BATON ROUGE, La. – Former President Bill Clinton (search) visited hurricane refugees in a shelter here Tuesday, listening to their accounts of evacuations, inept bureaucrats and life without privacy or clean clothes.
With former President George H.W. Bush (search), Clinton is leading a fund-raising effort that has collected over $100 million to assist the storm's victims. Clinton told evacuees his visit to the shelter in the Rivercenter was aimed at figuring out where the money should go.
"My concern is to listen to you ... and learn the best way to spend this money we've got," said Clinton, who was to visit the city itself later in the day.
Clinton got an earful, listening as evacuees complained about the shelter's 10 p.m. curfew, lack of medicine, televisions, clean towels or clothing. One man said people in the shelter had been wearing the same clothes for over a month, creating a stench. The man told the former president that some new underwear and undershirts would help.
"That's a practical thing — and I appreciate it," Clinton responded.
The Rivercenter now holds about 1,000 evacuees, mainly from New Orleans, down from about 6,700 in the weeks immediately after Hurricane Katrina (search) hit southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29, according to the Red Cross. People sleep on cots spread out over concrete floors in two vast halls, normally used for conventions, concerts and sporting events. About 50 children of the evacuees attend a makeshift elementary school in the facility.
The former president said he approved of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's idea to create a federally funded "Family Recovery Corps", manned by workers trained to help hurricane evacuees learn about and obtain various government services and benefits that are available — similar to aid the government provides for refugees who are settled in this country after fleeing political persecution overseas.
Blanco has said she envisions the corps as funded with $2 billion from the federal government and staffed with social workers and others who have been trained in which government agencies and nonprofits offer which sorts of assistance. She said each family displaced by the storm would be assigned one corps official to guide them through the various bureaucracies.
Clinton said Blanco's idea is "the best one I've heard."
"I think it makes a lot of sense," he said.
Blanco has provided few details about the plan and has not heard back from President Bush (search) since first contacting the White House about it more than a week ago.
Robert Warner, 51, told Clinton the Rivercenter is his third shelter since evacuating his New Orleans home a month ago. He and others, he said, have hit repeated obstacles in their efforts to get into temporary, private housing they have been promised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We've been mired in the bureaucratic red tape since Day One," he said.