I keep seeing pictures of the president with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, surveying the damage to New Orleans. But I wonder if he has any idea just who the folks are who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. I ask because here in Baton Rouge we keep hearing about the desperately poor, and sometimes criminal, hordes Katrina has washed up on the shores of decent, hardworking, middle-class America: the (mainly black) gangs from the projects who, even during normal times, wreaked havoc on their fellow citizens, not to mention the merely poor -- teen mothers, drug addicts, the chronically unemployed.
But the shelter in which I've been volunteering tells a different story. At the convention center downtown, where the Red Cross is serving hundreds of evacuees, public schoolteachers sleeping in Area 2-C tutor the children of their "neighbors" in 2-B; teenage boys in high-tops and low-riding pants bring snacks to the people in wheelchairs; and, last Sunday, men whose paths had never crossed before sat huddled together watching giant television screens, rooting for the Saints and trading jokes.
Indeed, an aura of normality and order pervades even this bizarre community, built of rows and rows of folding canvas cots, donated bed linens and garbage bags filled with other people's castoff clothing, and peopled by the young and old, black and white, American-born and foreign-born: a United Nations of languages, a stew of stories.
The good news is that, aside from chronic shortages of underwear and canvas bags, people's physical needs are being taken care of, thanks largely to the thousands of Red Cross volunteers and others from all over the country and the world. We have one such volunteer, from London, staying at our house through October. Yet once the immediate crisis ends, "our" volunteer, and others like her, will be going home, as will the hundreds of journalists who, since Katrina hit, can boast that they can locate Baton Rouge on a map.
But what's Mike going to do? Mike is a fifth-generation Cajun New Orleanian. He's worked on the river barges his entire adult life. "I rode out Hugo," he said as he sat on his cot, an expression of pure bewilderment on his deeply lined face. "And I rode out Andrew, and both times we got back on our feet, but this time things is different." His house, his car and all of his belongings are gone; worse, he has virtually no savings and only the most minimal insurance.
And then there's Lydia, a middle-aged black woman who told me that just before the storm hit, the youngest of her five children graduated with honors from the University of New Orleans, joining her four older siblings in the ranks of college graduates. Lydia has worked as a special education aide in the New Orleans public schools for 25 years and two weeks, and so far this month she hasn't seen a dime from either the state or Uncle Sam. Her house? Underwater. Her savings? Nonexistent, all her extra pennies having gone toward her kids' educations.
John is a young man with striking, movie-star looks who arrived at the shelter alone, as his wife had died in the storm. He cried in my arms. Bruce is a retired professor of comparative literature. Randolph is a cook who'd worked for decades at the New Orleans fairgrounds and then at Mike Anderson's, a popular seafood restaurant. Barry and Sylvia had a landscaping business.
Not one of them has a home to go back to, investments to fall back on, or much in the way of savings or insurance. No pension funds; no IRAs; no stocks or bonds or country club memberships or family compounds in Maine or vacations in Europe or facelifts or Pilates classes or an opportunity to go back to school and finally get that doctorate in philosophy or the history of art.
What I'm learning in the shelters is that it's not just the poor who have no place to go and no place to fall back on; it's also ordinary working people who in better times might have been counted as part of the middle class, too.
Where are my new friends going to go?
Jennifer Moses is a writer who grew up in McLean and has lived in Baton Rouge for 10 years.