Disaster food stamp program draws thousands to Sorrento

Wade McIntyre
A National Guardsman stands at the entrance to a 500-person tent where applicants waited to apply for disaster relief food stamps at the Ascension Civic Center in Sorrento Tuesday. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people turned out, creating traffic problems on Airline Highway and requiring crowd control measures on the center grounds.

It was billed as an antidote for hurricane aftermath misery, but the long wait to apply for the Federal Disaster Food Stamps Program at the Ascension Civic Center in Sorrento Tuesday was misery itself.

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people, some who arrived and stood in line as early as 2 a.m. in the morning, swamped the Civic Center grounds, prompting crowd control measures by the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Office of Emergency Preparedness.

Also on the scene were National Guardsmen keeping a watchful eye when tempers flared under the hot sun. Guardsmen controlled progress in the tortuous line, and access to a giant tent for 500 persons where applicants could sit and wait to be admitted into the air conditioned Civic Center.

At one point, the line stretched from in front of the Civic Center entrance back to the School Board storage building, then curved around and returned close to its starting point.

Case workers from the Louisiana Department of Social Services administering the program were inundated by the crowds. A state social worker who asked not to be identified said only about a quarter of the 200 case workers asked to work the event showed up.

“It’s a classic case of good intentions gone awry,” Sheriff Jeff Wiley said Tuesday morning. His office began providing bottles of water after a contractor failed to deliver water, Wiley said. The sheriff also set up canopies so those in line could get out the sun. He had deputies directing traffic on Airline Highway at the entrance to the Civic Center, and began handing out meals ready to eat, or MREs, later in the day.

“There was no provision for food and the contractor did not deliver water,” Wiley said. “Ninety percent of the burden for this event is falling on Ascension Parish government.”

Genieve Coleman, 81, of Donaldsonville came with her daughter, Robin Campbell, at 6 a.m. and the two stood in line until after 11 a.m., when a woman from St. John Parish offered Coleman her folding chair to sit in.

“Most of my money is going for generator gas,” Campbell said. Her son is asthmatic and his medicine requires refrigeration, she said.

Samon Gray, a clothing store manager from Thibodaux, took the day off to come to the Ascension Parish site because the application site in Lafourche Parish was not open.

“I have a tree on my house and no lights, “ she said. “We were told the Ascension Parish site would take people from other parishes.”

Gray said she was at the Civic Center at 5 a.m., but parked at one of the Airline Highway gates by mistake and ended up farther back in the line as a result. She expressed anger that the National Guard had blocked the standing line off just in front of her with two Humvees, and those on the back side were told they would not be served that day.

“People can’t just take another day off an come back,” she said.

Others in the cut off part of the line agreed with her, and refused to leave.

“We don’t have money for gas to come back tomorrow,” said Sheldon Sanchez of Chacbay in Lafourche Parish.

Janayya Alexis said the Guard was rude to the people in line where she was cut off.

“We are all in need,” Alexis said. “I had to throw all my food out. People have jobs and can’t come back.”

Sami Naquin from St. James Parish said she saw a sign on the Office of Family Support which said come to the Civic Center in Ascension Parish. She too, refused to leave when the Guard blocked off the line.

Inside the Civic Center, Lance Templet from Donaldsonville and his wife were called in to see a case worker at 1:15 p.m., after standing in line from 5 a.m. Ten minutes later the pair stood dejectedly against the iron corral railing outside the center, staring at a white sheet of paper. They had been rejected, having missed the income cutoff point by only $200.

“It’s all right,” Templet said. “We had to come here anyway to bring my mom.”

A social worker at the site said the sign-up would continue for seven days, and everyone who wants to apply will be given the opportunity. He said people should consider signing up in the early morning or late evening when crowds are smaller.

The emergency food stamps program benefit card can be used only for food. Regular food stamp users don’t have to apply because their benefits are automatically raised to the maximum amount for September.

About 380,000 households in 31 parishes affected by Hurricane Gustav are possibly eligible for the temporary aid.

Ascension Parish Parole Officer Shea Cochran, left, and an unidentified National Guardsman, right, assist Angela Washington Lee of Ascension Parish after she fainted in the applicant line for disaster relief food stamps at the Ascension Civic Center Tuesday morning.