Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"Private-sector opportunities"
in Katrina relief



2005 © Adele M. Stan for AFGE
Katrina's wrath in New Orleans

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Nearly a month after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, she continues to make news. And for some, according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, the news is not all bad:

A "Katrina Reconstruction Summit," hosted by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and sponsored by Halliburton, among others, brought some 200 lobbyists, corporate representatives and government staffers to a room overlooking the Capitol for a five-hour conference that included time for a "networking break" and advice on "opportunities for private sector involvement."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE
What once were trees.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Communications Specialist Adele Stan, together with the M.O.R.E. team of Issues Mobilization Specialist Brendan Danaher, and Health & Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez, were sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in mid-September to assess the needs of AFGE members--those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and those deployed in the disaster relief efforts. These are their blog entries.

Prison in transit


photo by Brendan Danaher for AFGE
By Rolls, by bus, by rail--it's now a jail.


NEW ORLEANS, LA--Before we set out for New Orleans, we received many dire warnings about checkpoints we might not get through. Brendan and Milly had gotten clearance from FEMA to pass into town, but I was along for the ride with the admonition that my press pass would do me more harm than good.

Less than an hour south of Baton Rouge, which had survived Katrina virtually unscathed, New Orleans’ brutal battering became ever more evident as we drew closer to the city. Soon the roadside was flanked by woods rendered naked by wind and rain; trees stood looking as if a fire had torn through the land which now bore little more than their roots and bare trunks. What branches were left were reduced to mere stumps.

Roofless buildings spoke of the beating they’d endured. Even the billboards--the few still standing--had been stripped of their ads, the paper having curled off of them in strips.

We never passed a working checkpoint before entering the city, so we headed directly for the Union Passenger Terminal (a.k.a., the Greyhound bus station) which, we had been told, was in use as a makeshift prison. Our mission was to locate the correctional officers from the federal Bureau of Prisons (BoP) who were helping state and parish officials run what was now the relocated Angola correctional facility.

A pair of National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico greeted us as we approached the station on foot, having parked the rental car in a bus stop where busses no longer stopped. They were kind and happy to see us, especially Milly, who had been to their island. The three exchanged a few words in Spanish, and everybody smiled.

Outside the front doors of the facility sat an odd collection of upholstered furniture and office chairs. These apparently served as a smoking lounge. “I wonder what that Rolls is doing there,” Brendan said. Inexplicably, a white Rolls Royce sat on the lawn--shiny and tidy in a scene of forlorn neglect.

We walked through the al fresco lounge, an African-American worker held open the door for us. A manager from the Department of Justice stepped out from the stationmaster’s office, where he and a colleague had set up shop. A mobile featuring a cardboard replica of a Greyhound coach hung in the corner of by the window that looked onto the lobby. Once apprised of the purpose of our visit, he set out to find the warden on duty.

We met the deputy warden at the borderline between office and prison, which seemed to be marked by a set of glass doors that led to where the bus stalls were. It was there, presumably, that the inmates were housed. The bus station lobby--a broad expanse of terrazzo floors and aluminum trim with a wrap-around mural--appeared to be where the administrative work was done. People sat at computers in the middle of the waiting room, in a section marked off by yellow police tape.

Beyond the yellow perimeter, lining one wall and spilling out on a row of racks set perpendicular to the wall, were piles of colorful comforters and clothing. Nearby sat a garbage bin emblazoned with the motto, “Trash your city, trash yourself.”


photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE
Items collected for working officers who themselves lost everything.



photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE


“Those are for our sheriffs and their families,” said the DoJ manager. It was a story commonly heard throughout our trip; so many of the people doing the work of keeping order and performing rescue and relief were people who, themselves, had lost everything, or very nearly so.

Before we even got to the warden, a young guard employed by the State of Louisiana , white with a Marine-style haircut, began insisting that this one and that one would want to see us--all state and parish officials. We tried explaining that we were advocates for federal workers, but it was to no avail. Once they learned that Milly’s specialty was health and safety, they were all over her.

The young deputy with Native American looks and a French name insisted that his boss would love to talk to us. He explained that most of the correctional officers on site were employees of the state, and that the BoP officers were detailed primarily to prisoner transport.

Soon a doctor in scrubs, a tall, wearing-looking white man in his fifties, rushed up to tell us he desperately needed medicine. He ran the clinic on this site, he explained, serving not just the inmates, but many of the rescue and law enforcement folks, as well as National Guard. He was handling the preventive care for a number of these workers--the vaccinaitons and antibiotics--in addition to treating their occupational injuries. “When folks learn there’s a clinic here, they come,” he said. “I don’t want to turn anyone away.” And he really needed more medicine, he told us. Milly promised to pass his request on to the FEMA officials that she and Brendan had met with.

