The O'Nan Family Blog

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Is the rest of the world back to normal?"

The town of Natchez is in the southwest corner of Mississippi, about 170 miles north of New Orleans. My friend and college roommate Julie Finley lives in Natchez and works as a newspaper reporter for the Natchez Democrat. Hurricane Katrina affected Natchez in a huge way, and Julie sent us all emails documenting the things that happened in Natchez. Her perspective is so intimate, and I wanted to share her observations and experiences with all of you. So with her permission, I have posted her emails here:

E-Mail #1 - August 30, 2005

Hello all, We've finally gotten power and Internetgoing at my house and at the newspaper.I'm glad to hear all you coast folks have safe families. Natchez had gusts up to 50 mph and some trees through houses, etc. Nothing major, nothing remotely like the coast.
But we are still mid-crisis here. We have 900 plus in 5 Red Cross shelters and well over a couple thousand in hotels, in campers and staying with friends. We are guessing there's close to 5,000 refugees in town. Much of town is still without power. The school's are all closed for the week. There is no regular grade gas to be found in Natchez. You can get premium if you wait in line for an hour. There were fights at several gas stations last night. The people in our shelters have been told they cannot leave. Tensions are rising at the largest shelter where 350 people are sleeping essentially on concrete.
The numbers in the shelter are expected to grow because people in hotels are running out of money. We are also getting refugees who orginally went further north. They are trying (foolishly) to get back home, but are running out of gas, money or hitting road blocks. Traffic going into Baton Rouge is expected to bottleneck up to Natchez (90 miles north) soon. Most of our refugees are from New Orleans. They are
all thankful to be here, but most know they have nothing when they get back. The lucky/unlucky ones have seen their neighborhood on CNN, but unfortunately, the national media doesn't give specifics on the small communities - so some have no
way to know anything.Cell circuits are busy from Natchez south. For every person I've talked to who got away, they know someone who stayed behind. Very few have made
contact with those family members. The shelters are preparing to stay open for a month or more. A local bank just donated $10,000. The United Way donated $10,000 yesterday. The problem today is that prescription medicine is running out and local
doctors won't sign off on new medications. The shelter at my church was without power for two days. So those folks have been in sweltering heat.
Talking to the refugees is tough because most are resigned to the fact that they have to completly restart their lives. We have a million homeless people.

As for the paper, we lost power when the storm hit and went without it for 24 hours. We all brought our laptops in to do what we could. We have a generator
that runs 3 computers and the printer at once. No lights, no phones, no internet. And no printing press. So the first night we all huddled around the same
power strip and did what we normally do in 7 hours in about 3, with only the glow of our computers. There a small weekly paper in Louisiana about 20 minutes away,
we took it to them to print - black and white. Yesterday, we had power most of the day, and were planning to print our own paper (and we'd already printed the one from Brookhaven), with four extra pages and an increased press run, when the power went off for about 2 hours. We panicked, because it was also off in the other town 20 minutes away. We made plans to drive 2 hours to Monroe, La or 5 hours to Selma, Ala. to print it. But luckily it came back on.

Entergy tells us that Natchez is the only town south of I-20 that has any power. The grocery stores here are out of the main foods. Restaurants are out. Burger King had no fries or bread on Monday night. Our publisher bought the last 8 pizzas from Pizza Hut Monday night and brought them to us. The Sysco food delivery truck isn't making
deliveries because they lost power at their main warehouse. The main grocery store chain here lost $30,000 worth of meat when the power went out. People were camped out in the camping section at Wal-Mart this morning because they heard a false rumor
that some generators were coming in. It's a mess.
New Orleans and the coast are the immediate story, but very soon, the refugees -the people that can't get back home- are going to be the story. Rental houses are filling here.
How's Oxford? I hear a tree fell in the Grove.


E-Mail #2 - August 31, 2005

We were slapped in the face this afternoon with the stark reality that our small little economically deprived area is now changed forever. Our 5,000 guests we thought we were playing nice host to aren't guests. They are residents. Not all of them, many will leave. But many, many, will stay.
We don't need to bring them blankets and snack food for the shelter, we need to find them jobs and houses. I realized it when the public school system here sent me a fax telling evacuees that they needed to come to the school board office on Tuesday to enroll their children in school. My editor realized it when she went to the board of
alderman meeting tonight and the United Way director stood up and told the mayor "They are us," referring to the refugees.

