By: Dave Astor
A woman watched her 49-day-old baby die just before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. After that horrendous storm left thousands of people homeless, the grieving mother gave a shelter the clothes and other items she was going to use for her child.
This heartbreaking and heartwarming story will be mentioned in this Saturday’s column by Smiley Anders, who has written an award-winning “items” feature for The Advocate of Baton Rouge since 1979.
“She somehow got the strength to think of others,” said Anders, when reached by E&P Online. “It really gives you a good feeling about people. Even when the government lets you down, individuals seem to look out for each other.”
Anders has also heard his share of dismaying stories. For instance, the columnist’s nephew and his wife had to abandon their home in New Orleans and ended up signing a seven-month lease for an apartment in Houston. The apartment owner wanted financial documents from the couple. When Anders’ nephew explained that these documents were under several feet of water, the owner demanded the whole seven months’ rent in advance. Anders also heard that the asking price of a Baton Rouge home was raised $100,000 after the hurricane.
“There is some gouging going on,” he said.
Meanwhile, Anders’ column has gone through all kinds of changes. He’s now devoting anywhere from half to two-thirds of the space in his six-day-a-week feature to Hurricane Katrina-related items and commentary. On Wednesday, for instance, Anders wrote that Baton Rouge (located about 75 miles from New Orleans) has approximately doubled in population since evacuees streamed into the city — and he offered wry driving tips for getting around the congested streets.
In Tuesday’s column, Anders included an anecdote about a woman who was driving home from Arkansas when someone at a Tennessee gas station noticed her Louisiana license plate and gave her $10. When the woman protested that she didn’t need the money, she was told to keep it and pass it on to someone who did. Later, at another gas station, the woman met a hurricane victim who had lost everything and was heading to Delaware with her children. She gave her the $10. “We both had tears in our eyes,” she told Anders.
Since the hurricane, Anders has been getting about 100 e-mails a day (double the usual amount) containing all kinds of hurricane-related tales and information. He can’t get everything into his column, but tries to use what he can. Some of the e-mailers, noted Anders, are not looking for their messages to get published. “They just want to tell somebody their story,” he said.
How are things in Baton Rouge? Many residents are welcoming, while some are suspicious of the newcomers — a large percentage of whom are African-American. Many of the evacuees “are walking around looking lost, in a strange city,” said Anders. “You go into stores and bars and the accents are different.”
Anders overheard a man discussing how he lost his boat, TV, and other possessions in the hurricane. “It was like my last divorce,” the man quipped. Anders said he’s impressed that some people can maintain a sense of humor in such dire circumstances.
Some of the evacuees ended up in Anders’ house. Originally, there were four people: a married couple from New Orleans who Anders’ wife knows, and the mothers of each member of this couple. The mothers left (one moved elsewhere in Baton Rouge and the other flew to Brooklyn, N.Y.). The couple, said Anders, may have to split up temporarily to take jobs in Tennessee and North Carolina, respectively.
Ironically, this couple had recently moved from an area of New Orleans that didn’t get flooded to an area that did. After the deluge, they zoomed in on their home via computer, and it appeared to be flooded with three to five feet of water. “They’re kind of in shock still,” said Anders. “I think the impact is just beginning to hit them.”
Meanwhile, the sister and brother-in-law of Anders’ wife are in Pennsylvania. Their apartment in the French Quarter wasn’t flooded, but of course they can’t return to New Orleans any time in the near future. “If the levees hadn’t broken, they could have come back,” said Anders.
The columnist emphasized that most middle-class residents of New Orleans are not suffering anywhere near as much as the city’s poor people, but the hurricane is still having a major impact on them. “Their lives are so disrupted, and they were the lucky ones,” he observed.
Anders, who used to visit New Orleans about once a month, is disgusted with the federal government’s response to the hurricane. “It was abominable. It was outrageous,” said Anders, who noted that people “across the liberal-conservative and Democratic-Republican spectrum” feel the same way.