- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

LAFAYETTE, La. — Filomena Garcia, of New Orleans, is ready for life to begin again.

Miss Garcia said she will leave a shelter here, where she and her mother have been staying for the past two weeks, tomorrow to clean hotels in downtown New Orleans.

Like many, Miss Garcia, 44, is preparing for normalcy to return to her hometown.

“We’re ready to get out,” said Miss Garcia, who lost everything she owned in the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. “They’ve been nice here, but I think everybody is ready to go.”

Miss Garcia will leave her mother, Maria Diaz, 65, at the shelter until she can earn enough money to find a house and get back on her feet.

“I know I have work in New Orleans with the hotels for over three months,” said Miss Garcia as she sat on her cot inside the shelter. “I just can’t be here anymore, not working.”

Miss Garcia is one of thousands of evacuees who have called the Cajundome at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette their temporary home. The Cajundome, which is about 110 miles from New Orleans, was turned into a shelter shortly after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast.

“Some people are pulling themselves up. Some people feel very good about themselves despite their loss, and then there are people who are dealing with a lot of sadness because of the disaster,” said Thomas McCann, 52, a Portland, Ore., resident who flew to the area to help. “But the majority are motivated, ready to move on.”

The 273rd Military Police Company of the D.C. National Guard has spent the past week helping the Lafayette police patrol the Cajundome and protect an estimated 2,300 evacuees who are seeking shelter there.

Armed with sidearms and occasionally batons, the Guard has been able to maintain order for the most part.

“They’re not criminals, they’re just displaced people,” Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Jones, 40, of the District, said of the evacuees.

So far, the biggest problem has been the fighting among two gangs that have emerged over the past week, Sgt. Jones said.

In addition to keeping the peace, the D.C. National Guard is giving families a hand with other needs, such as counseling.

Within the next week, Master Sgt. James Conover, a former Marine and crisis manager with the D.C. Guard, will arrive here to talk to the refugees and help them sort through the trauma. The D.C. National Guard is currently stationed at the Naval Air Station Belle Chasse.

The stories of survival at the shelter are a testimony to the resilience of those who tell them.

“Busloads of people came here from the convention center, from the Superdome,” Mr. McCann said. “They came with just the clothes on their backs. We’re dealing with a lot of people who are at or below the poverty line, so they lost everything and really didn’t have much to start with. But a lot of them are pulling themselves up.”

Yolanda Moss, 25, who is staying in the shelter with her nieces and nephews, said she doesn’t want to go back to New Orleans. “I’m just waiting for my [Federal Emergency Management Agency] check to come so that I can do something,” she said.

Courtney Thompson, 9, came to the shelter with her mother and two brothers after the family spent five days rescuing her neighbors from the floodwaters. “We had to swim to get out,” she said. “Then the rescue boat came to get us.”

Courtney recently celebrated her birthday in a park nearby with the D.C. National Guard. She hopes to find a new home soon. “I want a house,” Courtney said as she sat on a curb outside the arena yesterday.

Yesterday marked the first day of school in Lafayette for the hundred or so shelter children, many of whose families plan to relocate here.

But school is just the beginning of the healing process, said Mr. McCann, as Red Cross workers struggle to make life in the shelter as close to normal as possible.

“School’s just the start,” Mr. McCann said. “Sometimes, people just need a little nudge to get them going.”

And there are hundreds of people from outside Louisiana who want to help those who want to get out.

Near the sign-in desk at the entrance of the shelter is a sheet of paper that contains a list of families, churches and persons from across the country who want to help relocate those who have lost their homes.

“We had a group of 100 leave this morning for the Atlanta, Ga., area with a group of churches called Foundation of Hope, who organized it,” Mr. McCann said.

Lou Spampinato, 44, came to the shelter from Orange County, Calif., to help organize the Foundation of Hope relocation team. To him, the trip was an opportunity to give a helping hand to those who need it most.

“When they left, they cried, and we cried,” Mr. Spampinato said. “A lot of these people are very attached to their homes here. The kids were very excited, but for some of the adults, it was a little difficult. They don’t know what to expect, but they are going anyway. They were ready.”

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