Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Red Cross report...and other paradoxical discoveries

Thursday I went to the Red Cross in Tallahassee, where I'm currently staying. I hadn't imagined there would be thousands of evacuees here too, so I was startled to discover a long long already stagnated in the morning sun. Actually, when I called the Red Cross that morning, they gave me specific instructions on where to go, and when I arrived I found that they center had moved. I was ready to leave but a volunteer took me by the arm and told me she would take me there. When I saw the long line, I started turning to bolt, but the woman stopped me again and said, "You have to go into that line, it is the only way you'll get help. FEMA isn't going to help you."

So we stood in line and watched as a wealthy blonde woman fanned herself beneath a tent the staff had set up, seemingly for her, since nothing else was going on beneath it.

Once we got inside, they squeezed us into a too small room with too few seats, where were assigned numbers and told to wait. I estimated three hours at the pace they were going, but someone pulled me out of the back of the room saying I looked tired. This didn't seem fair, but I wasn't complaining. I then was put through the intact process, which was screwed up because I don't have an address and my ID address is different from where I was actually living. When they were done they had a report on the loss of my home and possessions, but they didn't have the actual location, which I scribbled across the form for them.

They gave me a voucher for clothes from Goodwill and a voucher for $360 that could only be cashed at a Walmart 11 miles away. When I asked if there would be more assistance later, I was told: "We don't know. Watch TV and if there's an announcement, come back." What if I don't have a TV? "That's why were trying to get people hotel rooms."

Then they sent me to apply for food stamps, which was another application that was fouled up because in order to get the card you need to have an address. (The same is true for the potential direct deposit of funds into victims accounts--most of us left our banking info at home. Duh.)

I also looked into taking classes at Florida State while I'm here. The university is very accomodating about it, but the Department of Education hasn't approved financial aid for displaced students...even if they had been awarded aid at their own school. So we can register for courses, but we may have to pay for them with our Red Cross money, which will cover about one credit at most schools. Not even that at some.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Some advice for people celebrating the diaspora

I keep hearing people talk in almost celebratory tones of the "New Orleans diaspora." Please make note of this bit of ettiquette: Homeless, jobless people are not comforted by your predictions that their tragic circumstances will one day be considered historically significant and studied in text books by graduate students who will ponder the implications of their plight.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I Dream of FEMA

I finally tried to register with FEMA today on a friends computer, but the FEMA website isn't compatible with their operating system--that very rare Windows XP. So I had to do it by phone. There was a long list of questions, which made it clear that the FEMA relief system is set up only to help people of a certain class level. If I don't qualify, imagine how it must be for most of the poverty stricken residents of New Orleans.

Do I own my house? No.
Is it a place of business? No.
Do I know the extent of the damage? No, I'm not allowed to check.
Did I become unemployed because of the disaster? Not officially.
Would I like any eventual assistance deposited directly in my bank? Yes, but I don't have my bank info, it is in my house.

Etc.

Then they told me that I could possibly get reimbursed for rent of a new place. And I can check into taking out a loan.

I began screaming questions into the phone.

"Hold on," the rep said, "I'm not done with my script." The rest of the script suggested that I call the Red Cross and apply to the IRS for a partial refund of taxes. Again, if you don't make money, you don't pay that much in taxes, so basically, we're all screwed.

Is this the extent of what they have to offer? I asked.

The official answer: "We don't know."

New Years in New Orleans...sponsored by Directv

I realized today that I need to cancel all my utilities in order to avoid being billed for service to my quarantined home. The phone company actually did credit my account for the lack of service in the past ten days, but only after I asked them.

Meanwhile, I contacted my TV service to cancel that and had a long exchange with them via an email with the subject line "HOMELESS."

They wrote back:
Dear Mr. Foster,
Thanks for writing. If you're going away, or won't be able to use your DIRECTV service for any period between 7 days and 270 days (9 months), you can suspend your service and avoid programming charges. If you would like us to suspend your service, here's what you need to do:

1. Write us back with the exact dates_- Please suspend my service on______________ and reactivate my service on ________________.

2. Make sure your account balance is $0 to avoid any late charges on the unpaid balance. (To pay your bill today by credit card, debit card or electronic check (EFT) payment, just sign in at DIRECTV.com/MyDIRECTV and click on the "Pay Today" link.

I replied:
Please suspend my service at XXX Piety Street in New Orleans, effective 8/28/05 until the unknown date at which time the city will be occupied again. Thanks.

Their bewildering response:
As you requested, your DIRECTV service has been suspended until 12/31/2005. At that time, your DIRECTV programming and billing will restart automatically.

Do they know something the rest of us don't?

Monday, September 05, 2005

A week later, we're all still homeless...

but with all the news coverage today of people returning to their homes in Jefferson Parish (to take photos and bury the rotting meat in their backyard), and the small band of folks celebrating the Decadence Festival in the French Quarter, I feel like maybe some people out there are confused and wondering why the rest of us haven't returned to our homes. We can't. And even for those of us who may actually have houses standing intact, it is a strange kind of limbo knowing that on one hand we have nothing, and on the other, perhaps we may eventually return to discover everything untouched: the unfinished Joan Didion memoir next to the tub, the clothes tossed next to it on the floor.

But it may be many many months before we get back, and many people will never have that chance at all. So do we wait, or move forward, or struggle to find some awkward position in between?

Perhaps the answer is for all of us to get press credentials.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

From My Sister: Sending Cash to My Brother

My sister, Rebecca Foster, wrote this piece about trying to get me money after the storm. She emailed it to everyone but me, yet eventually I was able to pry the text from her to post here.

> Sending Cash to My Brother
>
Ken has a habit of being in the wrong place and the wrong time, but we are all used to that now. So when he moved to New Orleans, and Katrina's path became more and more clear, I thought "Here we go." Kept watching the reports, wondering what he was going to do. Worried about him, his dogs, the new job he was so excited about, the house he
was renting (where, he told me, he could see boats on the river and they looked like they were ABOVE the house - I didn't think that was a good thing then, either).

He headed to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, before the storm shifted east (universal family reaction: "That figures."). Phone calls went back and forth between our parents, Ken, brother Chris and myself, enough that we were assured of his relative safety and well-being.

Then he calls at 7 a.m. Thursday. I reached for the phone, still in bed on a lazy summer day in Michigan, kids still asleep and even the dog was stretched out on my bedroom floor..."It's summer, and you're calling me this early?"

"I'm trying to get out of town," was Ken's stressed reply. That woke me up. "I need to you check my bank online, I don't know if I can use my debit card if my bank is down."

So started a very long day. Ken would call me, we would get disconnected. He'd call again, we would talk for a minute, then the call would be dropped. At no time was I ever able to call him. Constant "all circuits are busy", busy signals, odd buzzing noises or just plain silence was all I would get. We checked the bank with no success - it could not be accessed. Did that mean he couldn't use his debit card? We weren't sure. We settled on wiring money. He would head to Meridian, hoping he had enough gas to get there, hoping there was electricity. I would figure out where to send money. Sounded easy.

Signing up with a money transfer service, I was impressed with the security at the site. It was so secure that I evidently flunked the first two sets of security test questions. It was also scary in the information they could pull up about me. In the first series of questions, they asked me what age range Dad was in, and the location
of a home my husband and I rented over 10 years ago. The second set was about what counties I lived in - as if I would recall this information from 20 years ago. I finally had to call. They asked me a third series of questions, and either they were fed up with my long-term memory loss or I got an acceptable number of correct
answers, but I had access at last.

Ken calls from Meridian. He is line for gas at Walmart. I complete the online transaction and wait for the confirmation email with the number he will need to collect the money. Ken calls again, he is getting something to eat at the Walmart, and, by the way, the debit card worked at the gas pumps. I am still waiting for an email. Ken calls again, he is line at the service counter. I am still waiting for an
email. Ken calls again, he is on his way to Atlanta. The very kind lady at the Walmart service desk couldn't help him without the reference number I was still waiting for. (Note from Ken: "And I still had to wait thirty minutes behind someone trying to return a packet of Nair without the receipt.")