Asked for the most common injuries he saw, the doctor listed a litany of the sorts of things that appear minor on the surface, but can be debilitating or even deadly if left untreated. Among the former are poison ivy, all manner of dermatitus, and red ant bites. The latter include cuts, puncture wounds and bacterial bronchitus, an increasingly common complaint among those working on the stench-filled streets and fetid waters of New Orleans.

We bade the doctor and the warden good-bye and turned for the door. “I really need medicine,” the doctor said.

Issues Mobilization Specialist Brendan Danaher and Health & Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez of the AFGE M.O.R.E. team, together with Communications Specialist Adele Stan, went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in mid-September to assess the needs of AFGE members--those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and those deployed in the disaster relief efforts. These are Brendan's photos.

New Orleans in camouflage Posted by Picasa

photo by Brendan Danaher for AFGE

Sunday, September 18, 2005

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photo by Brendan Danaher for AFGE
National Guard in front of New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral

Communications Specialist Adele Stan, together with the M.O.R.E. team of Issues Mobilization Specialist Brendan Danaher, and Health & Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez, were sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in mid-September to assess the needs of AFGE members--those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and those deployed in the disaster relief efforts. These are their blog entries.

Hungry for home

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photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE
Home is a hangar.



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photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE
Tent living.



HAMMOND, LA.--We had heard that a contingent of Border Patrol officers were being housed at a small airport outside of Baton Rouge. We arrived to find living quarters for 200 in a single vinyl tent erected in a helicopter hangar. The tent was a relatively new feature, we were told by the officers. They had been there since the day after Katrina hit New Orleans, sleeping on cots in the open hangar. Five port-a-johns were all there was in terms of rest rooms to accommodate the 200 men. There were no showers for the first four days; that was when the officers were working 24-hour shifts, evacuating the New Orleans International Airport. (For his 24-hour shifts, one officer said, he had received only 12 hours of pay.)

"It was unbelievable," one officer told me. "There was human excrement from one end of the facility to the other. I never saw so many sick people."

Some 5,000 New Orleaneans, the officer estimated, were holed up there, seeking shelter and a ticket out. Every day, for three days, the Border Patrol officers moved people out of the facility, living not unlike the evacuees themselves. No showers. Overflowing potties. No real food--just MREs.*

The officers were then dispatched on 24-hour and 12-hour shifts to police the streets of New Orleans. "But by the time we got there," one officer explained, "most of the looting was over."

They have little idea of just what they've been exposed to by way of toxins. They were vaccinated for hepatitis and other diseases likely to be borne of unsanitary conditions, and were also given gammaglobulin shots to boost their immune systems. They take tetracycline, an antibiotic, every day as a preventive measure against bacterial threats.

Now told that they're to ship out--go back home to San Diego or Laredo or McAllen, or other spots along the Southern border--they were asked to fill out a questionnaire that one officer said comprised only three questions, including a request to list what toxins the respondent had been exposed to. "How do I know?" he asked. "How do I know what was in that dust coating the streets of the French Quarter?"

Once the levees broke, waters containing benzene, petrol, PCBs, and who knows what else, filled the streets of the lower-lying areas. (Not to mention, of course, sewage and decomposing bodies.)

I got the distinct impression that no higher-ups from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were around. When I asked if any of the DHS managers had shown up from time to time, the Border Patrol officers just smiled and shook their heads. Indeed, the command structure at this location seemed to be just officers and their team leaders.

Orders came from a voice behind some curtain in Washington.

When you ponder the numbers of people, eager to help, like these Border Patrol officers--people who have been living in day-to-day uncertainty since the storm began, have seen awful sights on a far grander scale than they're accustomed to at the border, and who sit wondering whether something they breathed in September will mean illness in July--it's hard to overestimate the mental health crisis soon to come, not just among evacuees, but among those dispatched to help them. No mental health professionals had been to their quarters, the officers told me. No EAP; no instructions on where to seek help, if needed. A Catholic chaplain did make regular visits to the site, and was there during our visit.

Two days ago, this particular Border Patrol contingent was told that they would be heading home the next day. They packed up their duffles, only to find the order rescinded. One officer was eager to return to his wife and new baby; the baby was two weeks old when he deployed. It wouldn't be quite as bad, another officer explained, if they were actually doing something. But for the last three days, they've been hanging out in a hangar, hungry for home.



