Monday, September 19, 2005

Love Bugs and an Update from Brookhaven

Helen came down to Mississippi for a short visit to Vicksburg over the weekend. "What is the deal with all these bugs?" was one of her first questions. The one-hour drive south from the Jackson, Miss. airport to Brookhaven had left her windshield completely covered with the remains of thousands of love bugs.

The Mississippi love bug (Plecia nearctica) is currently in its two-week fall heyday, spattering windshields and fouling radiators from Natchez to Meridian. These insects pair up for some good airborne lovin' during which they hover drowsily around at ear- and windshield- level. The locals say that this year's crop is especially populous.

My stay here in Brookhaven at the Red Cross shelter at the First Baptist Church is winding up in a couple of days. The next wave of Red Cross volunteers is arriving, and over the next couple of days I'll be training my replacement.

Overall, my experience here has been a good one. The magnitude of the disaster has stretched the Red Cross very thin and the fact that most of us here in Brookhaven are first-time volunteers has been challenging. In addition, the Red Cross decided to forego the damage-verification procedures that it normally follows before distributing monetary assistance. This led to long lines and accusations of double-dipping and fraudulent damage claims at our local service center here in Brookhaven. After some improvisation and trial and error, the Red Cross came up with a dated ticket system that alleviated the long lines and uncertainty.

Local columnist Bill Jacobs does an excellent job of describing the situation of last week. Here's his piece in full from the Brookhaven Daily Leader:

We received a call Monday morning that the Lincoln County Multi-Purpose Building on Belt Line Road was being overwhelmed with people seeking Red Cross assistance. Grabbing a camera to lend a hand to our news staff, I headed out to shoot a photo, never expecting what I saw - thousands of people standing in the mid-morning heat - waiting.

Cars and people were everywhere.

A line, three to four people wide, snaked twice the length of the facility's parking lot. At the door of the building, armed National Guardsmen stood guard holding the crowds back as another guardsman pleaded with people to back away from the door and requested that only one member per family enter the facility.

While everyone was orderly and tempers seemed in check Monday morning, as the week wore on the situation became more intense as an estimated 6,000 people at one point waited. In the wee hours of Wednesday, the situation became more intense and additional National Guardsmen were ordered onto the facility grounds.

Rumors began flying, and the calls into our newsroom became intense. The calls varied in theme and frustration. Some wanted to know how to avoid the long lines; others were about rumors of "free money" being given out. And still others were frustrated that national volunteers had replaced local Red Cross officials. The most chilling were a few frustrated comments about never again donating money to the American Red Cross!

As a reservation system was put into place the pressure was relieved significantly by Thursday and a potentially volatile situation was avoided.

At a meeting with the Red Cross late Thursday afternoon, many of the rumors were addressed and explanations given for the events of the week. The bottom line, according to Tim Connolly, Red Cross relief coordinator, is that size and scope of Hurricane Katrina completely overwhelmed the Red Cross system and that despite usual efforts to prevent abuse, their focus became to get money to as many families as possible as quickly as possible.

Connolly admitted that the policy opened the system for abuse and admitted abuse was going on. However, he said systems were in place to later identify that abuse and suspect names would be turned over to local law enforcement authorities.

National volunteers replaced local Red Cross officials, Connolly said, as a matter of policy to assure the credibility of the system. He said that having volunteers without local ties registering and handing out checks would assure everyone that no favoritism could be shown. "We do not care who you are related to or what connections you have; we want to treat everyone fairly," he said.

The "free money" he said was a matter of personal moral attitude and hoped people would let those who have lost everything get what they need first. He chided those who maybe lost a freezer full of food but were standing in front of people who only had the clothes on their back.

To those who expressed reluctance to donate to the Red Cross, he just responded, "What good will that do? The purpose of the Red Cross is to help."

To avoid the long wait, Connolly suggested people use the national toll-free line, 1-800-975-7585. Unfortunately, that line also produces a long wait, as most attempts result in a busy signal. Connolly said the Red Cross was trying to solve the problem but added that sitting by a phone was more comfortable than standing in a long line in the dust and heat.

All in all, by Friday morning, more than 5,000 individuals had been processed and 15,000 more had appointments reaching into mid-October. The Red Cross estimates that at current levels more $20 million will be distributed by the Lincoln County relief center.

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