by Sharon Lovering

Flood waters poured down city streets as the levees and flood walls in New Orleans broke. Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and go to the Superdome, only to be re-evacuated elsewhere later when conditions at the stadium deteriorated. Entire Gulf Coast towns in Mississippi were reduced to rubble. A total of 90,000 square miles of Louisiana were affected by the storm; a swath of Mississippi 70 miles west to east was affected.

"The Gulf Coast was the most damaged," said Becky Floyd, president of the Mississippi Council of the Blind. "We're beginning to check on people [there] now." The cities sustaining the most damage were Biloxi, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, and Moss Point. Floyd noted that Kenny Maddox, a Mississippi Council member from Jackson, had spoken with Melba Caminiti down on the coast, who informed Maddox that most folks were able to get out of the way of Katrina. Caminiti's mother, however, fell and broke her hip during the storm; she had to have surgery a week later.

"Most of the ones we know got out," stated Vernon Daigle, manager of the Louisiana Council of the Blind office. He readily cited examples: Kim and Tommy Venable, along with the Camardelles, drove to Houston before the storm hit. Clattie and Larisha Gibbs are staying in Baton Rouge; Lola and Donna Siren are in Baton Rouge as well. The Sirens, at press time, did not know how their apartment in New Orleans fared in the storm. "It's still bad down there," Daigle said. "They're not letting anybody in as far as we know."

In Baton Rouge during the storm, there were 75-mile-per-hour winds, causing trees and tree limbs to fall, cutting power lines. Phone lines were also affected. Daigle said that every time he'd try to call out, he'd get a message saying "all circuits are busy at this time; please try your call later." Many who tried to call him got the same message.

Other parts of Louisiana took the brunt of Katrina's wrath. "Slidell and St. Tammany Parish got hit bad," Daigle noted. "We haven't heard anything from up there." A number of homes on the lakefront were destroyed. In Hammond, which is north of New Orleans, there was a great deal of wind damage and power outages. Albany just regained electrical power on Sept. 8. The Twin Bridges, over Lake Pontchartrain, are completely out. Parts of them were taken away by the storm. "It's tough getting in and out of New Orleans," he said. Most traffic is being diverted off Interstate 10 (where the bridges were knocked out) and onto Highway 61.

As for New Orleans itself, "The disease situation is horrific. They have very little power, very little sewage treatment if any, [and] no running water. It's still a very tough situation, and they're saying it may take a few months to get all the water out. St. Bernard Parish, just below New Orleans, is in very bad shape. They have water you wouldn't believe."

Looking back a few decades to 1969, Daigle compared Katrina to Camille. "Camille missed the New Orleans area," he said. "It went toward Gulfport and Biloxi. This one hit us more directly than Camille did. Betsy hit us a lot harder than Camille did; we had 90-mile-an-hour winds in New Orleans, as opposed to 145 in this one. And the water damage in Camille was fairly light; in Betsy we did have levee breakage and flooding in the 9th ward and the St. Bernard Parish. It was a lot worse this time. There's places down there that I understand were 25 feet under."

Though the water is being pumped out of the city now, thanks to assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Big Easy is still approximately 50 percent flooded. "This is far more devastating than Betsy or Camille was," Daigle stated. "This is by far the worst hurricane and aftermath that we've ever seen in the New Orleans area. They don't seem to have a handle yet, and they're just beginning to find out how many people were lost. They'll find them, I'm sure, for weeks."

Floyd agreed. "There's really no comparison. This was so much broader a storm. Its range was far greater than Camille. The area has built up so much down on the coast since Camille, there's so much greater population ... that the damage is tremendously greater than the damage caused by Camille. My brother went to the coast after Camille and he said just seeing the pictures ... Camille caused nothing like the damage that Katrina caused. Camille didn't sweep foundations clean; Katrina did. One of the biggest differences is the water surge. The water surge with Camille was not nearly as great, as serious, as the water surge with Katrina. The wall of water hitting houses just knocked them off their foundations, destroyed them, and left the foundations clean." Starting Over

Most of the evacuees are having to start new lives. "There are people all over the place," Daigle added. "Baton Rouge has grown by about 100,000 people." All told, Katrina evacuees have spread out across the United States into 25 or 30 states, including Texas, Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, California and Washington, D.C.

Stores in Baton Rouge felt the strain of the increased population. "Grocery stores ran out of stuff almost totally and they're beginning to get resupplied in a fair manner," he said. "But there's such a strain ... your choices are limited. They were out of some things -- produce especially. The night after the storm I went to Wal-Mart and they were out of so many things and close to being out of others." Daigle bought the last box of Ritz crackers and some lunch meat, along with other items, and waited to check out for about an hour and 15 minutes. "People were amazingly patient and courteous. The lines were orderly, there was no problem with people shoving or raising their voices or anything when we were there."

Floyd's biggest concern was locating blind people who had lived on the coast to see what their needs really were. Many who left will have damage to their homes, and assistive technology that will need to be replaced, both hardware and software, she stated. "There's so many things you don't even think about. Clothing, silverware, everyday china, cookware, sheets, towels, [the list] just goes on and on [of] all the things that we take for granted [that] they're going to need."

