Gustav Evacuees

Chris Adkins, 7, and Angel Gonzalez 11, enjoy a meal together provided by the Caddo and Red Cross Volunteers in the lobby of the gymnasium at Calhoun Community College.

At 9:30 a.m. on Labor Day, 250 people traveling on five busses arrived at the door of Calhoun Community College’s gym, which had been repurposed as a shelter for evacuees from Hurricane Gustav.

“It was a bit of a mess,” said Jerry Reed, a Morgan County Red Cross volunteer who is acting as shelter manager. “It took us two hours to get them registered and assigned a cot but I thought that was pretty good.”

By 5:30 p.m., the number of people fleeing Hurricane Gustav had risen to 302, with the latest arrivals a family of six, Reed said.

“We’re crowded,” he said. “Everyone has a cot assigned and we’re feeding them.”

Reed said the shelter could handle a few more individuals who might trickle in but any busloads would be forwarded to Athens State University, where Limestone County Red Cross volunteers had cots ready and food waiting.

By 5:30 p.m., local Red Cross Director Kathy Harland said no evacuees had been sent to Athens State yet and she was awaiting word from the state Red Cross to determine if any would be coming or if the food should be sent to shelters in Muscle Shoals. Volunteers from a local Baptist group helped prepare food and were waiting to serve, she said.

Although Calhoun Community College also is located in Limestone County — and within Decatur’s city limits —Harland said the local Red Cross was assigned Athens State because it is too small to handle two shelters.

Evacuees, stressed and tired from travel, still took time to comment on the kindnesses of strangers.

Christophe Szapary, whose wife Heather gave birth to their daughter at Athens-Limestone Hospital within an hour of arriving here, said everyone in Athens had been gracious and welcoming.

Another traveler, identified by his e-mail address as Robbie Robicheaux, sent an e-mail to The News Courier Monday and stated: “After driving 20 hours from Houma, La., through massive traffic we finally arrived in the city of Athens, Ala., with three kids and a dog. This morning we were greeted with a sign that said ‘Free watermelons for Gustav evacuees.’ Next to your Hardee’s on U.S. 72 was a pick-up truck full of watermelons.”

Robicheaux wrote that the man giving away melons told him that “a man came by and paid me for all of my watermelons with instructions to go over on U.S. 72 near the motels and give them away free to people from the coast.”

There was a sign that said: “God loves you and so do we, Elkton Road Baptist Church.”

Robicheaux wrote: “Athens, Ala., must be a very special place.”

Gov. Bob Riley’s office sent out a press statement at about 6 p.m. stating that more than 12,000 people had arrived in the state fleeing from Gustav.

They were being housed in 64 shelters statewide, including Calhoun and Athens State.

By contrast, only 3,300 evacuees were in shelters in Alabama two days after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Flooding forced road closings Monday in low-lying areas of coastal Alabama but the state’s beach resorts, bayous and port city dodged serious damage as Hurricane Gustav tracked west through Louisiana. While some roads were closed in Baldwin and Mobile counties, Gustav did not slam southwest Alabama the way Katrina did three years ago.

“It’s not anywhere near Katrina,” said Greg Weiskopf of Mobile as he videotaped the choppy surf on Mobile Bay’s western shore.

Katrina left the fishing village of Bayou La Batre in wreckage and sent floodwaters past car windows in downtown Mobile.

There were no signs of flooding Monday morning downtown in the port city, but the causeway along upper Mobile Bay was closed.

At Bayou La Batre, the main highway through town was passable, but side streets and a waterfront road were under water.

Bayou La Batre Fire Chief John Wiggins said there had been no emergency calls, but floodwaters rose as the storm surge struck Monday afternoon.

Riley also announced that President Bush has approved his request for disaster assistance in response to Hurricane Gustav.

That clears the way for federal recovery aid when the storm passes.

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