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Astrodome exit
The ramp out of the Astrodome in Houston, after its thousands of hurricane evacuees had been relocated. (Photo by Glynda Hull)

Move-out day at the Astrodome brings stress and sadness, but also reunions and hope

– There had begun to be a lot of ill feeling in the Astrodome towards the end of my stay. Several people told me nervously that they wanted to get out before something bad happened. And the push was indeed on for folks to locate housing and to leave the shelter. Even before I left to come home, preparations were well underway to close the Dome complex. One of my last jobs was to help evacuees pack and label their luggage, boxes, and bags of belongings and to move them from the Dome to an adjacent building, where they were to be consolidated with another group of evacuees being moved from a third building. These moves would free up the Astrodome and the Reliant Center, two "revenue buildings" as they were called. We were supposed to tell people that the move was motivated by a desire to put everyone in the same building with all the services, such as FEMA, medical care, and so on.

This was not work that I enjoyed. The volunteers had to walk around the Dome floor, explain the process (pack up the things you need for every day and that will fit under your cot, label the rest for storage); urge them to pack and help as necessary; load their belongings onto dollies; and direct them into long waiting lines. At the end of the lines the evacuees were given new multi-colored wrists bands indicating that they were legitimate residents at the new shelter, or they were checked out of the Dome for good. Their belongings were either loaded onto trucks or wheeled over in grocery buggies, and they either walked or rode in a bus to the new building. The volunteers went about their work wearing disposable latex gloves on their hands, which was a way to keep from spreading germs from group to group, but certainly felt odd.

It was slow and depressing work. Some folks just did not want to move or were too depressed to make the effort; they lay on their cots with their eyes closed and appeared to ignore the process. I labelled the boxes for one woman who seemed in a comatose state. She was lucky to have two friends who cheerfully packed up her belongings (she must have had 20 boxes.... I don't know how she accumulated this amount in the shelter). She lay perfectly still on her cot, never opening her eyes or showing any indication that she heard their comments to her or noticed the commotion around her. I don't know if she was medicated or ill or had just had enough of reality for a while. One of her friends, who kept up a continual stream of banter with her, said they had to "mess with her" just to know she was still living. What good friends she had! Another woman, one of the few white evacuees in the Dome, explained to me at great length that she needed to take all of her suitcases with her rather than place them in storage in order to have enough clean clothes. She said it was impossible to wash clothes at the one washing machine that had recently been installed in an adjacent building because the wait was too long. To have clean clothes, she needed to have many changes on hand.

During this relocation process I stopped and chatted with everyone possible, inquiring about their housing plans, their health, their families, in a small attempt to make it all more bearable. I heard versions of the now familiar stories of terror and separation from loved ones and once again realized how difficult it was for some people to take steps toward charting a future. One woman, Janice, explained that her young daughter is now staying in Lake Charles, LA, with the child's father's elderly aunts. Janice desperately wanted to be reunited with her daughter, but was torn about what to do next in order to set this process in motion. Particularly, she was stuck on whether she should first find her way to the DMV in Houston to get an identification card or whether she should wait until she got to Lake Charles to attempt this. Since there was a bus that went daily from the Astrodome to the DMV for this purpose, I suggested that she go ahead and get her ID and then go post haste to Lake Charles. A definite suggestion seemed to be something of a comfort to her, and she nodded and said she believed she could do this. It is heartbreaking, isn't it, how people who have been traumatized have such difficulty making these simple but necessary decisions.

Janice was concerned as well that the elderly aunts would conspire to keep her child from her, since she had no place to stay and no means of support; in addition, she suspected they wanted to have a child around the house, being spinsters. A former cook at a hotel in New Orleans, she wondered whether she could find employment in Lake Charles. And finally she was distressed about her personal appearance, having lost her "partial," her set of false teeth, in the flood waters. "That's $1,000 gone," she noted, looking at me directly, as I looked at her crumpled lips. There are so many indignities associated with this tragedy, large and small. And as I write this, I know that Hurricane Rita swept through Lake Charles and that much of the city is now flooded, and I wonder whether Janice was able to get there before Rita. Did the elderly aunts evacuate to another city, seriously complicating her task of finding and reuniting with her daughter?

On relocation day, I also came across a family of six, each of whom had a one-way Continental Airlines ticket to Atlanta, where they had decided to relocate. I asked them whether they had a place to stay once they arrived in Atlanta and was startled to hear that they did not. It was my understanding that housing had to have been arranged for everyone before the one-way tickets were issued, but this must not have been the case. I advised them to get in touch with the local Red Cross when they arrived, and once they reached the front of the line, I made sure that the Red Cross volunteer who checked them out gave them whatever information she had about Atlanta, including the Red Cross phone number there. During this protracted process they kept asking me about a $200 housing voucher they had heard would be available from Red Cross when they left the Dome. I knew nothing about it, but inquired just in case, and was told that Red Cross was providing no such voucher. This family had been planning to use that money for a hotel for the first couple of nights.

Later I learned that they were indeed correct about receiving $200; they were just mistaken about the donor. I had noticed a group of Asian people standing around a table near the Dome exit. They all wore navy shirts and seemed immersed in paperwork. I walked over to ask them what organization they represented, and I was greeted by the most genial young man, an immigrant from Taiwan, who explained with the most beatific smile that the group was with Tzu Chi (which translates "serving with compassion"), an international non-profit that raises money all over the world for emergency aid and other services. He told me the organization is based on Buddhist principles of giving, joy, kindness, and compassion and that it serves all, regardless or race, origin, or religion. He gave me a pamphlet to take away, and I watched in admiration as these volunteers respectfully greeted those evacuees who were leaving the Astrodome for good, presenting each family with a gift of $200.00. This experience also reminded me that the rumor mill is sometimes accurate! The family did have good information about the $200 "rebate."

Probably the saddest sight I saw on moving day I saw from a distance: an elderly man sitting still on his cot in the middle of the almost empty Dome, his head bent, his shoulders slumped, his face positioned downward. He was surrounded by Red Crossers, but he seemed not to notice. The day before, I was told, he had gotten his check from FEMA, $2,000, and he had cashed it. Today all of his money had been stolen, taken from his belongings in the Dome. The volunteers said he just could not be comforted and was plunged into the deepest despair. This man was especially vulnerable, of course, because he was alone and because he was elderly, and perhaps because he wasn't accustomed to having to look after that amount of cash and certainly not in this kind of situation. I ached for him, as did everybody, but no one really knew what to do.

We heard many times from Dome residents, as I have already mentioned, that they were afraid that others would steal their things. One woman who was severely depressed refused to take her sleeping pills because she wanted to be vigilant at night, fearing thieves would rifle through her belongings as she slept. I think it was initially hard for many volunteers to accept that some Dome residents preyed on others, but gradually, as the thefts were reported, and used needles were found, and other kinds of behaviors such as prostitution were revealed, attitudes shifted. Toward the end it was as if the evacuees, all of whom were already poor and destitute, were given a further label of deserving or undeserving. The hard fact is that we cannot expect poverty and racism to have an ennobling effect, though many people do escape through strength of will, helping hands, a spell of luck, religious faith, or even a decent education. I believe that one of the great dilemmas of Katrina, if people choose to recognize it, is how to assist those folks who are truly at the margins, even among those from their own community.

Yes, most of the people I interacted with on moving day were depressed, stressed, angry, or all of the above. However, I did run into a trio of old men who seemed to be tolerating the situation in the Dome and all that had befallen them in almost fine fashion. I spent a good bit of time with them, neglecting my duties and sitting at the end of one man's cot, listening to them talk and tell stories, mostly for the relief they provided me. They all had known each other in New Orleans and had banded together at the Dome, which was a wise choice. They were the three musketeers, competing with each other to see who could tell the funniest, most entertaining story about their past exploits. The leader of the three, and hands-down one of the best storytellers I've ever encountered, was a tall handsome man in his mid-seventies whose given name, he said, was Ben Larry. He explained that his daddy had wanted to name him Ben, and a white woman had wanted to name him Larry, so the result was the unusual name of Ben Larry. (Such interference in the naming of children was common in his generation.) Ben Larry talked and talked about growing up in Mississippi, stories about possum hunting, squirrel dogs, and cemeteries, and I listened and listened, letting his language wash over me.

