Katrina Evacuees Go All the Way to Memphis

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At a Red Roof Inn in downtown Memphis, general manager Michelle Williams and hotel guest Randy Adams are coordinating efforts to help a weary collection of hurricane evacuees cope. Adams is among those who fled New Orleans ahead of Katrina.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This was supposed to be a special holiday weekend in Memphis. FOX picked the Tennessee town to audition talent for "American Idol" and the hotels were booked. One of those was the Red Roof Inn in downtown Memphis. Of course, Hurricane Katrina changed everything and turned the in, which is a six-hour drive from New Orleans, into one of hundreds of refugee sites. Joining us is the hotel's general manager, Michelle Williams.

Ms. Williams, thank you for talking to us.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS (General Manager, Red Roof Inn): Yes, ma'am.

WERTHEIMER: First of all, tell us what your lobby looks like.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I don't know if you can hear the phone ringing--and we also have so many guests here in our lobby. We also have people from outside that are here to bring supplies for the guests that are here that can't afford to, you know, purchase supplies that they need just for grooming and, you know, physical care.

WERTHEIMER: What'd you do, just set up tables or something in the lobby so that they could distribute all the stuff?

Ms. WILLIAMS: We have a guest that is here at the hotel with us, Mr. Adams. People were calling in with things that they have to offer and I'm relaying it to Mr. Adams. He posts it up. And then we have a section here behind our lobby where we have--people have brought dog food, soap, washing detergent, feminine products, things that you would have at home that you can't go out and buy right now because you don't have the funds to do it.

WERTHEIMER: Have you ever been through anything like this?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Ma'am, I have never in my entire life. And I've been through a flood and a tornado and I have never seen this type of disaster ever in my entire life and I'm 28.

WERTHEIMER: How many people are there at the hotel?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right now we have probably about 110 rooms that are occupied. Some of the rooms have up to four people; that's not including pets.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now are the people that are staying with you--how are they holding up?

Ms. WILLIAMS: They have health problems and they need to get in and see a doctor where they can get their regular prescriptions, their medications that they don't have. These people, you know, need to talk to someone. They don't know what to do and it's really, really hard. We have a Baptist College of Health Sciences that is next door to us. They are bringing us over 400 food vouchers so that the guests that can't afford to go get food can go down the street and eat at a restaurant that is here located in Memphis, and it's called The Cupboard.

WERTHEIMER: How are you doing?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm find. It's kind of emotional for me because I'm still young and I don't, you know, have a lot of the things that these people have had that they've lost. It's just really, really emotional. And what happens at work, you do take home with you.

WERTHEIMER: Hmm. Michelle Williams, thanks so much.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: Could you put Randy Adams--he was...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mr. Adams is right here and I'll let you speak with him.

WERTHEIMER: OK. Randy Adams?

Mr. RANDY ADAMS (Red Roof Inn Guest): Yes, ma'am.

WERTHEIMER: Welcome to our program.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: How did you end up in Memphis?

Mr. ADAMS: I lived in New Orleans and it is common practice that you have a set evacuation plan.

WERTHEIMER: You mean every family knows what they're going to do.

Mr. ADAMS: Yes, ma'am, every family is required or should have an evacuation plan...


Mr. ADAMS: ...for--in case the big one hit. And so it did. And our plan, as if the big one were to come, was to evacuate to Memphis. I am a communications technician. I work in office buildings, hospitals down in New Orleans. I was a contractor to the federal government buildings in downtown New Orleans. My wife is a licensed respiratory therapist. So we need to live in a metropolitan area that has a large amount of commerce and medical so we could be employed. So our plan, as we looked at the map, was to go north. The best metropolitan area north was Memphis.

WERTHEIMER: You said that your family had an evacuation plan in the event that it was the big one.

Mr. ADAMS: Yes, ma'am.

WERTHEIMER: When did it become clear to you that it was the big one?

Mr. ADAMS: Having lived in New Orleans my whole life and been through many hurricanes, we knew that the hurricane is not what you need to watch. It is--the upper level steering currents that are moving across the rest of the country will dictate which way the storm flows. And we knew there was a high pressure system coming in from the west that would, in fact, run into the hurricane, thus forcing it to turn northwest and then north. And based on this feed that the front was moving and speed that the hurricane was moving, you could pretty well project that it was going to be somewhere below the coast of Louisiana.

WERTHEIMER: I don't want to cast dispersions on the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi, but you seem to know more about it than they did.

Mr. ADAMS: You know, maybe they don't have enough time to sit down and watch closely and plan closely, But, yes, ma'am, it's sort of common knowledge to anyone that's lived in the swamp a very long time, and my whole family has for generations.

WERTHEIMER: So you got out when?

Mr. ADAMS: My wife was on shift at the hospital, so when her shift ended at 7 PM Saturday night, we were all packed and ready to go. She came home and gathered as many things as she could quickly. And we left New Orleans at about 9:00, 9:30 PM Central time.

WERTHEIMER: Were the roads crowded as you left?

Mr. ADAMS: No, ma'am, just drove right into Memphis. I spent several hours on the Internet Saturday afternoon securing hotel reservations that were pet friendly. We have several dogs. My elderly father, who is 74, lives in a nursing home in New Orleans. We got him. My wife's uncle, who is like 57, we gathered him and loaded up and headed up the interstate to Memphis.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that you've been trying to help organize supplies and things for all the people that are stranded in that hotel.

Mr. ADAMS: Someone just has to step up and take control. I mean, we would begin to be chaotic here as well.

WERTHEIMER: Do you know--I mean, have you gotten to the point where you started to think about a plan, about what to do next?

Mr. ADAMS: Oh, yes, ma'am. I've contacted the companies that I work for nationally, let them know I'm in Memphis. I did bring all my tools and necessities I need for work, that if they get work in west Tennessee, east Arkansas, north Mississippi, I'm available. And they are making those arrangements to send me work. We contacted the medical licensing board yesterday in Tennessee to find out how my wife could get a respiratory license in Tennessee.

WERTHEIMER: So you figure that you're going to stay in Tennessee for a while?

Mr. ADAMS: No less than three to six months.

WERTHEIMER: So, Mr. Adams, obviously this is very distressing to you to think of your hometown in this kind of state.

Mr. ADAMS: Yes, ma'am, it is. It's extremely--physically, we're all fine. Mentally, the edges are beginning to get jagged. The United States Marine Corps Band based out of New Orleans is staying here. They put on a performance for us last night. That was a tremendous stress reliever until they played "When the Saints Go Marching In" and then I broke down again. It's just--you know, how does one start over? And we're finding out piece by piece, step by step how one starts over.

WERTHEIMER: Randy Adams lived in Marrero, Louisiana, until he left for Memphis, which is where we reached him.

Mr. Adams, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. ADAMS: Yes, ma'am. Thank you.

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