Being in a good mood and glad Hurricane Gustav didn’t do as much damage as we had all feared, I, in my editor’s role, handed reporter Kelly Young the assignment to pick a shelter and do a human interest story. What I was imagining was him getting to talk to a group of people who were happy the storm wasn’t so bad, thankful of having a safe place to go and nice, Christian people to take care of them.

In the meantime, I wrote a short editorial, sending kudos to our volunteers, church members and first-responders for their hard work throughout the ordeal.

I’m glad I wrote the editorial, although it went mostly unnoticed in light of the front page story we published the same day — the one where a significant number of evacuees at one of the shelters in town lambasted the Red Cross, volunteers, food and facilities. (And, by the way, it was me who used the “Bunch of ungrateful people” quote as the headline, not Young. And, perhaps it was a little over the top; for that I apologize.).

Among the complaints:

• They were fed “slop;”

• The food was the same as they “got yesterday; they just rewarmed it;”

• They were made to go to bed at 10 p.m. ... “treated like little kids;”

• It was cold and they were given just one blanket;

and, my personal favorite ...

• They were treated like they were “on a plantation.”

I have some personal experience with hurricanes, most recently Hurricane Rita, which blew through Orange a few weeks after Katrina did her damage to New Orleans. I was working for the newspaper there, and a coworker and I chainsawed our way back into town the afternoon after the storm hit.

There were no official shelters because technically no one was supposed to be there. Without electricity, the good food in people’s refridgerators and freezers soon went bad. But, we had peanut butter and honey and we had bread. That kept us going for a couple days or so until we set up generators to run our computers and keep some staples cold.

But, during the day, working in the hot sun, we were more than happy to eat whatever the emergency-responders and volunteers had for us — whether it was sandwiches or the MREs (meals ready to eat). Food lines were often long, and seemed longer in the heat of the day. Yet, you could hear people ahead and behind thanking people who were volunteering as well as those who were paid to be there.

And, what’s wrong with left-overs? Granted, the food wasn’t reheated as the complainers accused, but that’s beside the point. Food is food in an emergency.

The shelters in Jacksonville and towns like it were a solution to an emergency. A 10 p.m. curfew wasn’t treating the evacuees like “little kids.” It was treating them like responsible adults who should understand that with more than 150 strangers in a limited space that there is a need for stricter rules than they would normally have to live by.

And, I’m sure if they’ll think about it, the more than 150 people who didn’t get to shower as often as they would at home will be pleased the room was kept cold. More blankets would have been optimum, but — it ... was ... a ... temporary .... arrangement.

And, I’ll take cold any day over what I went through in the aftermath of Rita. I stayed most nights in my non-air conditioned apartment with no breeze blowing on me except what I could get from a tiny battery-operated fan.

And, for the grand finale ... being treated like they were “on a plantation.” That comment right there shows such convoluted thinking. My history books and the documentaries, etc., I’ve seen described life on a plantation much differently than having free (albeit not tasty) food, free air conditioning and free movies. I can’t imagine what my relatives must be saying about me and my family. They drove from Lake Charles, La., up here for a safe haven, and they ended up cooking two meals while they were here. And we just thought we were treating them well out on the Nelson Plantation.

Granted, when the group temper tantrum subsided, others pulled the reporter aside to express their thanks and to say things were going as smoothly as could be expected. It’s unfortunate that the actions and/or words of a few can dampen an otherwise successful venture. I’d like to again personally thank all who worked and volunteered to help those less-fortunate. And, I’d like to thank those who were appreciative to them.

We’ve received several letters, phone calls and visits from those who feel we should not have published the story or could have put the nice part of the story at the top and buried the negative comments at the bottom. Don’t blame the reporter for that. I made the call that the “story” in this case was the audacity of some people who had such vehement complaints about those who were volunteering to help them.

And for those who may be reading this who my find themselves in need of shelter. Come on back to Jacksonville. The people here will welcome you with open arms. It’s just the kind of people they are.



Richard Nelson is editor of the Jacksonville Daily Progress. He may be reached by email to editor@jacksonvilleprogress.com

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