Red Cross opens local storm shelter

Ray and Rika Lauzon dreamed about getting away for their 38th wedding anniversary, but this wasn’t what they had in mind.

The New Orleans couple spent their big day Monday with other Hurricane Gustav evacuees at a Red Cross storm shelter in Columbiana.

It’s a tradition that is becoming all-too-common for the Lauzons.

Just three years ago, they marked 36 years of marriage in Houston, dodging Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve got to find a better way to celebrate — for real,” said Ray Lauzon.

All joking aside, the couple said they weren’t about to try to weather a storm as serious as Gustav.

“We knew we were going to evacuate. You got to play it safe,” said Ray Lauzon. “You never know what might happen.”

That sentiment, and vivid memories of Katrina, drove the Lauzons and thousands of other people to higher ground.

As of Monday night, more than 130 evacuees had found their way to the Shelby County Exhibition Center.

It’s a site most locals associate with rodeos, horse shows and the annual fair.

Few people know the building is equipped with showers, washers and dryers and air conditioning — amenities that make it a perfect spot for a shelter.

“We want to make them as comfortable and give them as much room as possible,” said Don Greene, supervisor for Shelby County’s emergency management agency.

About 150 cots are set up, but there is enough room to double that amount if needed, Greene said.

The Red Cross notified county officials Friday that they wanted a storm shelter in Columbiana.

Doors opened Saturday night, with most folks arriving Sunday and Monday morning.

“Things seem to be going smoothly,” said Mary Kinard, shelter manger for the Red Cross. “Everybody seems to be happy, given the circumstances.”

Kinard said she was amazed at the community’s teamwork and eargerness to help.

Salvation Army volunteers help with meals, using the kitchen at Columbiana First Baptist Church. Evacuees had pizza Sunday night and breakfast from McDonalds on Monday.

Outside, volunteers are also working extra hard to house people’s pets.

Red Cross policy allows only service animals inside shelters, but county workers and animal lovers devised a solution to keep Fido close by too.

A tent has been sent up next to the center, where more than 30 animals are being housed. Owners are still responsible for feeding, watering and walking their pets.

“I just love animals. I was told people would be bringing their pets and need help,” said Joy Harvery, who was volunteering with her husband, Hub. “We’ll be here as long as people need help.”

The Shelby County Humane Society has donated pet food, but Harvery said volunteers could use newspaper, water and bowls.

The Red Cross also needs workers and monetary donations, Kinard said.

Anyone interested in helping should call the shelter at 669-7965 to volunteer for a time slot. The Red Cross likes people to call ahead to help better organize volunteers.

The exhibition center opened as a shelter during Hurricane Katrina, but only a handful of families used the facility.

Greene said the government did a better job getting the word out this time around.

“This thing is well-organized,” said Greene. “A lot of lessons were learned from Katrina.”

Signs along interstates gave evacuees information and directions to shelters throughout central Alabama.

While the center will probably be open through this week, the Lauzons and other families hope to head home soon.

“We’ll try to go back as soon as it’s clear,” said Ray Lauzon, who said hurricanes are just a way of life along the coast. “It’s something you just have to live with.”