Waiting For Rita: Katrina Response Team Doubles Its Duties

United States, September 23, 2005

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    Katrina Response Director Richard Jacquot points out possible evacuee centers in Louisiana to other members of the emergency team. Photo: David Shafer/Mercy Corps Photo:

Poring over maps and glued to updates from the National Hurricane Center, a thirteen-person Mercy Corps team assembled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, awaiting Hurricane Rita’s landfall on the bruised Gulf Coast.

On Thursday evening, Katrina Response Director Richard Jacquot had assigned five people to a Rita Response Team. That team was to head out to Texas early Friday morning, collect trucks in Shreveport, Louisiana and water in Winona, Texas, and begin distributing emergency relief to stranded Rita evacuees.

But by Friday morning, Rita still churning off the coast and threatening both Louisiana and Texas, team leaders decided to stage Mercy Corps’ Rita response from Baton Rouge.

Deputy Director Nick Macdonald was troubled by images of nearly motionless traffic snaking along some of the very routes that Mercy Corps staff would have to travel. “I don’t want our convoy sitting in that,” he said, from a nest of laptops in the small rented house serving as the Baton Rouge HQ.

“When the dust settles, we need to be able to get to the people quickly,” said Logistics Manager Michelle Ingham. “We don’t want to be snarled in traffic, hours from where we’re needed.”

As Friday morning turned to Friday afternoon, it became clear that putting a team on the road would be have been unwise. Rita, 400 miles wide, spun torrential rains and the risk of tornadoes into southern Louisiana. Reports of snarled traffic and gas shortages increased.

Various plans were hatched, plotted, shelved and redrawn. Hoping to make use of water in Winona, Texas, Macdonald arranged for its delivery to Lufkin, Texas, 100 miles to the south. The water supplier agreed to drive the water to Lufkin - a two hour drive on a good day. When officials in Lufkin reported that it was taking two hours just to cross that city, Macdonald decided to hold the water where it was, and wait for a better opportunity to deliver it.

Program Officer Chris Rooks scoured the area for available rental trucks and pallet jacks. By noon he had secured a truck for Saturday morning, in New Iberia, Louisiana, south of Lafayette. Rooks also contacted the Mississippi Multi-Agency Staging Area (MASA) and arranged to collect emergency supplies from their Jackson, Mississippi warehouse.

Rooks spoke out loud as he typed the email request to MASA and invited other team members to prompt him on the list: “Half-truck of water, protein shakes, tarps.”

“Cots, bedding, blankets,” said Macdonald.

“Girlie stuff,” added Ingham, “maxi-pads and all that lot.”

“Feminine hygiene products,” said Rooks, translating as he typed.

While most of the team puzzled about and planned a response to Rita - and prepared the Baton Rouge HQ for the incoming hurricane - Katrina-related projects proceeded apace.

Youth Program Officers Victoria Snider and Gretchen Shotwell huddled over plans for delivering psychosocial aid to schools in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Richard Jacquot and Director of External Relations Laura Guimond met with officials of the Capital Area Human Services District to determine the needs of local shelters in the Baton Rouge area.

Jacquot and Guimond also picked up the keys the downtown space that, on Monday, will be Mercy Corps' new Baton Rouge office.

And John Haines, like a character from that unpublished Tennessee Williams play about aid workers delivering hurricane relief, researched local economic development partnerships from “Cactus Jack’s,” the deserted bar in the lobby of his hotel. He was assisted by Eva Collins, the first local hire of the Mercy Corps’ Hurricane Relief Team.

The day rolled into evening. A hurricane churned and loomed. The team readied itself for the uncertainties of the day to come. Jacquot chopped onions for Greek salad. Ingham, Guimond and Macdonald began building a makeshift levee in the flooding backyard. Rooks set up a fax number.

“Hey, what are we calling ourselves now?” Rooks asked anyone who would answer. “Are we still KRT?”

“Yeah, but now that stands for Katrina-Rita Team," said Guimond.