At 7 p.m., three hours after I supposedly completed the transaction, twelve hours after Ken and I first talked, I am still waiting for an email.

I called the company. Another security issue. They needed to know my relationship with the person I was sending money to. "He's my brother," I replied. "And he was living in New Orleans, managed to get out to Hattiesburg and he is trying to get to Atlanta and then Florida." The reaction was immediate. They would do whatever was
needed to get the transaction completed. Two minutes later I was assured that the money was on the way and I would have the reference number in 10 minutes. I called Ken later that evening and gave him the number. When I checked this morning, he was so exhausted he hadn't been able to get anywhere to pick it up, but planned to go out soon.

And this was to assist someone who suffered loss, but was safe and healthy; has family who can support him; has reliable transportation; has friends who can take him in while he waits to see what happens next. What happens to the ones with no home, no family, no food, no water, no money, no place to go?

Katrina Evacuees Distraught Over Lost Pets

(I know that getting people out is the obvious priority, but this story really disturbed me.)

By MIKE STOBBE
Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA (AP) -- As Valerie Bennett was evacuated from a New Orleans hospital, rescuers told her there was no room in the boat for her dogs. She pleaded. "I offered him my wedding ring and my mom's wedding ring," the 34-year-old nurse recalled Saturday. They wouldn't budge. She and her husband could bring only one item, and they already had a plastic tub containing the medicines her husband, a liver transplant recipient, needed to survive.

Such emotional scenes were repeated perhaps thousands of times along the Gulf Coast last week as pet owners were forced to abandon their animals in the midst of evacuation. In one example reported last week by The Associated Press, a police officer took a dog from one little boy waiting to get on a bus in New Orleans. "Snowball! Snowball!" the boy cried until he vomited. The policeman told a reporter he didn't know what would happen to the dog.

At the hospital, a doctor euthanized some animals at the request of their owners, who feared they would be abandoned and starve to death. He set up a small gas chamber out of a plastic-wrapped dog kennel. "The bigger dogs were fighting it. Fighting the gas. It took them longer. When I saw that, I said 'I can't do it,'" said Bennett's husband, Lorne.

Valerie Bennett left her dogs with the anesthesiologist, who promised to care for about 30 staff members' pets on the roof of the hospital, Lindy Boggs Medical Center.
"He said he'd stay there as long as he possibly could," Valerie Bennett recalled, speaking from her husband's bedside at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital. On Saturday afternoon, she said she saw a posting on a Web site called petfinder.com that said the anesthesiologist was still caring for the animals.

Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy, who was helping with relief efforts Saturday, said some evacuees refused to leave without their pets. "One woman told me 'I've lost my house, my job, my car and I am not turning my dog loose to starve,'" Kennedy said. Kennedy said he persuaded refugees to get on the bus by telling them he would have the animals taken to an exhibition center.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals picked up two cats and 15 dogs, including one Kennedy found tied up beneath the overpass next to an unopened can of dog food with a sign that read "Please take care of my dog, his name is Chucky."

The fate of pets is a huge but underappreciated cause of anguish for storm survivors, said Richard Garfield, professor of international clinical nursing at New York's Columbia University. "People in shelters are worried about 'Did Fluffy get out?'" he said. "It's very distressing for people, wondering if their pets are isolated or starving."

The Bennetts had four animals, including two beloved dogs. They moved to Slidell, La., in July when Valerie took a job at an organ transplant institute connected to Lindy Boggs. Lorne, a former paramedic, is disabled since undergoing a liver transplant in 2001. On Saturday, as Hurricane Katrina approached, both went to the hospital to help and took all four animals with them. They fed their guinea pig and left it in its cage in a patient room. They couldn't refill its empty water bottle because the hospital's plumbing failed Sunday, they said. They poured food on the floor for the cat, but again no water.

"I just hope that they forgive me," Valerie Bennett cried.