Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A letter from Louisiana

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:11 AM |  

This letter needs no set-up.

I have three reporters staying at my house - one from New York, one from Dallas and one from Washington, DC. I have bartered my home to try and get a story out so that we can find families that have adults and children with autism so that we can see how our community can help them recover from Katrina.

Today, started out almost like any other day as if they were just guests in my home. I made them scrambled eggs and grits and orange juice. I couldn't offer them bacon or sausage because we couldn't find any meat at the two grocery stores I went to on Sunday afternoon. I gave them directions to where they were going and sent them on their way.

That is where the regular day ended and the new life we have here in Baton Rouge kicked in.

My normal 20 minute commute to work has now become a 50 minute commute. The traffic is amazing. It just doesn't stop. Work is crazy because there are parts of my office scrambling to cover all the parts of this story since I work for a news agency. Our circulation office is trying to figure out where our New Orleans customers have relocated so that they don't miss an issue. Our sales team is shifting gears quickly to accommodate the businesses pouring into Baton Rouge and determining what products we are going to be producing in the coming weeks to assist all of the newly relocated people in our community.

We can't talk about anything but the hurricane and the stories. There are so many stories.

Families with autism are starting to pop up. They are tired and worn out. They have been in a hotel or shelter somewhere for over a week. Their children are frustrated and so are they. Many of them have nothing to return to and reality is starting to set in...and we are frantic to find more but it is like looking for needles in a haystack. Everyone is scattered to the four winds right now.

Today, after I got off of work, I went to Walmart with a list of things that a family from Mississippi needs. Just the basics...diapers, wipes, Honey Nut Cheerios and Goldfish crackers were specific requests and it took two hours to get in and out of there.

Their boys are five. Their names are William and Steven. They came with the clothes they had on their backs and their house back in Mississippi is covered with trees. They can't go home for a good while. They will not have power for another 6-8 weeks and then the house has to be repaired. But they are thankful that they have a home to return to.

While I was standing in line at the Walmart, which was incredibly long, I was playing with the four year old in the cart in front of me to help keep her entertained. She had the biggest doe eyes I have ever seen and her name is India. Her older cousin was buying groceries. I asked if they had just relocated.

She was from a section of New Orleans called Elysian Fields. They didn't have a car. They didn't have any money to evacuate New Orleans so they rode out Katrina. She was 29 years old and has four kids. Oldest child is 11. Her baby is four months old. When the levees broke, the water was rising fast and she knew they had to get somewhere safe. They crawled up in the attic, but she realized that they were not going to be high enough and would drown. So she made all the children climb back down and wade through rising flood waters until they reached a school. They waited until the floodwaters rose and holding onto something floated until they reached the roof of a school where they waited for over 48 hours before being rescued by the Coast Guard. They were brought to the Superdome area, with the exception of the 4 month old who had aspirated some flood waters two days earlier and had developed pneumonia. She was flown to a hospital in Lafayette, alone and is still there.

The family was tagged and assigned a number. Then they got lost in the crowd. Her 3 year old and six year old were put on a bus for Corpus Christi and she and her 11 year old son were sent to San Antonio. Her Uncle came to get her in San Antonio over the weekend but they didn't find her other children until today. Now they are trying to get together enough gas money to get back to Corpus Christi and get her children out of the shelter there. She had foodstamps to buy her food. She had the clothes on her back and a house in New Orleans covered with floodwaters and no means to even get there when the floodwaters subsided.

I bought her a giftcard with my own money and told her I didn't care what she got with it. She could get gas, or more food, or clothes or a bike for her kid...she doesn't have a child with autism.

I was speechless and felt so bad for being aggravated at sitting in the traffic earlier today.

I brought the supplies to the apartment where the twins were staying. Today was their birthday. In addition to the supplies that your gifts helped pay for, you helped get these two little boys a Thomas the Train track with two engines, a six pack of bubbles to blow, some sensory balls with these cool, slimy, little tentacle things and two Elmo puppet books because we knew they love Elmo.

Our community's families are starting to surface and I am hoping they are more in tact than the woman I met at the store tonight. We are committed to helping reconnect them to their autism community one at a time if we have to.

Your generosity and hospitality have been incredible to witness. So many of you have rallied to help in such a variety of ways, doing everything you can.

In talking to these people what we have quickly learned is that they are all weighing very difficult and personal decisions. They have to decide if it is better to stay or leave and almost have to make that decision in a blink of an eye and go with faith. We have been talking to some families for days and they are still dazed and not sure what direction they want to move in. We need more people to sit there and hug them and hold their hands and let them know we are here.

Louisiana is a great place and y'all all know how much I love the South. I fuss about it but it is my home and has been since I was eight. The people here are resilient and they will get through this.

But the world that was here 10 days ago and the one that is here right now are very, very different.

Thank you so much for everything...your thoughts and prayers, your wishes and all of the things that you have poured out to help families that you don't even know, but you know what they go through....and that is enough. Keep 'em coming....we have a long, long way to go and a lot of people that need help.

Lots of love,

Unlocking Autism is a parents group deeply involved in issue of vaccine safety and the campaign to stop the use of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in all vaccines. That’s a controversial issue, but what cannot be disputed is that as bad as it might be in the Gulf Coast Region, its is much worse when caring for a child that even under the best of conditions can not emotionally cope with the environment.

Unlocking Autism is collecting money through their site at to specifically assist families with special needs. Among many organizations, it also deserves your consideration.

Update:From Unlocking Autism:
After speaking with state officials this morning, we have learned that in the state of Louisiana alone, early estimates indicate that there are a minimum of 900 children with autism that have been displaced and that is simply based on the number of children in public schools. The five parishes in Louisiana that were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina were homes to more than 1/3 of the children in Louisiana with autism. Those parishes include: St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany.