Then we walked over to the staging area, which was full of volunteers waiting to be assigned. They had about a dozen rows of chairs set up and every few minutes a coordinator would walk up to the front row and ask for volunteers for specific tasks. As the seats in the front emptied the folks in the back got to move up.
Mr. Sus and I were pulled aside because of our laptops and waited for a little while until someone came to escort us downstairs. Although there were tons of people waiting to volunteer when we were there, we heard that at night they were desperate for volunteers, because they need people there around the clock but most people can't or don't want to work overnight.
We were taken down to the floor of the Reliant Center to help people looking for missing friends and family. Just inside the door, directly across from the message center, was a row of volunteers setup with laptops and internet access.
We could look out over the length of the convention center floor and see row upon row of cots stretched out. They had special areas set up for medical care, the elderly, and a daycare for children who had been separated from their parents. You probably heard about all the celebrities who visited us on Monday. Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George and Barbara Bush, Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, and local Reps. Shelia Jackson Lee and Al Green, all were on the floor of Reliant Center talking to evacuees on Monday. I was busy at my laptop and didn't see any of them, but I heard stories from some of the volunteers and evacuees who had seen them.
There is no comprehensive database of evacuees, not even the ones who have registered at one of the Reliant shelters, much less the ones downtown at the George R. Brown or at any of the area shelters. Pinnacle Wireless had set up a database for the Reliant Park "cities", but it was woefully incomplete (as of yesterday, I think it only had around 6,000 records in it), and part of our job was to try and enter as many people as we could, i.e., anyone who came to us for help. When people came to us for help locating missing friends and family, basically the best we could do was to look them up on Yahoo. I am not kidding.
God bless Yahoo, though, because at least they have a search engine that can search multiple missing person resources, like Nola.com, MSNBC, and the ICRC. Sites like CNN and The Center for Missing & Exploited Children are completely useless, because they don't have even a simple search function and there is no practical way we can click through page after page looking for a specific name.
It was a frustrating and a rewarding experience. The people we tried to help were, overwhelmingly, kind, polite and grateful. It was amazing, actually, because if I'd been through what these folks have and I had no idea where my loved ones were, I'm not sure I'd have the strength to be civil, much less friendly.
I talked to all kinds of different people. Some had come from the horrors of the Superdome and others had been pulled off roofs or bridges where they had been stranded. Some had fled to Houston before the hurricane and were at Reliant Park trying to find friends and relatives. Some were parents who didn't know where their kids were. Others were looking for their elderly parents, many of whom were sick and frail. Many of the people I talked to seemed very calm, others were more desperate and angry. A few seemed shell-shocked, and these were most difficult to communicate with. Many of them wanted to talk about what they'd been through, and seemed grateful to have someone who'd listen, while others were silent and grim.
One man, who'd worked most of his life running the presses at the Times-Picayune, had gotten his family evacuated and then stayed behind to help evacuate others until he himself had been stranded and needed to be rescued. He wasn't sure where his family was now.
Another amazing woman I met was a volunteer from Los Angeles who'd lost her son to drugs last year and jumped on plane to Houston when she heard about the crisis. She didn't have any transportation or lodgings when she got here, but as soon as she stepped off the plane she ran into a group of evacuees headed to the George R. Brown. She decided it was a sign from God and attached herself to them. She's spent the last week taking care of that same group--running errands, counseling, helping them find the care they need, and sleeping on a cot next to them in the convention center. She'd gotten a ride over to the Reliant Center to search for some of their missing relatives for them.
The whole day I was only able to track down three people. But even when you can find a clue about where someone has been evacuated to, getting in touch with them is still next to impossible, what with the crowded shelters and unreliable phone lines. News that they got out of New Orleans alive is usually the best you can hope for right now. It was depressing to have to keep telling people that their loved ones could very well be in the building, or at any number of shelters around town, but we had no real way of knowing for sure.
I didn't go over to the Astrodome (they didn't have wireless internet set up over there), but one of the volunteers said it wasn't nearly as "luxurious" as quarters at Reliant Center. It's much more crowded, it smells, and the air conditioner doesn't work as well. The woman from the George R. Brown, on the other hand, said that it was much nicer, and actually not a bad place to be.
I went back again yesterday while the munchkin was at school. It was a more frustrating day because the state of the database wasn't much better and I was able to help even fewer people than I had the day before. My one big triumph was that I managed to Google some info on where residents of a juvenile detention center in New Orleans had been taken, and a phone number for parents looking for them to call. Who knew all that time I wasted surfing the net would one day pay off?
There were a lot fewer volunteers there yesterday, because a lot of people were at work. I imagine as the days and weeks go by and attention shifts elsewhere, there will be even fewer volunteers, although the need for them will exist for months to come.
I decided to take today off, because it is pretty overwhelming and I don't want to get too burned out. Mr. Sus is encouraging his employees to take a few hours off during the day to go down and volunteer, and spent his lunch hour yesterday unloading trucks at the George R. Brown.
I think next time I go back I'm going to leave the laptop at home and try out a different job. I need to do something that feels productive, like hand out food or something, before I'm ready to go back to sifting through web sites full of missing people.