those housed here and offered help whenever and wherever it was needed. Jewel Lightfoot and Arlene Hill worked hard to make sure the potluck dinner was a success, and they have both helped in other ways as well. Brian Dulude, Jeff Pearcy, Jerry Darnell, James Mayes, Josh Boudreaux, and Neita Ghrigsby have pitched in wherever they were needed.

Local chapter members have also been busy helping with relief efforts. Maria and Eddie Bell have helped at the center and at local evacuation facilities, and as usual Ruby Ryles has been a big help. LCB students are also pitching in at local shelters. The Federation can truly be proud of the effort here; and Sam Gleese, Michael Jones, and their affiliates are doing no less.

The center has fielded calls from at least seventeen states since the hurricane struck. Both the center staff and members of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana wish to thank our Federation family for its support, concern, and offers of help. We also want to thank the evacuees for their willingness to jump in and help with things like yard work. They have all been gracious in accepting help and offering to give something back. The circumstances that have brought us all together are deplorable, but the experience of knowing and working with this group of people has been and continues to be wonderful.