Transportation problems plague Katrina evacuees | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Transportation problems plague Katrina evacuees

Amanda Fehd

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Felicia Watkins hold her most recent photo of her daughter Tashawna from 1997 on Monday.

She is 13 years old and her home in Jefferson Parish is under water. For the past three weeks, she has been living with 13 people in a house in Plaquemines Parish, the southern most parish in Louisiana, with her father. More people are moving into the house.

But on Wednesday, Tashawna Watkins will leave the devastation of New Orleans behind for a new home, and a new life.

She flies into Reno to join her mother, Felicia Watkins of South Lake Tahoe.

Felicia, a single mother of two who makes $8.50 an hour, bought a $300 plane ticket to fly Tashawna out of Louisiana last week.

Tashawna is one of thousands living in shelters in the South who have family in other areas of the country willing to care for them. But there is no immediate allowance for bus and plane fairs out of the disaster zone, volunteers said.

“There is no one connecting the inside world to the outside world,” said Mindy Southard, a South Shore volunteer with the Red Cross in Baton Rouge.

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“It’s a critical problem. Not a dime of (Red Cross) money can go for transportation. We need a transportation program. They need access to money.”

Southard praised the organization’s assistance to families in terms of food and shelter.

A Red Cross spokesperson told the Tribune on Monday it is true the organization is not in charge of transportation funds for reuniting people with their families. That is under the purview of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Renita Hosler said.

But Felicia had no luck getting assistance from FEMA.

“I’ve talked to five people from FEMA,” Felicia said. “(A woman named) Marsha got back to me, and was working on flyer miles from United Airlines. She never called back that night, and when she did, she said ‘Sorry, but things are canceled, the airlines are not donating flyer miles to Red Cross.'”

Meanwhile, a FEMA spokesman said money is available, but only after families have registered with them at http://www.fema.gov or through the phone number 800-621-FEMA.

“There’s a lot of money available and FEMA has been willing to be flexible with all this stuff,” said Navy Lieutenant Tom Porter from FEMA’s media headquarters in Baton Rouge. A family gets $2,000 right off the bat, he said.

That money is to help victims rebuild their lives, Southard said, and would easily be exhausted on plane tickets for a family.

Felicia said her ex-husband told her it would take months before he received his FEMA money.

Other volunteers on the ground in Baton Rouge have noticed the lack of funds for people who just want to get out of town quick.

Linda Mehrens, wife of Dr. Henning Mehrens, a family practitioner here for 30 years, flew to Baton Rouge last week, rented a car and attached herself to a Red Cross shelter without becoming an official volunteer.

That would have prevented her from shuttling people to and from their destroyed homes to find relatives and retrieve possessions, or delivering people to the airport and bus station.

In one week, she’s put 2,500 miles on the car, bought six bus tickets and six airline tickets to assist people leaving. People who want to help with travel funds may contact Dr. Mehrens at Tahoe Urgent Care, 542-3277.

In a letter to friends home, Linda writes:

“One of the most difficult and challenging situations this hurricane created is the separation of families. … People were evacuated as quickly as possible, taken away by boats and helicopters and put on buses and it is hard to find a single person who knows where all his or her family members are located.”

Meanwhile, Felicia is preparing a room for her daughter. Someone donated a dresser on Monday, another donated a bed. Felicia is in touch with St. Theresa to see if Tashawna can enroll with tuition assistance.

Other donations to the Watkinses, such as school supplies and clothes, can be delivered to Brenda Rogers at High Sierra Adventure Sports on Harrison Avenue. Rogers was connected to Felicia through the Red Cross. Other assistance can be mailed to Felicia Watkins, PO Box 10859, South Lake Tahoe, Ca. 96158.

To write to Katrina victims at a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge:

FG Clark Activity Center

Southern University

c/o Linda Mehrens

801 Harding Blvd.

Baton Rouge LA 70813

Editor’s note: Last names were changed to protect the identity of refugees.

