Some of you may remember Billie (Blush) Stewart, who graduated from Elmhurst in 1959. She grew up on the southwest side of Fort Wayne, but now lives in Midland, Georgia. Two of her friends, Jim and Gisela Spires, work for a company that supplies firefighters with emergency showers. The disaster in New Orleans prompted FEMA to contract them to go to New Orleans to aid in the rescue efforts. Following are their accounts of the situation over the past few days.
Date: Monday, Sept. 5, 2005
Email: Jim & Gisela Spires
Much to our surprise, we have good T-Mobile service and telephone service here in New Orleans.
When we left Camp Beauregard on the northeast side of Pineville, Louisiana we were given written orders by FEMA for our assignment. It stated we were to support the New Orleans Police Department at Harrah’s Casino with our showers. At a set point we were to call the State Police for escort beyond the highway barriers and into the city. With a convoy of nine vehicles we set out for New Orleans and called at the appointed place.
“You won’t need an escort, find help along the way.” Oh great, we didn’t even know where “along the way” was going to be. We passed the highway barrier with no problem using our FEMA placards in the windshields. We were using Streets and Trips and doing very nicely thank you when I-10 was suddenly blocked off about four miles from our destination. No signs, just a diversion off the interstate. Now we were worried, we had a sense of the direction we should travel but with the flooding and storm damage we could not afford to take our “doubles” into a place where they could not turn around.
There were dozens if not hundreds of ambulances with red lights and sirens and other police type vehicles also with lights and sirens. Getting a police vehicle to stop or even look our way wasn’t working until I stepped out in front of one of them and two of the nicest plain clothes guys you will ever meet stopped and agreed to escort us at least most of the way. They told us, “Once you get on Unpronounceable French named street it will be a straight shot.”
Uh huh. We were all awe struck at what we were seeing but my impression was of an earthquake more than a hurricane.
The other shocking thing to us was the obvious evidence of looting. Shopping carts everywhere and trashed packaging of just about anything you can think of.
Finally, we reached Unpronounceable French street. As we approached downtown the street became littered with everything imaginable and two lane streets were mostly one lane. Ambulances screaming on every street, us trying to find a way for them to get by, and convoys of police cars doing the same as the ambulances. We finally arrived at Canal Street to find Harrah’s bombed out and deserted. At least we thought it was. Walmart was trying to deliver bottled water and they couldn’t find anyone to take it.
The place was an absolute mad house of police, military and every conceivable agency of the U.S. government. It was obvious to us that we had found people who desperately needed our services but equally obvious that there was no way we could set up anywhere near this place. It took hours, working through go betweens to finally get to talk to the New Orleans police chief-a fairly young man with a heavy load to bear. During the hours we were there I twice saw him sitting alone with his head in his hands. Our need to set up showers was very low on his list of tasks. As I waited I was overwhelmed by the entire scene, the steady stream of helicopters, ambulances, police cars and law enforcement personnel at the command post. I am not a movie buff but Hollywood could not have scripted a more perfect “end of the world” type movie scene.
Our site is the dock for the Delta Queen steamboat.
At 2 AM we were finally ready to shower customers and we were the first ones. All 12 of us were as wet as if we had been in the river. The humidity is around the clock. The word has not spread that we are here but the thanks from the ones who have come so far almost brings tears to my eyes.
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