• Poetry


Motel Evacuees

I’ve written a little about the motels I’ve been staying while waiting for my deployment, but I didn’t write up some observations that now seem rather relevant to what’s going on here in Baton Rouge related to the evacuees. The reason I haven’t, I’ll chalk up to inexperience transcribing my observations… I’m not yet well practiced at both writing and determining the relevance of what I’m seeing moment to moment. But I think that as I become more comfortable simply writing, I’ll be able to put more thought into documenting my observations within the context of current events.

I am in Baton Rouge, an hours distance from New Orleans. This city and its suburbs are where tens of thousands of New Orleanian residents came to live after fleeing their flooded homes. Many were housed in local motels and hotels, their accomodations paid for by FEMA. At Motel 6 I noticed the following:

When I first came to register at the front desk, I found the door locked from the inside. The manager, a young woman, explained it was for her security. When I asked her to elaborate she simply repeated herself. She locked the door after I entered the motel lobby. I asked her if many hurricane evacuees were staying there. She said, “A few.” I think there were many more than a few. She was obviously not comfortable with the situation both personally and professionally. I found the motel to be noisy if not lively. During the days especially, I often heard residents hollering to roomates or other guests across the open courtyard and pool, sometimes playing music from their rooms, every minute or so another cellphone ring or walkie-talkie bleep would broadcast to every resident of the motel courtyard that one peson or another had received a call or had been texted. I noticed no one ever used the outdoor pool even though it was warm. Other residents left their doors open to let the music they were playing drift outside. Many residents had notes taped to their windows saying “no room service” or “do not disturb.” When the friendly and patient room service woman came to my door she would politely ask me to initial that I had requested no full room service, just the emptying of trash and a change of towels. At night I noticed the presence of a police car in the parking lot. I saw the scampering of stray cats and kittens in the bushes next to the pool and through the fences separating one sprawling roadside parking lot from its neighboring asphalt expanse.

A note in the motel lobby advertises complimentary coffee before 9am. I also noticed a single letter posted next to the coffee machine, a comunique from FEMA to evacuees explaining that rooms would no longer be paid for after February 7, 2006. On the local news, I could not find any stories of what was like to live as an evacuee in a motel room, however, other stories featuring a crime angle helped to frame these motels as sources of criminal activity and danger. A motel across the street from me, Microtel, was often featured because they had turned off phone service to motel rooms after 10pm, ostensibly as a means of curbing apparent prostitution. The allegation of prostitution was not investigated by the local news. A poor old black woman was interviewed as relying on the phone service after 10pm in order to communicate with a close relative on the west coast suffering from breast cancer. Another motel, where a white woman and her mother was featured prominently as they complained about the lack of safety and their willingness to kill anyone who knocked at their door. They made this point as the news cameraperson videoed them brandishing and cocking a very large gun. Black and hispanic room service employees sustaining the motel accomodations for these evacuee resident were not interviewed.

At the La Quinta Inn, I found less evacuees. The Inn is about twice as expensive as Motel 6. I am treated cordially and with respect by the concierge. The lobby of the Inn is not locked and people actually sit down and talk to one another. A TV set featuring Fox News plays constantly. The friendly and polite room service does not ask me to initial any papers. A stack of FEMA notices are available on the lobby counter. Last Friday (1/27/2006), while waiting once again for deployment, I met a group of FEMA employees in the lobby. Their task was to inform evacuee residents of the February 7 deadline and the opportunities for assistance if they should need any after that date. The FEMA employees are young and black. one woman and two men. the men speak to me and are very curious about the details of the Long Term Recovery Project I’ll be working on. (That makes three of us!) We chat for a while and they invite me later to join them after work some day for beer and billiards. An evacuee approaces them in the lobby about making a FEMA claim and even though that is not their mission at the Inn, they sit down with the man and help him.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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