On the positive side, people have banded together to help. "The outpouring of volunteerism here has been phenomenal," Daigle said. A number of churches have been assisting in the rescue efforts, too. Local officials converted the Lamar-Dixon Center from a people rescue center to an animal rescue center, and they've had people going down to New Orleans to rescue animals. That center has processed 800 animals so far. If the officials were able to contact the animal's owner, or someone knew to whom it belonged, they kept it at the center. Other animals were taken to animal control units and shelters, and the officials were assisting in getting those animals adopted. "It's beginning ... to be an effort to rectify the situation for these folks."

Floyd concurred. "There are groups, primarily church groups, that are going down and helping people cut up trees, get them off buildings and so forth. The actual clearing of areas where all the debris flew over and landed somewhere else is going a little more slowly. But they're beginning to get trucks down there to haul away debris ... so they can search for bodies. It's going to be slow. It's going to take months to get it cleaned up to the point where most things could rebuild if they wanted to. We have some old homes that have withstood many a hurricane that succumbed to Katrina ... Jefferson Davis' home was one of those. It had significant damage." However, she added, the state expects to be able to rebuild it so that it's a replica of its former self.

As far as pets go, "They flew out about 500 pets yesterday," Floyd stated. "There are pets in shelters everywhere because people couldn't take their pets with them into Red Cross shelters. Some of the church shelters did, but most shelters would not. So they would have to abandon their pets to the ASPCA or Animal Rescue or some shelter for animals and those shelters will hold those animals for two weeks, and then they'll put them up for adoption."

A number of vendors are looking for new places to work after the buildings they'd previously worked in were destroyed by the wind, rain and floods. Floyd noted, "It's going to be a long time -- a number of years -- before the coast gets back to normal. We expect hotels, chain hotels, and casinos to come back first. Then they will start building back some of the homes. Some of the small businesses probably won't come back. A lot of the people will move permanently. Johnnie Cochran lost his business; he was a vendor. The military home where he had his business was severely damaged, and ... he won't have work for a while. The BEP here, they're trying to find him another location to work so that he won't be out of a job. It may necessitate a move on his part; I don't know. But he's OK. He did get out of the area."

And of the five NIB-associated agencies located in the area, only two experienced no effects of the hurricane: Louisiana Association for the Blind in Shreveport, and Alabama Industries for the Blind in Talladega.

Damage to the Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans is believed to be extensive. Bill Price, president of the Lighthouse, is currently in Mississippi and unable to return to New Orleans to assess the situation due to the damage and restrictions imposed by the local government.

Over in Mississippi, the LCI facility in Hazlehurst sustained some minor damage as well as short-term loss of water and power. The real concerns are with their operations in Gulfport and Natchez. The NIB facility in Gulfport, LCI Industries, was severely damaged, according to Pat Beattie, director of public policy and consumer relations. Employees who worked there have been given three choices of where they can go to work: Hazlehurst, Miss.; Durham, N.C., LCI's headquarters; or Louisville, Ky. Natchez sustained damage, but its employees have not been able to assess the situation fully.

Mike Duke of Jackson, Miss., said the situation wasn't too bad there. There were tree limbs in his yard, and no power, but the roof and the house were still standing. "It's a mess," he said, "but we're head and shoulders above" the people on the Gulf Coast. People in Jackson are OK, he noted, but he hadn't heard from anybody south of Jackson. Duke and other ham radio operators were assisting with such things as providing shelter and assisting with the dispatching of local emergency services.

If there were another storm of this magnitude, "Mississippi couldn't handle it," Floyd said. "That part of the coast would become desolate because financially the state couldn't deal with it. We in Mississippi had become accustomed to the income from the casinos ... from the hotels, from the tourism ... all that's been wiped out. That's very devastating to the state economy. Hopefully that's a once in a lifetime hurricane."

What Can You Do To Help?

If you are an ACB member who has moved or temporarily relocated due to the hurricane, please contact the national office at 1-800-424-8666 and let us know you're OK. Please also give us your new address and any needs you have. When calling after 5 p.m. Eastern (2 p.m. Pacific), press extension 12. If you have news of other ACB members, let us know that, too.

ACB has set up a relief fund for the hurricane's victims. To contribute, make your check payable to ACB Relief Fund and send it to ACB, 1155 15th St. NW, Suite 1004, Washington, DC 20005.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency asks that individuals with disabilities register to receive the full range of federal assistance. Call 1-800-621-9029 (voice) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY).

The Alabama Council of the Blind is supporting a couple of different programs that are feeding and housing victims of Katrina. To aid in this effort, make checks payable to the Alabama Council of the Blind and mail them to P.O. Box 1213, Talladega, AL 35160. All funds raised will go directly to the aid of the blind that have been affected by the tragedy.

RSVA is asking that anyone who wishes to give relief to displaced vendors send contributions to Richard Bird, 6991 York Road, Parma Heights, OH 44130.

National Industries for the Blind has established the NIB/NAEPB Hurricane Relief Fund for its agencies' employees who are victims of this storm. NIB will facilitate the collection of funds which will be disseminated back to those employees. All checks should be made payable to NIB and sent to Kathy Gallagher, Senior Human Resources Employment Specialist, National Industries for the Blind, 1310 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314-1691.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a toll-free hotline available for people in crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. By dialing 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), callers will be connected to a network of local crisis centers across the country that are committed to crisis counseling. Callers will receive counseling from trained staff at the closest certified crisis center in the network.

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