The network of interstate highways across the United States is dotted with Visitor Centers -- way-stations that provide travelers with whatever they may need for their road trips: maps, tourist information, food and a rest area. But as displaced Gulf Coast residents make their way north, east and west, some of these welcome centers have taken on a new role -- as relief stations.
While the end of summer Labor Day weekend is traditionally one of the busiest times for visitor centers, this holiday weekend was unexpectedly busy at Virginia's Bristol Welcome Center, along the state's southern border with Tennessee.
Richard Lewis is spokesman for the Virginia Tourism Corporation, which manages the state's welcome centers. "We were serving two different needs over those two days," he says. "We were serving the regular travelers coming to Virginia on vacation, and who need our services, maps, suggested places to stay, and suggested places to visit. At the same time we were trying to serve people who are so badly in need."
Those people were fleeing the Gulf Coast for northern cities where they had relatives and friends. By the time the evacuees reached the Bristol Welcome Center, they had been driving for many hours. Mr. Lewis says many were surprised by what they found. "Our welcome center staff had been going out and buying supplies and necessities to give to some of the people coming through, driving up from the gulf south," he says. "They were buying with money out of their pockets. That effort was supplemented very well by the American Red Cross, which set up a command post at our welcome center."
Lyn Peters is one of the Red Cross volunteers at the Bristol Welcome Center. "What we were doing here is unique. Something, probably, we've never done before," she says. "We are doing an emergency aid station, providing water, drinks, coffee, snacks, toys, coloring books, crayons, and pet supply. We've seen over 700 people and roughly 50 animals, ranging from cats, dogs, turtles, ferrets, birds and fish."
The Red Cross is also providing emotional and psychological help. "We have here mental health volunteers," she says. "We have a nurse who can do a general assessment if we need to get someone to a doctor. They are offering coping skills, encouraging them to make time, to do some fun things, to relax and to cry when they feel like they need to."
Lyn Peters says most of the people here thought it might be just a few days before they could return home. But as the situation worsened, they were forced into extended visits or trips they hadn't planned for. "They were still so much in a state in shock," she says. "They are grieving because their losses, but they are starting to pull things back together. We've seen people with destinations, not necessarily with plans but with a plan to have a plan."
Virginia Tourism Corporation's Richard Lewis says he understands how these evacuees feel because he was born and raised in Mississippi, in one of the cities nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. "I was able to speak with people from my hometown and from elsewhere across the coast," he says. "And I saw in them the same things that I witnessed when Hurricane Camille devastated the area in 1969. Some people came through in a perfect shock. Their world is been very altered without any ability to really prepare for it. Other people who came through understood, in a methodical way, that they needed to get to friends, to family and at least to establish a base from which they could begin to make sense of their lives."
This has been an emotional week for Mr. Lewis and the other people working at the Bristol Welcome Center. They hope the help they offered the evacuees on the road will give them the support they need on their unexpected journey.