September 14, 2005

Baton Rouge, LA

Hello all,

I’m sitting in the dialysis clinic in Baton Rouge, it is 6:00 AM and this place is hopping. I am with Catherine Smith of Jefferson Parish, LA. Miss Catherine is 69 years old, diabetic and uses a wheelchair because she had to have her left foot amputated due to her disease. She needs dialysis three times a week but hasn’t been able to get to the clinic in over a week. I was sent to her house in Jefferson Parish yesterday in to pick up her eight year old granddaughter, Rayshauna.

One of the most difficult and challenging situation this hurricane created is the separation of families. Rayshauna’s mother is in Oakland, CA. Her Aunt Rachel is at my shelter in Baton Rouge. Her grandfather is in Atlanta, her cousins in Texas. People were evacuated as quickly as possible, taken away by boats and helicopters and put on buses and it is hard to find a single person who knows where all his or her family members are located.

Rayshauna’s Aunt Rachael is coming with me as my navigator and new best friend. She is the reason we are on our way to Jefferson Parish. She has been talking to her sister on the phone who ended up in Oakland is frantic to make sure her mother and daughter are OK. Driving down to New Orleans from Baton Rouge were are struck by the lack of traffic and the number of army vehicles on the road. As we get closer to New Orleans we are stopped at check points and have to explain our business. My Red Cross name tag helps speed things along.

Now the destruction is more evident. Huge metal signs are twisted and fallen. Electrical transformers are down, tree splintered – but only in pockets. One building is OK, the next is trashed. Signs say “If You Loot, We Shoot”. Another sign in front of a home says, “Not Leaving, Not in a Good Mood”.

First we go to Rachel’s house. She is a single mother with three children. On the Monday of the storm and the flooding, they, along with Rachael’s mother walked out of their neighborhood through the cold, swift, rising water. (Rachael said it looked like the water in the movie, “Anaconda”.) She said she knew they had to leave for higher ground or they were going to die.

We get out of the car in front of her house. This is the first time I notice the smell. It smells like mold and death. Rachael opens the front door. Everything is wet, swampy, moldy and muddy looking. On the walls you can see how far the water came up – about three feet. Rachael is so happy to find a box of pictures she put up high are still dry. We take only the pictures and leave the rest of her life behind, not bothering to relock the front door. I tell her, “I have helped tons of people move and you are by far the easiest.” We laugh and cry at the same time.

Next we go to check on her mother’s house. It’s OK. The water never came up to the house. Trees are broken and there is part of the neighbors’ shed on the front lawn. I get to meet the neighbors. They have been trying to contact the Red Cross and FEMA for two weeks. No one is helping them. They have no money left and haven’t had a hot meal in two weeks. Their power just got turned back on that morning and they told me the Winn Dixie had just reopened. I give them some cash and then Rachael and I go to the packed Winn Dixie and buy them groceries, baby diapers and dog food. They are so thankful and I get to feel like the fairy godmother.

Finally we are off to get Rayshauna. We pull up to the apartments and say hey to the folks sitting outside. I am introduced to Catherine and Rayshauna. Catherine does not want to leave her house but I can’t believe how yellow her eyes are. I practically have to kidnap her. Just kidding, but that is one stubborn woman. Fortunately I am more stubborn and load her up in the minivan and away we go back to the shelter. Traffic is bad and everything takes four times as long as you think it will to do anything so we don’t get back until dinner time.

Now Catherine says that everyone at the Southern University shelter has spoiled her so bad she’s not going back home. Thank god, because she has no way to get to a dialysis clinic in New Orleans, they are all closed. Even her home health nurse is in an evacuation shelter so no one checks up on her.

It’s hard work, long, long days, little sleep, highs and lows, laughter and tears, miracles and heartaches. I love these people.

Collect money for me if you can. We’re buying gas, bus tickets, food for travel, food for people not in the shelter, air mattresses for the elderly who have trouble sleep on the cots, and cheap plastic toys for the kids. Today we are having a birthday party for everyone born in September. We rescued a stranded traveler at the bus station last night (when we were dropping off one of our “clients”) who turned out to be a professional musician. He says he will perform at our birthday party today. They won’t let us take pictures in the shelter (but TV cameras come in, go figure) but I’ll try to get some pictures from outside.

Thank you for all your help. I tell everyone about how much you all care for them.

Love,

Linda