* MRE--Meals ready to eat.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Communications Specialist Adele Stan, together with the M.O.R.E. team of Issues Mobilization Specialist Brendan Danaher, and Health & Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez, were sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in mid-September to assess the needs of AFGE members--those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and those deployed in the disaster relief efforts. These are their blog entries.


One foot in front of the other



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photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE
Milly Rodriguez, Andrew Brumsey and Brendan Danaher.



BATON ROUGE, LA--Brendan, Milly and I entered a giant Red Cross staging area in the care of AFGE National Representative Andrew Brumsey, who is himself an evacuee from New Orleans. He and his wife are now lodged in Baton Rouge hotel.

Andrew spends his days tracking down AFGE members who have been affected--some devastated--by the storm.

He’s assembled a long, handwritten list of AFGE members he’s located, and is trying to get a handle on who else is out there.

In Gulfport, Miss., Andrew tells us, the AFGE Local at the Naval Navy National Space Technology La. (NSTL) Station in has been decimated. Thirty percent of the local’s members are homeless, and just yesterday, he learned of a member who had drowned in the flooding along with his two-year-old son.

Andrew’s home is still standing--but just barely. It’s not liveable. So, in the meantime, he just keeps putting one foot in front of the other, searching for members who have yet to be located.

Communications Specialist Adele Stan, together with the M.O.R.E. team of Issues Mobilization Specialist Brendan Danaher, and Health & Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez, were sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in mid-September to assess the needs of AFGE members--those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and those deployed in the disaster relief efforts. These are their blog entries.

Like no other place



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photo by Adele M. Stan for AFGE
Flying in with FEMA



BATON ROUGE, LA.--Even before the landing gear hit the tarmac at the Baton Rouge airport, you could tell that nothing was normal here. Witness the flock of U.S. Army helicopters, painted olive drab and marked with the red cross of a medevac, lined up alon g the side of the landing strip.

The flight that brought me here with my colleagues from the AFGE national office, Brendan Danaher and Milly Rodriguez, was populated largely by firefighters, FEMA and otherwise, as well as various other relief workers.

While waiting for my baggage, I chatted up a FEMA firefighter who told a tale of chaos and frustration regarding her deployment. She was with a unit from Ohio. They been deployed shortly after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, but then spent a week sitting in a hotel room in Epcot Center. “They’ve been putting us up in resorts, while people have lost everything,” she said. “It’s humiliating.”

After a week in Orlando, she was sent to Atlanta, where she was to be trained as a community relations worker for the New Orleans area. “Then,” she explained, “they said, no, never mind.”

Now, she said, she had received an order saying that she was about to be deployed to an area where she should be prepared to live in “austere conditions.” They’ve been prepared for that for weeks, she said. She and her colleagues are terribly frustrated in not having been allowed to use their skills to save lives while people were dying.

What she expected to now, she said, was “recovery.”

“You mean bodies?” I asked.

“We’re firefighters and EMTs. Yeah. Recovery is part of what we do.”

Welcome

Communications Specialist Adele Stan, together with the M.O.R.E. team of Issues Mobilization Coordinator Brendan Danaher, and Health & Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez, have been sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to assess the needs of AFGE members--those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and those deployed in the disaster relief efforts. They will be posting to this blog their experiences. Check back here for updated content.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hospital Workers in Shelters

ALEXANDRIA, LA.--The Veterans Administration (VA) closed facilities in New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., after the storm. The agency has offered to put dislocated employees to work in its other facilities, so employees are scattered around the Southeast in Jackson, Miss., Houston, Tex., and Arkansas -- anywhere they can find an open VA hospital or office.

Many VA employees from New Orleans are still being housed in shelters in the Alexandria area. According to Roger Bennett, president of AFGE Local 1972 at the VA Hospital in Alexandria, 224 employees are staying at the Nazarene Church Camp and the Sacred Heart Church. Many others who were originally sheltered in Alexandria have moved on to other cities.

All told, Alexandria is housing about 9,500 people who are homeless after the storm.

When Katrina hit, the VA employees in Alexandria prepared food, washed clothes, and set up makeshift shelters for the evacuees. In the days that followed, the volunteers started to drive the victims on errands, since what many New Orleanians needed most was a ride to file an insurance claim or shop for food. Bennett says that housing is a huge problem.

Gulfport local decimated

GULFPORT, MISS.--Rhett Hamiter, president of AFGE Local 1028 at the Navy's National Space Technology Lab, says that 30 percent of the employees at the facility lost their homes. They need help with relocation and clothes. He's spent the better part of the last two days helping to clean out wrecked houses.