By Wendell Wilson
Geaux to LA. Los Angeles? Oh, Louisiana. Why? You need
someone with an engineering background to assist with Disaster
Recovery in the battered Gulf Coast? Sure, I’d be happy to help.
Little did I know that I’d be saying good-bye to all the
creature comforts — and that means gay creature comforts — of
beautiful Florida. The process of trading this in for more challenging
environs of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina was quite
scary. As I got my ‘basic’ belongings together, I quickly realized
that this project would replace many aspects of my predictable
daily life. “Should I take my basic leather drag with me?” I
pondered. “I know it‘s September, but if I get a chance to go
clubbing I want to look sharp!”
Hellooo?! Delusional man at Gate 23! Nothing could have
prepared me for the experience I was about to encounter in the
new, largest city in Louisiana, Baton Rouge! At the Tampa
airport, the destination “Baton Rouge” made the ticket agent
respond with a ‘nobody is going there’ expression. “Oh, Disaster
Recovery? I see,”….she quickly sizes up the gravity of where I’m
going and what I’ll most likely encounter. All I had to say was,
“FEMA”, whereby awe, respect and sympathy all seemed to
follow. Of course, this was at the beginning of the disaster.
Perceptions toward that government agency would change.
Testosterone was running thick when I finally arrived in
Baton Rouge along with a plane full of uniformed paramedics,
emergency workers, engineers, doctors, nurses, Red Cross volunteers,
etc., not to mention media personnel. A rousing cheer
from hundreds of residents, many of them senior citizens, trying
to leave Louisiana, filled the arrivals area in Baton Rouge as we
streamed through the terminal. Help had finally arrived.
The Red Stick. Wow…Baton Rouge! Sounds so exotic — and
never quite the place I expected to visit — ever! But here I was,
ready to do my best work as an Engineer, GIS/IT Specialist.
After gathering my belongings, (one bag was lost — my
sleeping bag! — to be recovered days later) fate was already
preparing me for a stunted existence. The sun was a vermilion
orb on the horizon as I exited the airport. Traffic was seemingly
very heavy. Other than the view of oil refinery towers in the
distance, first impressions didn’t look too bad. Of course, it
wasn’t — all the angst and devastation was to the east, in New
Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama.
I’m sure I’ll be able to find a hotel, somewhere since Baton
Rouge wasn’t in the storm zone. “Due to effect of the storm, your
call cannot be completed as dialed. Please try again later…” Uhoh.
What have I gotten myself into? After not being able to
secure a dial tone on my cell phone for at least the first 20
minutes, I figured that I just had to move further into a cell phone
zone. My heart began to panic as the realities of being isolated
began to sink in.
Something told me, “You aren’t going to find a hotel — not
tonight or any night for the next three weeks — maybe three
months”. Uh-oh. What about my facials and looking flawless at
the gay Happy Hour bar in Baton Rouge? My leathers?! Forget it
Mary! You better get ready to hunker down (I hate that expression!)
with the rest of the hetero world and keep your eyes and ears open.
There was no escort to greet me at the staging area — they
probably never received the voice mails I left before departing
Florida. Plus, the whole camp setup was less than a week old —
i.e. we’re all in the same boat while trying to figure things out.
Home turned out to be a Tent City, ablaze with noisy,
generator-powered lights, not too shabbily outfitted, once you
knew the ropes. This makeshift city was occupied by 250
contractors and a team of people providing concessions and
basic sanitation. I guess I won’t be donning any martini lounge
wear anytime soon.
Living conditions consisted of a predictable military-esque
existence in an extremely noisy air conditioned (63° F to keep
out the bugs) tent of 150 men in a fairground area on the
outskirts of the city. Before you croon: “150 MEN? In one tent??
That sounds like a groovy bear weekend at the Sawmill! Sign me
up!” think again. Fact is nothing like fantasy. Rising before
sunrise, stumbling over and between hundreds of metal Armyissued
bunks, with all your belongings tucked under your bed (to
be shared by the ants), only to wait in line for a bathroom, sink,
shower or food may be an adventure, but it’s not a good time.
Like anything, you gradually got used to the routine. I began to
translate my gayness into a more ‘Survivor Gay’ reality with
every revelation of existing conditions. Over the days, more rules
began to seep in. Anarchy slowly lost out to a friendly, orderly
community of like minded individuals from around the world to
the Lord’s, er, I mean FEMA’s work. I told myself, “Just go with
the flow — you’ll be fine.”
Over time, this proved true. Lights went out, ready or not,
at 10 PM. In the middle of the night there was something very
medicinal or soothing about listening to 150 guys calmly
snoring— except for the occasional preying mantis that kept
crawling over my face at night. Most of us were pretty exhausted
at the end of the day, and after work, there really wasn’t much
to do other than to eat, chat, read, and sleep.
“But, surely, you didn’t work 24/7? You must’ve had some
time for yourself to go out and club hop or go online to ferret out
other gays?” Not exactly. The first couple of weeks were flat out
work! 12-hour days, your ass was dragging so much, it would
take a 12-hour make-over to get you presentable enough to go
When I did find the local gay bar, it seemed quite exciting.Filled to the brim with people because, 1) There were only two
gay bars and one discotheque in Baton Rouge, and 2) most of the
patrons were evacuees from New Orleans — “temporarily”
relocating to the next metropolitan center. Many were living out
of their cars, trucks, or living with friends, with maybe 7-10
people in a house.
