What was envisioned as a mission of mercy to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina ended in anger and disillusionment for two Lawrence residents.
Instead of handing out food and water to victims in New Orleans, they found themselves under the supervision of no-nonsense, "kind of scary" foremen who had them cleaning up a hurricane-ravaged casino in Biloxi, Miss.
"I felt really bad about working on a casino for rich people when there are people suffering," Kalila Dalton said.
"I felt like we got scammed pretty good," Chris Tucker said.
When Dalton and Tucker of Lawrence and others from the Kansas City area said they wanted to leave Biloxi, they were told there was no transportation for them and if they tried to walk away they risked being shot by National Guardsmen enforcing martial law.
"It was like a job we couldn't leave," Dalton said.
Representatives for the companies that organized the venture said Tuesday that the matter was all a misunderstanding caused by the chaos and confusion of trying to deal with such a massive disaster.
"We're certainly sorry that the people had a problem; we're certainly doing the best we can," said Teri Hill, spokeswoman in Fort Worth, Texas, for BMS Catastrophe Inc., also known as BMS CAT. The company was in charge of refurbishing Biloxi's Beau Rivage Casino.
"Everybody made mistakes. It was a bad situation," said Mike Mansingh, representative of One Source Staff and Labor, the Overland Park firm that recruited the workers.
Marching to work
It all began when Dalton, 20, and Tucker, 23, joined with a couple of other friends from St. Charles, Mo., and responded to fliers and postings offering $7.50 per hour for 500 people willing to help with disaster relief cleanup in New Orleans. The postings stated that workers should expect to stay a minimum of six weeks and be willing to work 40-plus hours. Travel would be by bus, and hotels, meals and equipment would be supplied.
On Friday, Sept. 2, Dalton and Tucker found themselves on one of three nonair-conditioned school buses headed south with what they estimated to be about 130 people. There also had been a change of plans. Instead of New Orleans, the buses were going to Biloxi.
"We thought, 'OK, they were hit pretty hard, too,'" Dalton said.
Nearly 30 hours later, about 5 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, the buses pulled into Biloxi and let the workers out in a parking lot. They were told they could take a two-hour nap on the pavement before they would be going to work.
Related content about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath
- 6News video: KU group makes toys for Katrina victims (02-12-06)
- 6News video: Group organizing trip to aid New Orleans hurricane victims (02-12-06)
- 6News Lawrence's complete Hurricane Katrina coverage »»
- Delayed response to disaster irks Lawrence native (03-06-06)
- Katrina underscores public's frustration with government (03-06-06)
- Video: Bush was warned before Katrina (03-02-06)
- Evacuees check out, protest as FEMA hotel deadline passes (03-02-06)
- Complete coverage of Hurricane Katrina »»
- Photo Gallery: Hurricane Helpers
- Photo Gallery: Hurricane Katrina
- On the Street: Do you think FEMA could handle an emergency if it happened here? (09-13-05)
- On the Street: What is your opinion of the president's response to the Hurricane Katrina emergency? (09-08-05)
- On the Street: What should people do locally to help hurricane victims? (09-02-05)
About 7 a.m., the group was addressed by one of the drill sergeant-like foremen, who said they were to march in a file to the work site, which turned out to be the $800-million Beau Rivage casino, owned by MGM Mirage, where they began clearing debris. During the lunch break, the workers were given bologna sandwiches and a few Oreo cookies, Dalton and Tucker said.
Workers also were told their work days would be up to 16 hours long and then they would be bused to a hotel two hours away, allowed to sleep four hours, and then sent back to work.
Tucker and Dalton decided it was time to leave.
"This is ridiculous," Dalton remembered saying. "We're here to help people. This isn't what we came here to do."
Tucker recalled talking to Mansingh, who had traveled with the workers, about getting a bus ticket home. Tucker said he was told there were no buses to take them out and that he was stuck there for at least six weeks.
"I just thought, 'I've got to get out of here, even if it is hitchhiking or finding a bicycle," Tucker said.
Mansingh, however, eventually capitulated and obtained a school bus to take about 20 people back home. They left late that Sunday and arrived in Lawrence on Monday, Sept. 5.
Dalton and Tucker said they felt sorry for the people who remained behind. Most appeared to be people with low-income or no jobs and some were Hispanic who couldn't speak English, they said.
"I'm 20, I have family, I have resources," Dalton said. "I can lose this job and it's OK. I can leave, but not all of those people could."
Mansingh said he and the other workers left for home a few days later. He said the conditions the workers were having to put up with were not good and not what he expected.
"Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," Mansingh said. "I felt terrible."
BMS spokeswoman Hill said the company doesn't handle victim assistance and only takes on building restorations in the aftermath of catastrophes. She said communication with employees in the Gulf region was difficult and "everybody is overwhelmed" by the devastation.
Hill said she wasn't aware of the specific situations at the Biloxi casino.
"We do take care of our people," Hill said. "They are looked after as well as we can. I'm not sure where the problem is. It's a mess down there."
Mansingh said the Biloxi project came together too fast and led to miscommunication and other problems.
"The people in Lawrence, it's sad," Mansingh said. "They hate us; they hate BMS, but we did the best we could do."
Neither Dalton or Tucker were paid for the work they did in Biloxi. Neither have paying jobs in Lawrence though Dalton does volunteer work. They said they would like to be paid for the work they did, though money wasn't the reason they signed up.
"We weren't thinking of it as a job," Dalton said. "We just wanted to go down and help and the fact that we were going to get paid was like this weird bonus."
Hill said Dalton and Tucker would have to talk to the project manager at the casino, Brent Lee, about the pay.
"If they worked any hours, I'm sure they would (get paid)," Hill said.
Lee couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.