Jose Manzanares is a 23-year-old from Caldwell, working for Americorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) in Meadville, Mississippi, located 140 miles north of New Orleans and 192 miles north of Biloxi. He runs a shelter for approximately 60 to 90 Hurricane Katrina victims, and spoke with BW just before midnight on September 5.
BW: Describe a day in your life.
A day starts off about 7 a.m., making sure we have volunteer cooks to cook for everybody. It's a community here, and we want to let everyone know that this place is their home, so they need to cook, clean and keep everything nice and tidy, because this is going to be their home for a very long time in most cases. I'm in charge of an entire county, Franklin County, trying to make sure that not only my shelter, but the outlying towns in the county, are being taken care of. A big chunk of the county is still without electricity. Some are just barely getting their water supplies running again. I spend a majority of my day in a car, driving around each of these towns to people's homes, making sure they're being attended to properly. If I can find lunch, that's a good day for me ... My day starts off about 7, and ends about 1 a.m.
What's your shelter like?
We lucked out. It's one of the few shelters that Americorps and the Red Cross are working with in this area that had a building already standing--a church that had been empty for two years. The owner opened it up, and before we even got here, the community started the shelter themselves. They were having an influx of people show up, going to churches and just asking for help. I don't know where I would have gone if it hadn't been here. I've been here a little over a week, and we just got showers installed. We're also one of the lucky spots that has electricity. You can drive up and down the highway in Mississippi right now and see power crews working around the clock.
The gas thing ... I've never seen anything like it before. We've got lines coming out of the stations--I clicked it on my odomoeter, and there was one a mile and a half long. Yesterday, there was one that was going to open up at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and people stayed overnight the day before just to get a position in line.
Did the national news coverage prepare you for what you saw upon arriving in the south?
I was really expecting the worst, seeing what was going on in New Orleans and Biloxi. Here, there was a lot of damage, and a lot of displaced people, but we're far enough north to get those people who really want to seek help, rest and have a place to unwind, and release whatever they have inside. We have people from all over--New Orleans, Biloxi, a bunch of small towns. Those are the hardest hit towns, but those are some of the people with the most hope. On the other hand, I just got of the phone with my girlfriend, who's in NCCC, and she got sent down to Biloxi. She says it's just as bad as you see on TV: people getting in constant fights over ice. She said it was like Mad Max and Road Warrior-ish.
So is the aid getting to those who need it?
I can't speak for the far south, but there are places here with unbelievable donations that have come from everywhere--Idaho, Utah, Washington. Volunteer truck drivers have been bringing 18-wheelers full of supplies. In this area, it's getting to the people who need it, via the Red Cross, Americorps NCCC or community volunteers. But I understand how hard it is to get down to the epicenter. The only way they can get down there are helicopter and boat. It's really discouraging.
They're trying their hardest, but I am a firm believer that it took too long for the national government to get into it. But now it's starting to get there, hopefully. My plan is to train the community members here in shelter management, and get them to retake the reigns at the shelter. I want to train myself out of a job; train them to the point where we can leave and hopefully go further south
What is life like for those in the shelters?
This is my first time in the south, and the term southern hospitality has been defined. These people have been eating hot, home cooked meals every night. Red Cross and Americorps offer MRE heater meals, but we haven't even had to break into those yet, because the community around here has been donating so much food and time.
As for entertainment, I'm a believer that if we keep the children entertained, it'll keep the whole place calm. So I've set up game time for kids, and a few teenagers who haven't started school because of the hurricane took it upon themselves to start sports games with the younger teens. I was able to get a TV here with video games for the younger kids, and toys for the really small kids. For the adults, unfortunately, there's really not much to do. I got some DVDs, and Internet access and satellite dish for the parents that watch TV. That's all I can do, aside from busting out a keg--but this is a dry county, so that can be hard.
What message would you like to send from the Deep South to the Northwest?
I'm sure that Idahoans have already given all that they can, and if not, they will. Just send ... not even money, but tangible goods: bedding, ice. Water has been the biggest concern. And keep this area in your prayers, because it's going to be a long, long time before anything gets back to normal here. I know that George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton have started an organization that you can send goods to. The Salvation Army has also been huge. You can go to Wal-Mart's Web site and donate goods through there. Or just do it yourself--go online, find the address of a church down here in the south, and mail it to them. It will be distributed, without a doubt.