Faces in Focus: Back from Baton Rouge

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Emily Sermak talks about her recent work in Baton Rouge, La., with the American Red Cross.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Emily Sermak talks about her recent work in Baton Rouge, La., with the American Red Cross.

If Emily Sermak, 70, had been in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, she knows exactly how she would've gotten her family to safety.

Sermak, a retired school bus driver, said she would've found the local school bus yard, commandeered a bus, and packed it full.

That didn't really happen in the Big Easy. Many school buses were flooded when water from Lake Pontchartrain overwhelmed an inadequate levy system.

Sermak, of Carson City, joined the relief effort as a Red Cross volunteer six weeks after the storm. She recently returned after 11 days in Baton Rouge, La.

Sermak was a housing coordinator for Red Cross volunteers working with the displaced. At its height, there were 12 shelters just for the staff. Every shelter held about 100 volunteers; Baton Rouge alone had 2,000 volunteers.

Although there are hurricane survivors still living in Red Cross shelters, a majority have been moved into temporary housing, such as trailers. Sermak said she saw trailers constantly being hauled through the city, 75 miles north of New Orleans.

Baton Rouge became the city shelter for the New Orleans survivors. By the time Sermak left on Oct. 29, the number of Red Cross volunteers working at her center had dropped from 300 to 100.

"I feel sorry for the people who had to spend a month or two months in a shelter, which is usually just an auditorium or a gym. It's tough. It's no place that you want to stay for a long time."

The survivors she met all seemed to share one sentiment: anger at New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

But, she said, there were points of hope among the devastation.

"I took one day off the whole time I was there, and that day, we went to Bourbon and Canal streets. It's still very much there. The big hotels and the commercial center survived because they are on high ground. The homes were on the low ground, in a valley, like Carson City."

Sermak, a veteran of relief efforts for hurricanes Charlie and Frances, said her experience in the Gulf Coast was different because the area was stricken with long-term problems, such as housing shortages and a complete loss of income and possessions.

The people needed both immediate and continued relief.

"When I was there, I felt like I was in the military because people were constantly thanking me for my help."

n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.


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