Shelter residents begin planning to go home

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Evacuees were up early this morning at the Red Cross shelter at Calvary Baptist Church, trying to get reports about their families and homes as they started to make plans to return to south Louisiana.

Aimee Belt was talking about leaving Vicksburg Wednesday morning with the 16 members of her extended family who evacuated together from Houma — which took a direct hit from Hurricane Gustav — when her husband, Joshua, learned officials in their hometown are saying no one will be allowed into Terrebonne Parish until Friday at the earliest.

“Friday? What day is it today?” Aimee asked, then shrugged her shoulders. “Well, what can you do? I guess maybe we’ll start making our way down there tomorrow and just see what happens.”

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Each of seven Red Cross shelters opened Sunday in Warren and Issaquena counties filled by Monday morning, said Janice Sawyer, Red Cross emergency services director for the Vicksburg area.

The Red Cross shelters have a capacity of 625. Additionally, a non-Red Cross shelter reportedly opened at Bowmar Baptist Church on U.S 61 South on Monday, taking in about 80 people.

Although the lights flickered at the Calvary shelter Sunday evening, Sawyer said no shelters lost power or had any other problems arise during the storm Sunday night.

All local hotels were full and hundreds of evacuees were staying with area family members and friends. As for shelter numbers topping out at 700 for Gustav, the total during Katrina three years ago was 1,100, eventually consolidated to the Vicksburg Convention Center, which remained open nearly a month.

Vicksburg Auditorium, which had been identified as a “shelter of last resort,” did not open its doors to evacuees.

As of this morning, Sawyer said she was going to visit each shelter to see how many evacuees planned to try to return to their homes or find other accommodations today and how many would remain in Vicksburg. She said some people were apparently already beginning to filter out, as a 9 a.m. count showed 515 people at the Red Cross shelters.

“We have a lot of people from the Houma area and other parts of South Louisiana. They appear to be pretty antsy to get back, and I’m expecting some will leave for home today if the roads are open and the law enforcement is letting them back in,” she said. “Of course, we’re going to keep the shelters open for as long as there’s a need.”

Benji and Jeanine Marcantel were the first to arrive at Calvary Baptist Church, and said they were not going to rush returning home to Kinder, La. They had stayed at the shelter during Hurricane Rita — which destroyed their home in southwest Louisiana — and arrived again at 3 a.m. Sunday with their two daughters and five grandchildren. The shelter manager opened the doors before the scheduled opening to accommodate the return visitors.

“You don’t really want to rush back if there’s a lot of damage or there’s not going to be electricity. We found that out last time.” Benji Marcantel said.

Comprehensive reports of damage in areas hardest hit by Gustav were sparse as of this morning. Belt said she had heard mostly unsubstantiated rumors, but had at least learned one member of her extended family who stayed behind in Houma was doing fine.

“It’s hard to know what to think,” she said.

“There’s so many rumors, you know, but nothing is confirmed. We’re pretty optimistic, we have to be.”

Both the Belt and Marcantel families had nothing but praise and thanks for the volunteers who sheltered their families since Sunday, and said they would definitely return to Vicksburg the next time a hurricane threatens.  

“Everyone has been very helpful and friendly,” said Belt. “We were very lucky to find this place, and if we have to evacuate again we know where to come.”

Georgia Lynn of the Vicksburg Warren Humane Society said the shelter had added 46 animals to its existing inventory of 134.

It was the largest population ever at the facility on U.S. 61 South — and not just dogs and cats. Evacuees placed parrots, guinea pigs and rabbits with the local group, which also assisted in finding places for horses in Jackson, Lynn said.