Friday night, Cassandra Jordan said with a soft and tired voice, was the worst. Men snored, babies wailed, chatterers wouldn't shut up, and people kept stepping over her cot in the inky blackness that fills the relief shelter at Southern University and A&M College after the sun goes down.
The rancor made her long all the more for the flooded three-bedroom house she left behind in New Orleans. As she sat outdoors on a curb with bleary eyes on a sunny weekend day, Jordan, 46, rubbed her bare legs anxiously and wondered when she would return home. A month? Maybe two? Maybe never.
"I'm just trying to deal with it," she said.
There are those, such as former first lady Barbara Bush, who say that many of the poor evacuees from Hurricane Katrina are living better in the shelters than they ever have. But in Baton Rouge, where more than 5,000 people were evacuated after the storm flooded New Orleans, dwellers of the two largest shelters said nothing could prepare them for some of the tough day-to-day experiences that come with living in a gigantic room without walls, where people disrobe in groups amid prying eyes, where no one showers alone, and where belongings can disappear during a quick shampoo.
August L. Johnson, a landlord who lost three houses in New Orleans, was the rare evacuee interviewed who had no complaints about shelter life, praising American Red Cross volunteers unabashedly for their tireless work at Southern University's basketball arena.
"They have treated me with dignity and respect," said Johnson, 70. "They didn't see no color. Didn't have no prejudice. They just saw people, and they've seen to every need."
But many others spiced their praise of the generally well-run shelters with despairing stories about living conditions and a list of indignities they know they must endure: white elastic ID bracelets that brand them as homeless, searches by National Guard troops wearing M-16 rifles each time they reenter the shelter, and a 10 p.m. curfew.
At the two largest shelters in Baton Rouge, residents talked of entering shower stalls soiled with human waste. Workers quickly washed the mess from the floors, they said, but not from their minds.
With so many people grouped together in one place, diseases ride a human highway. In the sprawling River Center convention hall where 4,000 evacuees are staying, parents have noticed that children who were well on arrival are now hacking from colds and complaining of stomachaches.
"They come in contact with all kinds of children," said Virginia Felton, a 24-year-old mother of three who escaped the flood by leaving her apartment before the storm. "They can't keep their food down."
That was one reason Jordan, a nursing-home cook who's a stickler for hygiene, wondered why anyone could say that she was better off in a shelter. Her thoughts drifted back a few days, when she needed a shower and the few extra clothes she brought were still drying after a washing.
Jordan realized then that she could no longer avoid the one thing she hoped to never do in her temporary home. She steeled her nerves, walked into a room where donated clothing was kept, and sorted through the cardboard boxes, searching for new underwear mixed with those that had been worn by others and laundered.
"They were wrapped tight with tape," she recalled, shuddering. "I looked for the new ones, but it didn't make a difference because they were with the ones that were already worn. They say they're washed, but parasites can still get in there. I asked for panty liners. I always use them."
The precaution didn't seem to help. Her stomach hurt, so she sought a doctor. "Now I'm on antibiotics because I have a yeast infection," she said.
After that experience, Jordan developed a routine that focused on hygiene, and at the same time she keeps as far from other residents as possible.
At 5:30 a.m., she said, she awakens, gets out of bed and heads for the shower. "I like to get to the showers as soon as they clean them, before the lazy ones come," she said. "Otherwise, they're filthy."
Each morning, volunteers hand her a squeegee. "When you shower, the water floods the bathroom area. You have to push the water out," she said.
About 400 evacuees live with Jordan, and 34 percent of them are children. They include Desunique Joseph, a prim and proper New Orleans teenager who said, without cracking a smile, "I'm going to be famous one day."
Joseph, like Jordan, rushes to shower. One day "someone stole my towel," Joseph, 13, said. Her search for a replacement without a stitch of clothes was humiliating. "Now I take showers in my underwear," she said, echoing numerous evacuees.
Her brother, Desvon, also 13, did not like chores at the shelter. He said he takes off running when Red Cross volunteers call on him to perform work. But one day he wasn't fast enough. He was handed a 20-pound bag and told to sort clothing headed for laundering at a prison.
"They made me clean up the pooty drawers and the pooty towels," the boy said. The word "pooty," he said, meant poo, a baby's word for human waste. "It was funky. Sheets had poo on them, too."
The Southern University facility is considered the best of all the Red Cross shelters, said Deirdre Moriarty, a psychiatrist who left her practice in the San Francisco Bay area to be a mental health services volunteer. But, because the evacuee population includes people who are mentally ill, problems do crop up.
"On occasion we will have someone who defecates in the shower," Moriarty said. "But it's only happened once or twice" in the days since the shelter opened on the Tuesday after the hurricane made landfall. "We have had to take some wheelchair-bound people in here because the special-needs shelter was full," she said.
Shelter director Ralph Perrotta, an amiable retiree from San Antonio who likes to link arms with people while talking, said he's proud of his volunteers. There have been problems at the facility, he said, but he believes it is tip-top. He said the room where evacuees pick from donated clothing "is like Wal-Mart," and the room where mounds of food is stored "is like a grocery store."
Outside the shelter's steel-and-glass doors, the sun and humid air felt like the inside of a clothes dryer. Patricia Newman, 30, sought shade under a big magnolia tree, looking dour. "I'm not a complainer," she said, over and over again. Then she complained.
"I need my space," she said. In the shelter, cots are separated by inches. Knees touch. Feet kick. Arms brush constantly, she said.
Nothing else is a problem, she said. Then she thought about one other thing. "My problem is that when I leave and come back to my spot, somebody has trashed everything I have, going through all my belongings."
Maybe it's the kids, she said. But she's not sure. "One night they caught someone stealing from people's belongings while they were sleeping. They put her out of the shelter. But it's all right. I'm used to struggle."