Shelter from the storm

Louisville, now a regional hub for hurricane evacuees, is prepared this time

Rows of military-green cots, hundreds of disaster kits and tables of medical supplies fill the hall inside the Kentucky Expo Center South Wing. Dozens of Red Cross volunteers are milling about and making last-minute preparations when they learn the first plane of evacuees from Louisiana is about to land.

There are portable showers and first-aid stations in place, along with pizza to feed the hungry masses soon to arrive. 

“We’re ready,” says Joe Proctor, a spokesman for Louisville’s chapter of the American Red Cross.

Known as a regional chapter, the Louisville Red Cross is the state coordinator for all of Kentucky and is responsible for 37 counties in emergency situations, including 31 in Kentucky and six in Indiana.

“Louisville is a city that has to be prepared for multiple disaster scenarios,” Proctor says. There are 2,100 local Red Cross volunteers, and 1,500 are trained specifically for disaster relief in the wake of earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, snowstorms and hurricanes.

As Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked several cities and states to accept evacuees. Louisville was one.

“After Katrina, we needed to increase our capacity,” says Amber Youngblood, director of marketing and public relations for the Louisville Red Cross. In 2005, about 4,200 Hurricane Katrina evacuees wandered to the city on their own, turning Louisville Gardens into an impromptu shelter.

The chapter was not fully prepared, Youngblood says, but has since learned its lesson: “Katrina made us a stronger organization.”

In the past three years, the group has trained more than 1,000 new volunteers, raised over $2.5 million, bought more than 8,000 new cots and 17,000 blankets, and established a new emergency command center. In conjunction with the mayor and the governor’s office, the Red Cross secured the Expo Center to serve as a disaster shelter this time around.

Walking through the South Wing at the fairgrounds, Bryan Quail, CEO of the Louisville chapter of the Red Cross, says he understands the consequences of being unprepared — he visited New Orleans’ infamous 9th Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Photo by Phillip M. Bailey: The first-arriving evacuees line up to register with Red Cross volunteers at the KY Expo Center.

Photo by Phillip M. Bailey: The first-arriving evacuees line up to register with Red Cross volunteers at the KY Expo Center.

“I saw some things that I just — well I just can’t talk about,” says Quail, wearing a white Red Cross baseball cap and brown hiking shoes, and manning a constantly ringing cell phone. 

After Katrina, Quail says the organization decided to become a leading disaster relief agency in the country, initiating a $7 million fundraising goal over a five-year period and partnering with several area foundations to raise money. 

Navigating the sea of cots to make sure everything is in place, Quail receives word that the first plane has landed. 

By now, the parking lot is abuzz with media, volunteers, police and ambulances awaiting the first load of buses. Dressed casually and chattering in between interviews on his cell phone, Mayor Jerry Abramson turns to the volunteers with arms raised and yells, “You guys are great.”

“The group that worked together in the aftermath of Katrina have expanded their capacity,” Abramson tells LEO Weekly. “There are more cots, blankets, tables and chairs, all of that came locally from our Red Cross, which in this community is outstanding.”

Spilling out of TARC buses shuttling from Louisville International Airport, the first group of evacuees arrives; elderly men and women, small children, teenagers and families line up to enter the Expo Center, which soon echoes with their southern drawls.

“Our governor did the right thing this time — our new governor,” says James O’Williams, a New Orleans resident, praising Louisiana Gov. Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. 

Photo by Phillip M. Bailey: Before evacuees arrived, hundreds of cots were set up in the South Wing of the KY Expo Center.

Photo by Phillip M. Bailey: Before evacuees arrived, hundreds of cots were set up in the South Wing of the KY Expo Center.

After Hurricane Katrina hit, O’Williams says he wasn’t evacuated for six days, eventually landing in Corpus Christi, Texas. “Now I’m out four days before,” he says. “Bobby Jindal is smoking. He ain’t playing.”

Many evacuees say they witnessed the unimaginable horror of neglect, mismanagement and ineptitude in the aftermath of Katrina. Now, safely nestled in the Bluegrass before the storm reached land, their testimony speaks volumes about the lessons learned. 

“It was better organized,” Robert Burns, a New Orleans resident, says of the evacuation. “Last time people weren’t prepared.” 

With a few black trash bags filled with belongings at his feet, Burns smokes a cigarette before heading inside the Expo Center. He explains that the National Guard said he could be in Louisville at least a couple of days, maybe longer, depending on the course a second storm — dubbed Hurricane Hannah — takes in the coming week.

It’s been three years since Katrina, and Burns says New Orleans is just beginning to resurrect itself. Many residents were rebuilding their lives, homes and communities.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Willie Ray lays on a thick New Orleans accent when he recalls standing on his porch in a raincoat as the levees broke and the water engulfed over 80 percent of his city in 2005. Despite the destruction, he says uprooting isn’t an option. “It’s just like California,” he says. “They got earthquakes and we got hurricanes.”

As of Monday, nearly 1,500 evacuees had settled into the Kentucky Expo Center’s South Wing, says Chris Poynter, a spokesperson for Mayor Abramson. 

“Louisville showed its preparedness in a very short time,” he says. “It’s gone really well. We’re proud to have one of the finest Red Crosses in the country.”

Meteorologists have since demoted Hurricane Gustav to a Category 2 storm, and it appears New Orleans might have escaped relatively unscathed. But with the threat of Hurricane Hannah still looming, it’s unlikely the refugees here in Louisville will return home before next week. In the meantime, the city is going out of its way to welcome the temporary residents, taking them to a Louisville Bats game and Kentucky Kingdom.