A wonderful part of talking to people at the Dome has been becoming immersed again in the language of my Mississippi childhood. The accents speak to my soul and take me way, way back. (In fact, my own southern accent returned full-force. I was sometimes amazed as I listened to myself — the old sayings and syntax seemed to pop out of nowhere. "You have quite an accent," my New York-born roommate commented dryly.) In addition to stories about growing up in Mississippi, Ben Larry told me how he himself had rescued 12 boatloads of people, ferrying them out of New Orleans, using his own small motorboat, which he left tied up and hopes to find when he returns to New Orleans, as he most definitely expects to do. He also helped to rescue a group of what he described as "large ladies," who had been sitting in a boat that had overturned on take-off because its anchor had not been retrieved.

As I continued to walk around the Dome, a young man who looked to be in his late twenties/early thirties called out a greeting. He appeared to recognize me, but I couldn't place him. He said that he wanted to thank me again for my work and also to apologize for the woman who had complained about me over in Housing. I suddenly realized that this was the fellow who had defended me when I was handing out water and one of the evacuees had gotten angry because she thought I had set her bottle of water on the floor instead of placing it in her hand. This young man, whose name was Mark, went on and on, and I felt he genuinely wanted to make sure I felt appreciated, and I certainly did. He had a large animal crate by his cot, and he explained that his New Orleans roommate had gone ahead to Atlanta, but he had stayed behind to transport their dog! Apparently the dog made it with him to Houston, but the Red Cross doesn't allow animals in shelters, so it was being kept at a local kennel. The crate had been donated to him, which he was grateful for, and he looked forward to leaving for Atlanta that very day. I wished him well, and we exchanged e-mail addresses.

Mark's belongings and his dog crate were all gathered together tidily, as were the possessions of most people by that time, but the Dome itself was looking pretty terrible. It had never been what you'd call neat, at least while I was there. People had spread their things about, and there was a lot of trash scattered around, discarded toys and food, old bedding and clothing. Yet one could not help but notice that even in these temporary surroundings, some people had gone out of their way to construct little living areas that were distinctly their own. I'd come across that very day, when most everyone was intent on packing up, a neatly made cot with a nice quilt on top, an upturned crate serving as a bedside table, itself draped with a fresh white towel, holding a can with a live flower in it, and a pencil lined up next to a neat stack of two books. What a desire most of us have, I thought, to claim a space, to individualize it, to mark it with our identities. Making it possible for people to personalize their space might be a small way to lessen the stress of shelter living.

The best example by far of a personalized space in the Dome that I saw was the home a woman had made against a wall about 25 feet across that jutted out in front of the bleacher seating, thus setting her area a little bit apart from the other cots. She had placed her cot along the wall, but had also found many crates that she covered with towels and other cloths and arranged in stair steps. On these steps she put an ever-growing collection of stuffed animals, each carefully placed in relation to each other. Atop the menagerie she had tacked to the wall a heart-shaped red satin cushion, outlined in white lace, and reading, "I love you, mom!" This little shrine was so arresting; many people stopped by to admire it. On moving day she carefully packed it all away.

Toward the end of that day I left the packing detail to search for James, the man with the infected feet, who had been moved to new quarters the evening before, along with the other disabled and elderly Dome residents. His feet seemed to be getting better and better. The previous day I had accompanied him to the medical center and watched as a young doctor unwrapped and examined his feet. This young doctor was African American, and I knew from his speech that he was not a Southerner. I asked him where he was from, and it turned out that he is a Californian, a Cal graduate to boot, and now a resident at Stanford (we'll forgive him for that). And he came to the Dome as a volunteer. He said James' feet were progressing nicely, and one in fact was almost healed, though James winced at the application of rubbing alcohol to the remaining sores.

