clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Katrina's toll: thousands dead

Storm survivors settling in at Camp Williams

CAMP WILLIAMS — In this "little city of people who don't know each other," as Utah's director of homeland security Verdi White puts it, there are handwritten signs telling Katrina survivors when the next trip to the grocery store is, where to fill out forms to find relatives, how to find the showers and apply for unemployment and register with FEMA.

The signs don't, however, tell Brenda Hodges where her 15-year-old son, Jeremy, is. Or her friends, siblings Jervis Bergeron and Kathleen Chatelain, what happened to their dog, who they were forced to abandon before someone would let them get into a boat to head for safety.

At the grim frontlines of the disaster Sunday, officials were still trying to measure the loss of life along the Gulf Coast. "I think it's evident it's in the thousands," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said on CNN. One morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, was expecting as many as 2,000 bodies, according to Associated Press reports.

Some 1,800 miles away, in the refuge of Camp Williams, Hodges, Bergeron and Chatelain — all of Louisiana — were sitting outside the main evacuee center at the camp, teary-eyed and clearly exhausted.

Hodges and her son were separated before the storm, she said. His friends were leaving, and when he called her, she encouraged him to go with them to safety; she'd find a way as soon as possible. But calls to a relative in Georgia are discouraging. No one's heard from Jeremy, though Hodges feels he's safe.

On the JetBlue plane coming to Utah, many of them saw CNN for the first time, said Pamela Atkinson, community advocate who's working with the governor's office. "They hadn't seen all that we'd been seeing. They'd been living their piece of it, but not all of it, the widespread devastation."

Most of the evacuees enjoying their first day at Camp Williams Sunday — and most were enjoying it, they assured reporters repeatedly, because they could shower and eat and sleep if they wanted — were concerned about relatives and friends and pets they'd lost track of in the horrendous aftermath of Katrina.

That is likely to be one of the most important tasks facing those helping the 400-plus evacuees who have already arrived, with many more expected, according to Mariann Geyer, CEO of the Greater Salt Lake Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Besides running shelters across the country, the American Red Cross is trying to reunite families — a task that would seem easy with computers. But this disaster took out computers and phones and other links in the South, Geyer says. "All those things we count on don't exist."

Most of the evacuees wanted to talk. They spoke of those they miss and what they saw and how scared they were. Some are angry that help came slowly, others grateful that it came at all.

"Some of them describe the horror of the water they walked through. Of watching elderly people die. The horror of not knowing where friends and neighbors are. The horror of seeing people fight in shelters and the Superdome," Atkinson said.

They told a reporter of shots fired and threats and waiting for help that seemed to take forever to arrive. Navy medics reported treating everything from knife wounds and gunshots to dehydration and chronic illness like diabetes.

Those being welcomed to Utah stepped off the plane to applause, which first jolted and then warmed them, several said. A medical clinic staffed by local hospitals had been set up in the hangar nearby, and Health Department director Dr. David Sundwall said those who needed medical attention immediately were helped on the spot. About 15 were taken to area hospitals for treatment.

At Camp Williams, those less acutely ill who need medical attention will be able to get it at a clinic manned by Salt Lake Valley Health Department and others.

Still in the hangar, they were fed, and those who arrived to the chill of early Sunday morning were wrapped in blankets. When they got to Camp Williams, they were processed by the American Red Cross, human services and health officials, given clean clothes and toiletries and offered a hot shower. Mostly, everyone simply wanted to go to bed, Sundwall said.

On this strange new day, Patricia Arbo stroked her 35-pound collie-lab mix, Tori, as she recounted how boats bypassed her because she couldn't leave her dog. Her mom and elderly relatives were rescued; she, dog Tori and friend Linda Kingman hunkered down on the roof of their home for five hours before moving across the street to a neighbor's two-story house, where they stayed two more days. Finally the boats started coming, plucking people out of attics. But none would take them because of Tori — and they weren't leaving without her. "She's my child," Arbo said as Tori offered a dog grin.

She was one of perhaps 15 evacuees who arrived in Utah Saturday with pets.

Bluffdale Animal Control is working with other animal agencies to put up a kennel on site at the camp so the animals can be close, but not where people are sleeping 40 to a dorm. For now, until things settle down a little, no one's suggesting that the animals stay anywhere but in the arms of those who fought so hard to save them, said Temma Martin of Salt Lake County Animal Services.

In the dorm that reporters were allowed to visit, there were only a handful of evacuees. Many of the others were elsewhere filling out paperwork or taking a walk. Some were trying to call relatives.

Still, the Simon sisters — Clayesha, 11, Corniesha, 12, and Theosha, 9 — giggled as they talked to a reporter. Their brother, Larrie, 5, played on the white-and-blue tiled floor. Mom Karen was thumbing through a magazine. She has kept them all together against long odds, shepherding them from a boat to a bridge where they slept one night before walking miles to the convention center in New Orleans.

She doesn't know where the rest of her family is; she thinks her mom and sisters and their children may have been sent to San Antonio. That's where she thought she was going with her family, too. Utah was a surprise. She's sure, though, "that they all got out OK." And she's willing to stay and see what happens in Utah, since there's nothing left in New Orleans, where she worked in a market.

Her children will get a measure of normalcy soon, starting school. But where is a question yet to be answered. Organizers of the temporary shelter would like to use classrooms at Camp Williams so that children can stay close to family members and each other. Jordan School District would oversee education there.

But there's a problem, according to Atkinson. State education officials say that the McKinley-Ventra Act won't let them segregate homeless children, and those who survived Katrina are, at this moment, homeless. They're working with the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to get an exemption from the U.S. Department of Education.

"My feeling is, they've gone through so much, if we start busing them off base we'll increase the trauma," Atkinson said.

Darnell Burrows was reading her Bible, and she smiled and said there was just something different about Katrina from the beginning. She's lived through four hurricanes in New Orleans, where she's spent her whole life, and this was the first time she ever left home and looked for shelter. With her twin, Lionel, and another brother, she walked to the Superdome late Sunday night.

The shelter, she said, was as shocking as the storm. They saw shooting and dying and it was a "war area, just crazy. No bathrooms, no water, the lights out." She and Lionel ventured out to see how far they could get but were afraid to be out after the 6 p.m. curfew. They finally made it to the convention center and from there to Utah.

She's studying to be a minister, and when she packed her small bag, she brought the well-worn Bible she's been reading, her sermon paper and a roll of toilet paper. She wants to bloom where God plants her, she said. "I'll stay here and do some things. If it's OK here, I'll stay here."

A few buildings west across the sprawling campus, the Southern Baptist Convention volunteers were busy cooking. McDonald's has stepped in to provide enough food to feed 1,000 Sunday night, and the aroma of Quarter Pounders filled the air. Owners of the local McDonald's franchises were helping cook. McDonald's Barbara Schmiett said supper was going to be burgers, apple dippers, chocolate or regular milk, juices and more.

Will McDonald's provide other meals later?

That elicits the same answer as most questions asked of officials.

"We're playing it all by ear like everybody else," Schmiett said.