Evacuees in Baton Rouge Long for Home

Despite three meals a day, clean facilities and a host of other services, most of the nearly 900 New Orleans evacuees in Baton Rouge's River Center want to go home.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel with a look at life inside a Louisiana shelter. Six weeks after Katrina, there are still more than 40,000 people living in Red Cross shelters in Louisiana. The River Center in downtown Baton Rouge is currently housing 900 men, women and children. NPR's Ina Jaffe spent time with some evacuees there, and she sent us this report.

INA JAFFE reporting:

This is what usually brings people to the River Center.

(Soundbite of announcements)

Unidentified Man #1: ...Jerry Seinfeld, Friday, October 21st, at 7 and 9:30 PM in the River Center theater. The Moscow Ballet presents the great Russian "Nutcracker"...

JAFFE: Going to the River Center these days is less like a night at the theater, more like a bad day at the airport. Uniformed National Guards, slinging M-16s and wearing rubber gloves, meticulously search each evacuee's purse or package. Everyone must pass through a metal detector; anyone who sets it off gets wanded.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man #2: Veronica Shefenshaw(ph), please report to transportation immediately. Thank you.

JAFFE: Inside are two vast sleeping areas. Shelter number two is on the floor of the arena. From the balcony it looks like a patchwork quilt, cot after cot, row after row, each bed covered with a different color and style of donated blanket. A lot of people have their own TVs.

(Soundbite of "The Bold and the Beautiful")

Unidentified Man #3: And if you're not going to help her do that, then I don't want you anywhere near...

JAFFE: Chaz Jason Callaway(ph) was watching "The Bold and the Beautiful" while another shelter resident fashioned his hair into swirling rows of braids.

Mr. CHAZ JASON CALLAWAY (Shelter Resident): This is a wonderful place right here and the police, well, they're fine and National Guard is wonderful. I have no problem with none of them.

JAFFE: Callaway says this place is heaven, especially compared to where he first took shelter when he evacuated New Orleans. That was the cab of a friend's moving van. After a few days his friend kicked him out, so he tried sleeping under the truck.

Mr. CALLAWAY: And the mosquitoes said, `Well, you can't stay here with us,' so I had to get over to the shelter.

JAFFE: A native of New Orleans devoted to his hometown, Callaway says he's going back next week, though he isn't sure where. He can't go home. His house, he says, was flooded to the ceiling.

Mr. CALLAWAY: So I had to get the hell out of there.

JAFFE: How did you do it?

Mr. CALLAWAY: Walked, swim, got a boat. It was a nightmare. I didn't think it would come up that fast.

JAFFE: Callaway is not the only one who considers this shelter a desirable location, says Red Cross volunteer Alisa Feldman(ph). The orange wristband IDs that shelter residents wear became hot commodities among the poor in Baton Rouge.

Ms. ALISA FELDMAN (Red Cross Volunteer): The residents that used to be here were selling them on the street for money and those people were coming in.

JAFFE: So now all evacuees must reregister and get different colored wristbands. But this place is clean and there's three meals a day. The shelter also offers mental health counseling and a school for kids, K through six, which is staffed by volunteers. There are also bulletin boards listing housing and job offers, though many of them are from far-flung corners of the country. But none of that really matters to some of the people who find themselves stranded here.

Ms. RUTH DELL (Shelter Resident): It all sums up in three words: I hate it.

JAFFE: Ruth Dell is sitting outside the River Center with a bunch of other like-minded people. It's noisy. The bus sits idling at the curb for no apparent purpose, since quite a bit of time goes by with no one getting on or off. But Ruth Dell spends a lot of time right here day and night.

Ms. DELL: Sleeping with all these people. You stay up all night just--we be out here all night.

JAFFE: You come outside?

Ms. DELL: We be outside all night.

JAFFE: Dell's friend Keon Hymes(ph) also finds the lack of privacy and regimentation of shelter life is wearing thin.

Ms. KEON HYMES (Shelter Resident): They tell you when you can take a bath. The showers is locked down at 9:00. If you want to go to the shower at five after 9, you just out of luck.

JAFFE: FEMA is now opening a huge trailer park just north of Baton Rouge to provide temporary housing for people still in shelters. But to Hymes, anywhere that far from New Orleans might as well be the moon. Her apartment may have taken on some water, but she says she's going back as soon as she can find someone to give her a ride. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, New Orleans.

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