On the way back to the Dome we stopped once more at the free phone banks, and I telephoned a nursing home for James. Representatives from this nursing home had come through the Dome a couple of days earlier and had recruited him, somewhat too enthusiastically I thought, to come to their facility for the remainder of his recuperation. I tried to look them up on the web but couldn't find a website and was just a little worried about the whole situation. James had led an active life in a big city, and I had a hard time imagining him at a small nursing home on the outskirts of Houston. In addition, the ratio of nurses/doctors to patients seemed insufficient to me. I kept thinking that I would never send a relative of mine to a nursing home that I didn't first visit and check out. We decided to delay the decision one more day, despite the fact that the nursing home director had volunteered to come by the next morning and and personally transport him.

I wheeled James back to the Dome that day in time for a wedding. A Red Cross volunteer had found out that a New Orleans couple had planned to get married, but their plans had been interrupted by the hurricane. This volunteer happened to be a wedding planner, so she took it upon herself to organize a Dome wedding, complete with a donated wedding dress, a tux for the groom, a cake, and live music — a prayer sung a cappella by one Red Cross volunteer and a guitar solo by another. I wheeled James over to the square in the center of the Dome that had been marked off with police tape, along with an aisle-way. The crowd was large and rowdy, and many of the volunteers took this opportunity to snap photographs not just of the wedding but of the Dome residents too. The woman standing next to me joked about the age of the groom, a mature man in his sixties, while I was soon distracted by a young child who came up to tug on my shirt. This little boy was physically disabled with a crippled leg and arm and appeared also to be mentally retarded. James shooed him away, saying he knew his mother, that she was a crack addict and left her children to fend for themselves. He pointed out the child's sister who was playing nearby and said she looked just like her mother. What will happen to these children?

All of a sudden I thought the wedding had begun, since the network camera crews had rushed over to film the people advancing up the aisle. But these people turned out to be boxer Evander Holyfield and his entourage, including a television personality everyone seemed to recognize. Holyfield had come to tour the Dome and had mistaken the police-tape aisle as a path laid for him. To his credit, he tried to move out of the way once he realized a wedding was in progress, but was soon drafted to give the bride away. At this point I had had enough, and James had too, so I wheeled him back to his cot. I hope the couple took comfort from being able to have this wedding and that it served to normalize their life and life for others in the Dome at least a little. I was a bit uncomfortable, though, about the whole scene, for it seemed to me to be as much a publicity stunt as an act of kindness. The organizer of the wedding had been in touch with CNN herself, she told me the next day, and she could be seen scouring newspapers and the television for a mention.

By the end of my stay I had certainly come to appreciate celebrities who don't make their celebrity the focus of their visit. While we were moving people out of the Dome, the young out-of-work school teacher from Michigan came by to tell me he'd noticed Joaquin Phoenix that morning, working with no fanfare alongside one of his buddies, simply helping people pack to get ready to move out. All of this raises for me the question of what kind of help is help in such a situation. There is a faint line between assistance and exploitation or personal aggrandizement, I am coming to understand.

Moving day was supposed to be my last day of work at the Dome. I had been working for 8 days straight and was scheduled to fly out the next afternoon. Someone wrote to me early on in my trip that she bet it was going to be difficult for me to leave, and indeed, I had begun before my time was out to plot to stay longer, even if just for a day. It was very hard to leave for all kinds of reasons. There was an intensity to my days that was a little bit addictive and kept my mind and body riveted. But mainly there were so many pressing needs, and the desperate requests never seemed to end; once you learned how to deal with the issues, and once you saw the relief on a person's face, you just felt compelled to continue. So I packed my bags with a pretty deep longing to stay, all the time knowing I had to come home. I had said my good-byes to almost everyone, and many of the individuals I'd personally looked after had either moved out of the Dome or had firm plans about where they'd go. So this was a good time to step out of this world and back into my own, which I must confess I had scarcely thought about the whole time I was gone. But as I packed, something nagged at me. I didn't have a sense of closure and really felt drawn to go back one more time to the Dome, so I did, riding the light rail.

