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UC Berkeley Web Feature

As bureaucratic chaos deepens, too many fall through the cracks

– I have a regular schedule now: Up at 4:45 to catch the light rail at 5:15 from my downtown hotel out to the Astrodome. Sign in at 6 at the Red Cross office just inside the Dome. Help with food service for the elderly until 8:30 a.m. or 9. Join whatever effort is most crucial until noon, then go back to food service again, and on and on.

Today, Monday, I couldn't wait to go to the housing office to observe and help out with the "housing choice" program. I got there early; the big room that had been converted to a church the day before had been returned to its warehouse state for the housing program. Some people had been waiting outside since 5 a.m., having heard a new program would be announced. Hundreds of others came steadily thereafter. I was quickly drafted into service by the Dome agency that was running this effort and asked to wear their T-shirt instead of my Red Cross vest. Turf issues are apparent everywhere here and often result in a reduction of services. One moment it's okay for Red Crossers to push wheelchairs out of the Dome; the next we hear that we are not allowed to take part in any "transportation" efforts, which are assigned to another organization.

The goal of the housing effort was to move folks out of the Dome and into semi-permanent housing. Staffers wearing bright red "disaster relief" T-shirts were directed to sort people into different areas of the room, depending on whether they had been on Section 8 or other assistance for housing while in New Orleans; whether they had not been on public assistance and would now need a housing voucher; whether they were interested in moving out of state; and whether they needed to complete an application for Red Cross or FEMA funds. There was much confusion about which section to go to; some people didn't know what they wanted to do, or they had multiple issues that needed to be resolved first. A chaotic and stressful process was worsened by the fact that people were made to wait outside in the hot sun during part of the process. I carried them bottles of water as often as I could, but it was easy to see that stress levels had reached the breaking point. At one point I saw the couple I had telephoned the day before to alert them to come. We shook hands, and as I noticed how eager they looked, I began to worry that they would be disappointed again.

Early on a National Guard member, a young woman, came up to me to ask me to assist a man who clearly was lost in the process. I saw this young woman intervene for others on other days, by the way; she helped several people who would have fallen through the cracks otherwise. Since he didn't fit in any of the categories, and his despair was so apparent, I decided to see if I could advocate for the man, who was Vietnamese and told me his name is Van. I told him I'd recently been to Ho Chi Minh City, and this seemed not only to surprise but to reassure him. He said he lived about 60 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh, near the Mekong River. I took Van back to the Dome, and along the way I heard his story. It took maybe thirty minutes to walk across the big parking lot toward the Dome because we were constantly stopped by people who asked a range of questions: "Where is the housing office? Can I get help even though I'm not registered at the Dome? My debit card won't work and I have no money! What do I do? I have no place to live! Can you help me?"

As we moved toward the Dome, we picked up several others who fit in the same category as Van: they had not been Dome residents, but still needed services – help with housing, registering with FEMA and with the Red Cross. I felt a little like a Pied Piper. I also naively assumed that because these folks were in great need, we'd find a way to serve them. However, the Red Cross shelter manager at the Dome soon set me straight, not without some compassion. He told me I had to turn these people away. He said he'd make an exception if a child were involved, but otherwise we had to turn them away, send them to other shelters, since the Dome would be closing down. This just about killed me to do; it was the first time I had to deliver such news. The shelter manager did give me a special phone number for the local Houston Red Cross, a number that has proved invaluable.

I explained the situation to the small group who had followed me to the Dome and stood waiting outside in the hot, hot sun. (Only people who have special colored wrist bands can enter the Dome at will, and only at special entrances.) Most took the news well, considering, and said they were grateful to have gotten some straight information. But poor Van was devastated. He had been in New Orleans for about 10 years, where he had worked as a truck driver. His English wasn't the greatest, and he was down on his luck big time, but not just because of the hurricane. He told me his oldest daughter (of five children) had gotten out of control and had been running around with boys and had gotten pregnant. He let me know that this wasn't the way children were allowed to behave in Vietnam! He had hit her and was put in jail for 18 months. When he got out, he had no job, his wife was gone, and she also had left him with 3 of the children to raise alone. Two months later the hurricane hit, and he ended up with nothing, in Houston, living with a cousin. He let me know he didn't want to impose on this cousin. Van is 45 years old, and he kept saying, "I have nothing, nothing. I am lost."