Oh — and what about the need for privacy (i.e., sex) during
this emergency? It’s not likely that you’re going to invite someone
back to your ‘tent’ and get down in front of 150 presumably
straight, horny men. Plus, everyone is overly extended, so even
if you met someone, you couldn’t go back to their place, since
they already had a houseful.
That pretty much left your car. The car could always provide
some private respite to reflect with your favorite CD. Quite a few
urbanites (read ‘Divas’) opted to sleep in their hot and humid
cars rather than to expose themselves to the anarchy of hundreds
of mature ex-military types. I was very pleased to not have
witnessed any hazing, teasing, or behavior unmentionable for
humankind. Since the average age was about 40, most of the
immature, insecure, horny male syndrome was properly manifested.
Occasional alcohol in Tent City was the only vice, and it
was surreptitiously allowed. Thanks for small pleasures.
But what about the work? Work was an exercise in grass roots
organization. When the crowds were small and you had to
accomplish something it was amazing what could be done when
there were minimal rules. It’s only after the site or project had
grown beyond initial expectations that the “Robert’s Rule of
Order” style of process started to seep in. The initial days
revolved around helping people from the storm damaged areas
move into shelters spread out across the state. These shelters
were anything from a church, Masonic hall, store front, to a full
sized college basketball arena. At 7 AM every morning, 40 to
over 100 engineers and workers assembled in the breezeway of
an existing engineering firm — before the day’s 90 degree
temperatures set in. We discussed how this project of helping
people was going to commence and continue. By 7:45 AM,
armed with a cup of caffeine, we were ready to roll. Aside from
all the initial chaos of orientation and the importance of safety
being drilled into our craniums, I was very impressed with the
caliber of experience represented by various agencies.
Considering the male dominance of the place, it was quite
welcoming to see a young woman (presumably lesbian) conducting
the daily orientation of how the organizational steps
were to take place. I know some men harrumphed over this
woman, but I was all, “Go ‘head, girl,” with my HRC sticker
pasted on my laptop. I witnessed this young blond version of
Joan Crawford mentally creating a “Don’t fuck with me fellas”
aura over the crowd. This gal definitely had to have cojonnes
because the audience was largely a tough, RAM truck, ex-military,
engineering crowd with a smattering of southern beer-gut bubbas.
Women, blacks and gays were predictably the minority.
Armed with a laptop, cell phone, rental car, and notepad,
and teamed with two other guys, we set out and find existing
shelters that could house the 10,000 person per week exodus
from the storm battered areas. Baton Rouge was already a
bastion of homeless people living in cars (remember, there are
no more hotel rooms available) and after seeing pictures from
the SuperDome in New Orleans, would you EVER opt to stay in
a shelter that housed more than 10 people?) My two compatriots
were nice guys. One seemed gay. He was experienced with
this disaster stuff, and presumably not well-liked because of his
controlling tendencies. He was still pleasant enough to work
with during our long car trips. The other fellow was a native of
Liberia, with accent, experienced and a good counter balance
toward the other anal guy.
We put hundreds of miles on our car, driving through towns
like Breaux Bridge, Gueydan (pronounced ‘GAY-don’ — I loved
that pronunciation especially since my co-worker refused to
pronounce it that way, “because it sounded funny”….hmmm).
Other towns such as Erath, Abbeville, Slaughter, Opelousas, and
Delcambre (pronounced ‘del-cum’), provided rather rich, melting
pot cultures. Many of these small country towns were
considered an oasis to the displaced newcomers, who only had
the clothes on their back. Everyone had stories of sacrifice,
tolerance and acceptance of the binding circumstance that
chained everyone together. The otherwise charming French/
Acadian sub-culture of Louisiana was masked by the chaos of
traffic, lack of staples and resources and the continuing frustration
of figuring out the next move. Since I was the new guy, I just
listened and followed orders — until I couldn’t take it any more,
whereby both the Liberian fellow and I had to question his
implied authority. I felt that our driver wasn’t comfortable
addressing some of the poorer people of color in gathering
information. And the guy was probably not expecting to be
overruled by two intelligent black men who were not from the
South and who had a significant amount of confidence and
independence way before this project.
Drama and politics aside, many of the evacuees were neither
poor nor black. Some of the displaced, the fortunate ones, didhave their cars, but they had no place to call home. So we
researched and took inventory of the shelters we encountered
— and some of the establishments were doozies. We charted
them, and sent the info back to headquarters. The bureaucracy
and politics of allowing more evacuees into these rural
shelters was quite a challenge since by rapidly adding significant
population to rural area, a serious strain on the existing infrastructure
was exacted. Everyone had good intentions, but events like
this emergency put rational thinking on the back burner.
All in all, the conundrum of doing the right thing by
helping people, and being associated with the sometimes
tangled bureaucracy of FEMA, was well worth all the controversy
and bad press; especially when you’re on the front lines
dealing directly with people. The healing will go on for years
and I am very proud to be part of the process.
Wendell W. Wilson resides in St. Petersburg. He has been
working with the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief teams since
shortly after the storm hit.