Friends helping with Katrina

OK, given the title of this blog and earlier posts there is no way not to be talking about Katrina, the worst natural disaster in my life time in the U.S. Posted below are the efforts of a good friend of mine, Clint Mitchel, as well as many others.

Sept. 2, 2005

Expecting the worst

Hurricane-relief workers struggle to meet
special needs of pregnant women

by Alexa Smith

LOUISVILLE — In a Sunday school room down the hall from the sanctuary at University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rogue, LA, a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy is resting on an air mattress.

She showed up last night wearing bedroom slippers and a shift, carrying a small shopping bag filled with everything she has left from her flooded New Orleans home. When the city was evacuated, she got separated from the rest of her family and she isn’t sure how to find them.

Her baby is due any day.

In the room next door are two teenagers, a grandmother and a mother with a newborn, all sprawled on air mattresses beneath a chalkboard decorated with little handprints, compliments of the kids who go to Sunday School there.

“We’ve just turned the Sunday school rooms into little bedrooms,” says the Rev. Clint Mitchell, University Presbyterian’s associate pastor. “For the short term, we’re giving them sanctuary here … but we’ll be looking for members with spare rooms for the longer term. There’s going to be a lot of need for that.”

For Mitchell, who has a social worker-parishioner trying to track down the family of the soon-to-be-new-mom, the meaning of “normal” has been turned upside down since Hurricane Katrina swept through Baton Rouge.

He’s like most other Baton Rogue survivors — dealing with power outages, intermittent telephone service and wind and water damage, but conscious of far worse devastation farther south.

But they’re adapting fast to the new reality. The city is in the midst of its own kind of flooding: About 24,000 evacuees from New Orleans are jammed into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the campus of Louisiana State University and in the River Center, a downtown arena, and other public facilities.

The working assumption is that 25 percent of those evacuees are pregnant women, many due to deliver any day. Social workers are scrambling to find beds for them, rooms with a little privacy, away from the long toilet lines and noisy, overcrowded shelters.

Beth Manning, a social worker at Women’s Hospital in Baton Rogue, has done little else for the past few days. For her, local churches are literally a Godsend. So far, University Presbyterian has said yes, as have St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Faith Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, LA, about an hour west of the city.

And she’s still on the phone — when she can get a working line.

“We’re trying to find space for mothers with new babies, pregnant women and neonatal intensive care patients (who have been discharged but can’t get home),” says Manning, who doesn’t hide how frazzled she feels as she moves some patients out to make room for new arrivals in buses and choppers from New Orleans. “So far, we’re just doing this as they arrive, probably about 10 a day,” she says. “We’re working with ‘em as we get ‘em.”

Manning says most of the expectant and new mothers need only temporary shelter; they’d much rather stay with family or friends if they can find them. Returning to the devastation of New Orleans is out of the question. “They won’t let them back in,” Manning says. “Parts are flooded. Parts are without sewerage. Parts are without working pumps. Many of the women will probably need hosting for a least a week and a half, most for a month.”

She says many of her patients got separated from their families when mandatory evacuations began: Expectant mothers and others with healthcare needs were shipped out first, losing families left behind in the melee.

But many may need long-term help.

The shortage of beds actually began before Katrina hit, Manning says. New Orleans doctors ordered late-term pregnant patients to leave the city before the hurricane — if they had the means to go. Physicians say the drop in barometric pressure that accompanies a hurricane often induces labor. Those with foresight didn’t take any chances, knowing that a severe storm could make medical care hard to secure.

The pregnant women arriving now in Baton Rouge didn’t have a way out of town, or chose to stay, or got evacuated as New Orleans emptied its hospitals.

Women’s Hospital, a women-only facility, has 250 beds. Doctors there are juggling deliveries at Women’s and at Baton Rogue General Hospital. Our Lady of the Lake Hospital is taking post-delivery patients but it has no labor and delivery wing.

The public shelters aren’t insensitive to the plight of new mothers and babies. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center, for example, has created a small section for new babies and their families, according to Manning, who says women who were able to find their family members elsewhere often chose to remain with them, despite the noise and the chaos.

For the others, she’s calling churches to ask for help — using a cell phone when land lines fail, trying again when the connection is broken.

The Rev. John Blewitt of Faith Presbyterian Church in suburban Baton Rogue is waiting for a call from the hospital.

He gussied up the senior high classroom in the church’s education building, adding a bed and crib and even shoving a dresser against a wall. The building has a kitchen, but no showers.

But it will house a family through Labor Day weekend, if necessary.

“These are expectant mothers … that the hospital has to discharge — and they’ve got no place to go. I couldn’t say ‘No’ to that. In fact, I didn’t get session permission yet, but we certainly couldn’t turn these folks away,” Blewitt says, adding that the classroom makeover is just a short-term solution.

“We’ll make other arrangements next week, if people have no place to go. I know families here and in the wider community who will say, ‘Yeah, stay with us if you like.’”
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