I have begun to understand the range of responses to the hurricane tragedy. So much depends on a person's particular socio-economic situation and especially his or her emotional stability. I have observed people who are able to begin to plan a new life. It's as if they can roll with the punches, bounce back after a steep fall, because their life situation is such that not all of their emotional and material reserves have been spent. James, the man whose feet became infected in the toxic flood water, creates a firmer, more detailed plan for a new life day by day; I can almost trace the progress of his re-imagined life trajectory each time we speak. In conversation with me, I hear him trying out possibilities. "Maybe I will rest for a month at a nursing home and then find a job and settle in Houston; maybe I won't return to New Orleans at all." "Maybe I'll spend some time with my sister in Baton Rouge and then decide what I want to do."

Then there are people whose psyches are too fragile to withstand one more tragedy, especially one of this magnitude. On my first day at the Dome, I met a woman in the psychiatric ward with perhaps the saddest face I have ever seen – deep furrowed, downcast. I would not have approached her on my own, out of respect for her sorrow. But she approached me and asked if she could walk with me back to the Dome, and thus I gradually learned why she was so sad (and was reminded anew how decreased are the life chances of African American men). She had lost a son that year; he'd been murdered. During the last ten years she had lost two other sons (she named the day, month, and year of each death), one to murder, the other to disease. None of the killings had been solved. When her last son was killed, her fourth son was released from prison to attend. When she saw him at the funeral, she said her heart just about broke in two. And then came the hurricane! She kept repeating to me, as the tears poured, "I'm lost! I feel so alone!" She just didn't think she could find the strength to go on.

Van struck me this way, too, although I could sense he still had a quiet strength about him and possibly just needed a little help. I called that special Red Cross number, and lo and behold, actually spoke to a person who gave me all kinds of information for Van (information that I would later pass on to dozens of others): shelters, an 800 number for applying for Red Cross aid, and a lot more. It was the veritable gold mine. I went over all of the information carefully with Van and wrote everything down for him. I could see him visibly straighten up and have a bit of hope; it was one of those wonderful moments. He told me I was the only person who had helped him since the hurricane, and he grabbed my hands and looked into my eyes, and I have never experienced a deeper thank-you. It humbled me, and I wished I could do more. I told him I knew he'd see a brighter day, that I believed he would be okay, and I believe he believed he would too, at least at that moment. People do have deep reservoirs of strength.

When I returned to the housing office, the chaos had spread, and people had begun to get more and more angry and to be vocal about their disgust with this unorganized system. I tried to answer questions as best as I could, and I also began for the first time to be on the receiving end of the frustration and the venting. It was a strange moment for me, being perceived to be a part of the system instead of an advocate for the people! At one point when I was handing out iced bottles of water, a woman became angry because she thought I had set her bottle on the floor, instead of delivering it to her hand. I had actually given the bottle to the woman next to her to hold, and that woman had set it on the floor. But no matter, the offended person protested loudly that I didn't know how to serve the public! I was only vaguely aware of what was happening because I was attending to so many things at once, but I recall that a young man defended me, saying to the offending woman not to fuss, that I was doing a good job, doing my best.

Then one of the great ironies of the disorganized housing process happened. I realized that our line was not moving, despite the fact that we were approaching mid-day. When I investigated as to why, I realized that the staff members who were attempting to register people for aid were calling a number that was not working. I knew the number would not work until 2 p.m. (by virtue of my telephone sleuthing earlier in the day), but the workers had not been told, even though they were paid staff members. They had just been sitting there, dialing and dialing and getting a busy signal. As I tried to explain to the people in charge what was happening, one of the managers advised me to "stick to crowd control" and leave the technical matters to the professional staff! I was eventually able to pass along the information, and then was given the pleasure of announcing to my group that they needed to leave and come back at 2 p.m.; some, you will recall, had been waiting since 5 a.m.! I'm glad they had no rotten tomatoes at the ready.

The 800 number fiasco is typical of the kind of bureaucratic confusion that is rampant here. It frustrates the clients, and it hampers the frontline volunteer and paid staff workers, preventing all from being either efficient or effective. I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed poor organization of services and an extreme lack of coordination; the left hand truly has no idea what the right is doing.

The remainder of my Monday was spent doing information triage. I must have spoken to dozens of people who approached me at every place and every moment, people who needed simple accurate information. This was the day that I also began to realize how many people have fallen completely through the safety net and have not yet gotten access to any help from Red Cross or FEMA. I am worried about the many people who are turning up at the Dome, like Van, but are being turned away. This was the first day that I felt despair: despair at the lack of organization of the service providers; at their equal lack of coordination; at a seeming inability to circulate critical information; at the sheer numbers of people who are desperate and unserved, who have been through the trauma of the hurricane, only to go through the trauma of hurricane "relief."