When I arrived at the main entrance to the complex, a light rain had begun to fall, though the air was still incredibly humid and heavy. There was noticeably less foot traffic, and I knew many people had moved out the day before. I walked over to the building that would serve as the new temporary shelter and that would house all of the on-site services, such as medical care, FEMA, missing persons searches, etc. Rows of cots and people filled one big room, while a second room held rows of empty cots, waiting for the last set of evacuees to shift buildings. Everything did look more orderly to me, and cleaner than the Dome, for this was a newer, more functional building as a shelter. There was a large food service area, and many servers stood waiting to assist. I also saw that a technology center had been set up, where people could go online. There weren't many people in this area, however, and I wasn't surprised. I had routinely asked almost everyone I met whether they had an e-mail account. Out of all the people I had spoken with over eight days, only one person had e-mail, and that was Mark, my gallant defender who was transporting his roommate's dog. The digital divide, I am sorry to report, is alive and well. On this last trip to the Dome I especially wanted to check on James, who had told me where his new cot would be located — right next to the restroom, since he was still considered disabled. I found the men's restroom in the shelter and searched all the nearby cots, but didn't see James or anything that I remembered as belonging to him. In fact, I didn't see any evacuees that I recognized.

One of the hardest things for me about being a volunteer was not getting to say good-bye to the people I came to know, and not being able to know in many cases where they'd be going and if they were going to be all right. My very first day at the Dome I met Roberta, having been asked to ride with her on a cart to the medical center. Her medical chart said she was "bipolar," a diagnosis I assume she herself provided the Dome doctors, since they wouldn't have had time to make it themselves. She was quite a character — irreverent, quick-witted, affectionate, funny and loud. That day she was shivering uncontrollably, and I remember going on a scavenger hunt in the medical center, determined to find this woman a warm blanket for the long wait in the admissions line. No blankets were to be had, but I discovered a cache of sheets, and I helped myself liberally. And thus she was supplied with a white stole, replaced as necessary, for the rest of the day.

I spent so much time with Roberta in relatively intense encounters with the medical personnel that we got to know each other pretty well and kind of bonded. I became her personal volunteer and would check on her the first thing in the morning and throughout the day and would in general look after her. Sometimes I'd be walking across the complex and I'd hear a big deep HEEEEEYYYY!!!, and everyone would turn, but I knew the greeting was for me. Roberta told me horror stories about the Superdome in New Orleans; she was one of the people who voiced her fear that something similar was going to happen at the Astrodome. She had a daughter in Houston but said her house was too small and the family already too large for her to join them, so she was hoping to find a Section 8 apartment in the area.

One day the powers that be in the Dome decided to move all the residents who had put their cots on the 2nd floor perimeter down to the floor of the Dome, as I mentioned in a previous posting. I went to alert Roberta, because she was always worried about someone stealing her stuff, and she had accumulated a few nice things, such as a stylish baby buggy for her daughter's toddler. Since she wasn't there, I alerted the movers that they should not touch her things until she returned, since I knew she'd be upset. However, later in the day, after Roberta had hailed me across the parking lot and I went with her to help her move down to the Dome floor, we discovered that all of her belongings were gone. She was calmer about this than I. I was outraged, in fact, while she seemed sad and resigned. We searched high and low, all over the Dome, but couldn't find a trace of her things. She was convinced that someone had stolen it all. Eventually I took her to the volunteer who was in charge of coordinating the move, and he confirmed that Roberta's belongings should not have been touched. This volunteer agreed to go with Roberta to search the Dome once more, while I fretted and tried to figure out what else we could do. When the volunteer returned alone, I was happy to learn that, to Roberta's surprise and joy, her daughter and her daughter's children had arrived; the reunion must have been a wonderful thing to see. But when I went to look for Roberta and her family and to check once more on her belongings, she was nowhere to be found, and I never saw her again. I assume her daughter took her to her own apartment, no matter the over-crowding, and I'm sure that this is what Roberta most needed at that time. I will never forget her.

