What struck me most immediately about the throngs of evacuees at the convention center is how elderly so many of them are. Frail, elderly, and alone. On the registration forms I was helping with, more often than not there was no information to put in the "emergency contact" field. What they will need most is a comfortable place to live, nursing care, and people to take the place of the friends and neighbors who used to check in on them. These are the people I worry most about.
Here, at least, folks seem to be well-supplied with the essentials--tons of food, water, diapers, formula, clothes, etc. Lots of toys for the kids--you can tell their cots by the fact that a) they're empty and b) they're covered with big floppy stuffed animals. There was a huge big-screen TV set up in each of the vast shelter halls, and lots of people watching football on one, CNN on another--which didn't leave anything for the kids to watch, so they were out playing in the halls that run around the perimenter of the inside of the building. Everyone had questions. The minute I walked in, people were asking me things I couldn't tell them and being very graciously disappointed when they realized I was just another confused local wandering about somewhat ineffectually. After about an hour there, though, I picked up a lot. I knew where to send people who were called over the p.a. to the family reunion area. I knew where to send people who needed to check in. I found out where triage was. It's chaos, though--I was pretty much on my own as soon as I walked in. The scale is so amazing--when you open the door to go into the main shelter area, it's like the crane shot in Gone With the Wind (yeah, sorry, that's the only shot like this I can remember) that pulls back to reveal the rows upon rows upon rows of people. And there's another room just like that one.
I ended up spending most of my time trying to get people's information entered into a database set up through the City of Austin. The printouts we were using (supplied by the Red Cross, I think) were fucked, though. I went back to edit someone's file and noticed that the address was wrong. I dug out the printout and saw that the address belonged to the next person on the list. Whatever stupid Excel spreadsheet they were using was transposing some information one field down. As I sat there trying to figure out what was wrong, a woman came up to the computer next to me and asked if they could look her up for some reason, and upon seeing the information said to the volunteer, "Hey--my address is wrong in this thing." People had been entering this information since last night, and nobody had said anything until now? I hunted down a tech guy (a really really really good-looking tech guy), showed it to him, and he took off to find some programmers. I took the printout to the Red Cross volunteers who were taping the printouts together, and told them about it. One guy got really concerned. I told him I would sit there myself all night and take all the bad printouts and re-enter them once they were fixed, but that I felt really strongly that they needed to be re-entered. A guy sitting on the floor, who WAS Coby from Survivor (well, he might as well have been), fucking rolled his eyes and said, "I think we can figure it out." Sure, the way someone figured out how to use Excel to screw everything up in the first place, I thought. "We have their names," the other guy tried to convince himself. "That's the important part." Well, yeah, if the person is being looked up by name rather than by former address or family member or . . . Christ, never mind. I guess they're trying, and they're tired, like everyone else. But you know what? When people have lost everything material in their lives, what they have left is their identity. That's important information, COBY. Dickweed. Sigh. I walked away from them, frustrated, and just started helping random evacuees who needed things. They gave me lists of medication remembered after check-in, names of people to call, and asked questions. Lots of questions.
When I left, I asked one guy with the Red Cross if he knew when they most needed volunteers. He said, "Honestly? We've got plenty right now. We'll need you in two or three days when everyone feels like they've earned their gold star and goes home." I have a feeling that'll be the case everywhere. If you're out there volunteering, think about checking in a few days or weeks from now. Maybe months.