While staff of Lutheran Social Services of the South still worry about 40 or so colleagues who went missing after Hurricane Katrina, they now have one less worry.
Several people from Peace Lake Towers, an LSSS independent living community for seniors and adults with disabilities, have been found. All week long the LSSS staff had been getting frantic phone calls from relatives about those residents who were unwilling to leave their homes when word first went out about the hurricane.
|LSSS staffer John Berkley nearly didn't find Margaret Bickham,|
a senior citizen who lived at an LSSS independent community in New
Orleans, Sept. 6 at the Austin Convention Center.
“People were asking, ‘Do you know what happened to my mom, my dad?’” said Katherine Kerr, LSS staff. “We kept trying to get word to the authorities, the Coast Gaurd, the police, that we have seniors at this facility, and could they go and check on them.”
Kerr said the seniors were following a New Orleans tradition where some residents do a “vertical evacuation” to upper floors of high-rise buildings.
“If the levees had held it would have made sense,” Kerr said. “But the flooding isolated folks in the high-rises. Then folks from the neighborhood started to come.” As many as 80 to 100 people were in the community, she believes. Reportedly, some fights ensued when people from the neighborhood sought shelter, but “residents and families stuck together cooking and caring for one another,” she said.
On Sept. 3, police finally arrived and evacuated the seniors, their families and neighbors. Three residents, “one who uses a wheelchair, one who uses a cane, one with multiple sclerosis, six family members and a
friend with a six-month-old baby they took under their wing,” ended up at the Austin convention center, Kerr says. “We’ve all seen the news accounts about how terrible that situation was,” she adds. “They
describe horrible conditions, fights, dead bodies. There were certainly people trying to come together to share what little they had. But they were afraid for their lives.”
‘There’s no rhyme or reason to how people are being picked up and moved around, which has got to be heartwrenching for them,” Kerr said, calling the scene at the Austin Convention Center “crazy.”
When John Berkley, vice-president of senior services, arrived at the Austin Convention Center to look for Peace Lake residents, he went in and gave the name of Margaret Bickham, one of the residents. “They
didn’t know where to find her [among 4,000 people],” Kerr said. “They didn’t have cots numbered. Their suggestion to him was to make a sign and walk around. But [Margaret] is partially blind. There’s a PA system, but you start tuning that out. And no one except the volunteers wore nametags.”
But Berkley happened to tell a Red Cross volunteer he’s looking for Margaret. As he was leaving, the volunteer caught up with him and said he’d found two other residents and their families.
“He told me about this as I was standing in the grocery store,” Kerr said. “I started crying. We were so worried about the worst. People were looking at me and joking, ‘Hey, the Cheerios aren’t that expensive.’”
So LSSS has moved the seniors to a local assisted living facility, and is housing eight of their extended family members in an extended stay hotel. “We’ll put them up for a month, help them determine what benefits they’re eligible for, and look for jobs if they choose to stay,” Kerr says. “ I can’t tell you how happy they all are to be in clean rooms with bathrooms, to be taken to Walmart for clothes and toiletries, just
to get some sense of normalcy.”