Some version of this scenario, though usually not this dramatic, happened over and over again at the shelter to most of the volunteers and evacuees. I guess it is just the nature of the situation, but it was nonetheless very hard. So that last day when I returned to the Dome, I felt pretty depressed not to see a single person that I knew, especially James of the infected feet, whose moving plans had not been finalized. I can't tell you how heavy my heart was as I left that building. I tried to console myself that it was probably best this way, that acquaintances begun in such circumstances have to be ephemeral, but I can't deny that I felt bad. Then, I had walked no more than fifty feet away from the building when I hear someone loudly shout, "Hey, Red Cross!" I knew immediately it was James, and I turned to see him hippity-hopping toward me, favoring his better foot. It was like a reunion scene out of a movie. I was so happy to see him. Usually reserved, he gave me a big hug, and we talked briefly, me fighting back the tears. He seemed quite changed from the sad and shell-shocked man I had met only days earlier. He had decided not to go to the nursing home, he said with confidence (good man, right choice, I thought), and instead to convalesce a few weeks with his sister in Baton Rouge, who was always after him to come and visit. He had even sorted out his transportation issue and planned to take a bus the next day. I think he had really begun to recover from the trauma of Katrina, his journey through the infested waters, his health issues, and the noisy, fearful nights in the Dome. He did indeed seem like a new person ready for a new future.

At that point I felt ready to leave the Dome, but I didn't get very far. The rain had stopped, and people had started to walk about again. I passed an elderly couple stranded next to a building; the man held onto the shrubbery to keep his balance, and the woman explained in some desperation that he couldn't walk because his legs were weak from his diabetes. Could I get him transportation? "How about a wheelchair?" I asked. I went back to the shelter and commandeered one, making one last good use of my Red Cross vest. You would have thought I'd brought them a chariot.

I then began to encounter folks along the way with the usual questions about FEMA, housing, registration with Red Cross; it just did not end. I also stopped to chat a moment with a guard at the Dome entrance I'd come to know, an older white man who looked especially tired that day. He asked me the same question he had come to ask me every day: "Aren't you going to wear your legs out, doing all this running around?" I told him this was my last day and asked if I could walk down into the Dome, knowing everyone had been moved out. He said it was supposed to be off limits now, but glanced away and appeared to say to no one in particular, "Go on down." So I did, for a last look at the big space that was once so filled with desperate and hopeful people, old and young, sick and healthy, some who looked forward, and some who thought there was nothing to look forward to. As I left I took my only photo, attached at the top of this message, of the Dome entrance but looking outward. When the Dome was in use, this entryway was filled with people trudging up and down, along with golf carts, ambulances, buses, and wheelchairs. The last person I saw when I left the Dome complex was a young man, African American, about eighteen years old. He was quiet spoken, but I could detect that deep Southern accent. He wore the usual baggy jeans and big T-shirt and he sported gold teeth, but his face was full of tragedy and sorrow and longing. I can see his face now, and I think I'll see it forever. He said he was looking for his mother, that he'd been separated from her and bussed to Fort Worth, but he believed she might be at the Dome. Could I help him find her? All I could do was point him in the direction of another gate, all the way across the Dome complex, where he might find someone to relay a message inside. I wonder where he is now. A couple of days later the Dome complex was shut down and the remaining evacuees and Red Cross volunteers flown or bussed to shelters in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

So, my friends and colleagues, I leave you with the questions that I know are already on your minds. What can we do to help the Katrina evacuees who are now dispersed across the United States? What can we do to help their children to reach healthy adulthoods and to reap the benefits of decent educations? How can we assist the adults in reinventing their lives and the elderly as well in coming to terms with the idea of a new beginning? How can we use this tragedy to mobilize ourselves, to compel our country to confront the racism and generations of neglect that stranded and abandoned poor people of color in the wake of a hurricane? How can we use our positions, resources, and voices to ensure that our country doesn't forget, once the images are gone from the screen? I feel as if Katrina is our Rubicon, and I hope with my whole being that as individuals and as a nation we can make ourselves ready to cross.