A brief background: In the last 3 years, Natchez has lost everything. Our industry is gone. Our middle class is gone. Our jobs are gone. In my opinion, the town's been going nowhere fast.

Now, we have a couple of thousand new residents who have nothing. The majority are not skilled workers. We have no jobs to offer them. We have no place to put them. Our school district doesn't have the space or the money.

Federal dollars will come, but there's no way it'll be enough.

FEMA is on the way. They are in a recovery mission right now (bluntly put, they are removing bodies on the coast) The next phase is to come to the sites where the refugees are. We've been told they will come set up mobile homes here for housing. This is typcially the housing you see on the coast line of Florida when a hurricane hits -- the blue roofs. But since there is no coast line for this storm, they
have to go where the people are. There's talk of some sort of government job
arrangement - like the WPA projects of a long time ago.

Our mayor issued a proclamation today that no one can buy more than one tank of gas at once.

It's unreal. We haven't begun to wrap our minds around it yet. Most of Natchez is blissfully unaware that we are about to completely change.

My editor burst into tears about every 20 minutes tonight when she thought about the scope of things. It's not that we don't want to help these people, we do, but we aren't sure we can.

Quick sidenote: I interviewed a group of thugs today who swam through 12 feet of water in New Orleans early this morning, found their way out and sipphoned enough
gas from other vehicles to drive to Natchez. They are now staying at the First Baptist Church. They made sure to tell me that they didn't leave New Orleans without going "shopping" first. (Shopping = looting).

We now have 8 shelters open, with another on the way.

Has anyone heard of other towns experiencing the same thing? We have been virtually cut off from other papers. It seems to us though that for the size of our town, we have more refugees than other places. What's Jackson like?



E-Mail #3 - September 4, 2005

This sums up our area right now. Obviously other areas are just as affected, but we still believe we have got to be in the minority of towns our size being affected this greatly. The water and ice trucks came Friday night. And the
FEMA supply trucks came yesterday.


E-mail #4 - September 15, 2005

It's 12:30 a.m., I just left work and drove through downtown. There are more than 1,000 people lined from our Convention Center back three blocks. Some of them have been there since probably around 10 a.m. today. The Red Cross has been giving out checks for around $300 per person, up to $1,500 per family. They've done it every day this week from 8 a.m. to late in the afternoon. Monday and Tuesday they gave
checks to about 4,000 -- mainly evacuees staying in our area.
Wednesday and today word had spread that there was some organization to the process in Natchez. Now we are a victim of our own successs. The lines were longer those two days and snaked through about 6 downtown streets. We had people in line from as far
away as Lafayette, La. (3 hours) and Jackson. Apparently, no other town is doing this --and the few that have tried have had problems and had to shut down.
They've given out about $10 million total. The Wells Fargo truck visited our banks today. Once they get the check they go straight in and cash it. Now, because we are no longer serving Natchez evacuees, the Red Cross has announced that Friday will
be the last day of the checks. Hence the line that is out there now. These folks are laying on concrete for what will end up being more than 12 hours for some. There are some in wheelchairs.
Every day they cut the line off at some point, when they realize they can't serve that many. Estimates have the cut off happening early tomorrow-- and we may have hundreds of very angry people. We have cops here from towns I've never heard of, and
a National Guard unit from Indiana. It should be interesting. Watching the line grow is amazing.
We are down to 10 open shelters now, with one scheduled to close tomorrow. The shelter count is 545. But there are still hundreds in people's houses and hotels. Just over 1,000 kids have enrolled in school -that's 2 public school districts, and several private ones. 504 in Natchez public schools makes it the second highest evacuee count in the state (just behind Jackson's 700). Concordia Parish schools -just across the river) have 500 also.
Is the rest of the world back to normal?



  • At 10:14 PM, Blogger Nick said…

    I hope there are no more of these horrible storms this season...it is really scary thinking about losing so many people and so much along a peaceful part of the MS and LA coast...hope to hear from ya soon...peace


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