Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Families are first residents in new jail - 16 Jan. 2007

This is why I love being a journalist. The story about the ice storm was OK, but it needed more. I had heard about a temporary shelter being set up in a brand new jail - just one day before all the county prisoners were to be transfered there - and wanted to see if there were any NSU students taking refuge. And between arguing with the Red Cross and jail workers over whether I could interview the refugees, and despite a little objection from the subjects involved, I finally got to sit down with them.

The interviewees were non-traditional students, both in their 40s and toting kids and grandkids, were a little afraid of being interviewed. These were poor folks, trying to make their lives better by going to college, and both had a past that they were somewhat embarrased about. The reason this made me love my job: ingenuity worked, perserverance paid off and the story turned out great.


Families are first residents in new jail

Students Judy Vail and Roberta Gilliam and their families have felt the crush of last week’s ice storm more than most. Both fled to shelters Sunday after the lights and heat went dead, leaving their homes cold and dangerous.

A tree fell outside Gilliam’s house and pulled the electric cable from its mooring on the outside wall.

“The police told us we had to get out. We had no choice,” said Gilliam, Tahlequah junior.

The risk of fire was too much for her two daughters and grandson, so the family gathered up and moved into the Cherokee County Detention Center, a temporary shelter set up by the Red Cross and emergency management personnel.

“I don’t have to worry about this place catching fire and burning up,” said Gilliam.

Vail left a family shelter, Hope House, with her husband and soon after their home lost power.

“No power, no heat, no nothing. We froze,” said Vail, Tahlequah freshman.

She first tried a hotel, but the electricity failed there, too. Vail said staying in the Detention Center is a little awkward, and that moving from the family shelter was hard.

“We had to take what we could and leave. It was too cold,” she said.

The refugees, who numbered more than a dozen, slept in jail cells that will soon house county detainees. Gilliam said the conditions were comfortable, even thought the lights remained on throughout the night.

“We’ve had almost no sleep,” she said. “At least we’re warm and we get fed.”

Neither Vail nor Gilliam know when they can return home.

“[Hope House] is home to me. I really want to go back,” said Vail.

The Detention Center officially opens Thursday, so the shelter is being moved to the First Methodist Church. President Bush ordered federal emergency resources to the hardest hit areas of the state, but it is unclear whether any federal help will come to Tahlequah.

Until then, or until the lights come back on at home, Vail and Gilliam will weather what’s left of the storm. A local emergency management official said jailers volunteered to watch over the refugee families - the first residents of the 150-bed jail intended to alleviate the strain on the current, overcrowded 35-bed jail.

No comments: