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Red Cross Helps Evacuees Cope with Uncertainty in Shelters

Tens of thousands of people who fled hurricane-stricken New Orleans have found refuge in Red Cross shelters. One in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, houses 1,800 evacuees who are coping day by day, uncertain about their future. Red Cross officials and volunteers are helping them make the best of a difficult situation.

The story of every evacuee is different. Some have lost everything and have been separated from loved ones. Others are luckier.

"My name is Floyd Gibson. I'm from the West Bank area of Jefferson Parish, and I've been in the shelter for maybe about two weeks or so. And my home sustained minimal damage. It wasn't severe in the area where I live, mostly wind damage, a lot of downed trees," said Mr. Gibson.

He is hoping authorities will allow him to go home within one month, but he isn't sure that will happen.

Patricia Williams of downtown New Orleans has no idea what happened to her house. Most of the central city was covered with water. She left as the flooding started, sleeping in her car before she came to this shelter. "I heard a lot of water was over there because I got out as the water was coming up. So I really don't know what kind of condition it is in," she said.

Allen Prouty also lived in downtown New Orleans, and held out for six days after the storm struck before evacuating. "I was reluctant to go, but then when I got out, I was very happy because of the water," he said.

He says that here, he gets the basics - food and a place to sleep - but conditions are uncomfortable.

As evacuees await word on their future, they get essential services at this downtown shelter. It is located in two adjoining buildings, a sports arena and a convention center. In a passageway between the two, Doctor Toni Brayer, a volunteer from San Francisco, sees a steady stream of patients who need medical care. "And we're seeing everything from hypertension, diabetes out of control. A lot of these patients have not had their medicines for over a week now, so we're evaluating them for the chronic problems they've had, as well as illnesses that come up just from being under such stressful circumstances, and everybody crowded together," he said.

Hundreds of children at the shelter are starting to get schooling. Volunteers Fernando Napoles of Sacramento, California, and Nabil Murad of Omaha, Nebraska, helped set up the program.

Napoles: "We started four days ago and we organized a school for the kids. And it's been great. How many kids did we have?"

Murad: "Yesterday, we had about 142."

Egyptian-born Nabil Murad oversees the school program, which offers courses such as reading, math and physical education. "The children also get lunch here during the time here, and in the evening we will have a tutoring program to focus on their academic needs," he said.

Some children at the shelter are now enrolling in neighborhood schools, and they will receive tutoring when they return to the shelter each evening.

Red Cross volunteer Jeff Walker says conditions are not ideal, and people here must deal with a range of conflicting emotions. He says most are grateful to have food and a place to sleep. He says that is true especially of children. Many have made thank you cards for the shelter workers. "It makes you tear up a bit just to see that the kids can do something for you. There's one resident who knew that I did not have breakfast, lunch or dinner yesterday. At 10 at night, she was shoving crackers in my pocket telling me to keep my strength up as we were walking through here. I made her take them back, but they try and give back as well too," he said.

Mark Garretson, a lawyer from Akron, Ohio, came to Louisiana as a volunteer and is helping at the shelter. "I've seen so many cases of human misery down here so far, but I'm really glad I'm here. It's difficult work and it's depressing, but at the same time, it makes you feel good you're out here actually helping somebody, maybe giving somebody a little hope," he said.

How long will this shelter be here? As long as it is needed, Red Cross officials say, but all look forward to the time when it can close its doors, as evacuees go home or move on to permanent housing.