Fifty-Eight Days in
The Cajundome Shelter

Ann B. Dobie
For fifty-eight days in 2005, the Cajundome in Lafayatte, Louisiana was home to more than 18,000 evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Ann Dobie refers to the "days of cots and laundry, medical triage, food service for thousands, the information desk, the red vests of the Red Cross, and the orange T-shirts of the PRC [Pastor's Resource Council.]"

Except for drug-addicts and rapists, almost all the characters that turn up in Dobie's book are heroes --- Greg Davis, executive director of the Cajundome, Phil Ashurst, operations director, Tricia Schaefer, "a Strike Force team leader and FEMA liasion," Pastor Jacob Aranza of the PRC, who walked into the shelter and asked Davis, "Can we have a service? Minister to people?" All good folks from Lafayette.

Well, not everyone. The Red Cross gets a bad rap. It had some 5,000 cots hidden behind the Convention Center; had to be forced to turn them loose. And the food they came up with wasn't all that great: "three, four, five days on the top of a roof required more than a donut or a honey bun for breakfast, lunch meat on stale bread for lunch, and chili out of a can for dinner." Dobie --- and the folks at the Cajundome --- were outraged.

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Speaking of "chili out of a can," Fifty-Eight Days has much the same flavor. Ms. Dobie, Pelican Books tells us, is a professional teacher and writer from the University of Louisiana. But she missed the boat if not the beat on this one. Someone served the medical team at Cajondome --- many of whom were working pro bono --- "with legal papers saying that they would be sued." Who? What? When? Where? Why didn't Dobie interview whoever came up with such nonsense? It had to do with access and stairs; that's all she tells us. Why not give us the full story?

She reports that the Red Cross public information officer denied the charges of bad food and hidden bedding. What did he or she say, and when? Is the Red Cross guilty of more heinous crimes in other disasters? Could Ms. Dobie have done a real investigation of the organization that we always thought was there johnny-on-the-spot for disaster relief, the one we give our hard-earned tax-free dollars?

How about FEMA? Many found fault with them and their militaristic approach to the whole post-Katrina operation ... arresting anyone who broke into any store for food or water, no matter how hungry or thirsty. That was the Law of FEMA. She apparently had no problem with that. Were the FEMA operatives better than we have been led to believe? Worse? Why doesn't she tell us?

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18,000 people stuck for fifty-eight days in such a desolate place should provide us with no end of drama, wonder or excitement. The book gives no hint of this. Indeed the narrative is relentlessly ho-hum, to wit, "The great cleaning of the Cajundome has begun, but it will take more than soap, water, and a good mop to get this place back to normal." Well, sure --- but where's the beef? A lot came down in those eight weeks. Why isn't it here in the book?

The author teaches or taught what is called English Lit. There are dozens of books that come to mind when we think of disaster ... books that could be a fine model for her. There's Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years with its astonishing detail (a man finds a wallet; he wants the money in it; he's scared it's plague-ridden; he throws it in the fire, collects the gold pieces from the ashes.)

There is H. G. Welles' War of the Worlds. Talk about what happens in the heart of the common man during sudden, inexplicable disaster. Then there is John Hersey's Hiroshima, the story of the death of not 2,000 (Katrina, Rita) but over 100,000, perhaps as many as 200,000 humans.

And what happens to us when we are immersed in such disasters? There is Camus' La Peste. How does one relate to the death of hundreds of innocent children. Is it a vengeful god? How do, for example, the pastors of PRC handle the paradox of their Biblical God putting so many innocent children through such suffering?

And there is, too, the time of mere survival. A hurricane, a disaster, a plague ... people off in a stadium, or in a cave, telling their stories, some of them sad, some funny, some bawdy, some awful, some delightful. Certainly in her brown study Ms. Dobie knows of Boccaccio's Decameron, filled as it is with song, a celebration of the fates: seven men and three women in the cave at Fiesole, their one hundred stories.

What a chance for Dobie to humanize the double tragedy of Katrina and Rita for the rest of us. To interview, in depth, those battered by the storms, telling of their lives before, during, after; their experiences, their hopes, their sorrows. What a chance for her to give another great dimension to a hideous tragedy. What an opportunity.

What an opportunity she miffed.

--- Lolita Lark
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