UC Berkeley Web Feature
Amid despair and frustration, the endless quest for accurate information
HOUSTON – Today was my second full day in Houston, working with the Red Cross in "mass care" at the Astrodome. I feel as if I've been here a very long time. It's been exhausting and challenging, but most of all it's been satisfying in the extreme to be able to directly help in small ways the people from New Orleans who have been through so much.
I work about 10 hours a day, and I do everything you can imagine. Most Red Cross workers are assigned to particular areas and stay put, but I've found that I can be most useful on the run (almost literally). The Astrodome complex is vast, and people are living in the dome and in an adjacent center, but services (medical care, housing, financial assistance) are spread out over several acres. I'm spent most of my time in Dome, and it's pretty much as it looks on TV, except a lot grubbier. People have been there several weeks now and up until today some had put their cots on the upper floors (to get a bit of privacy) as well as on the floor of the Dome. Today one of the things I helped do was move everyone on the upper levels to the bottom of the Dome (by order of the fire marshal, it was said). People were generally cooperative, but it was stressful for many to have to move, and they interpreted it as the beginning of the end of their stay at the Dome. I helped one lady who had had a stroke and had lost the use of one arm and therefore couldn't dress herself in preparation for being shifted downstairs.
Although there are plenty of material things at hand (abundant food, water, clothing) and lots of services available, people are quite unhappy to be living in these shelters, as you would imagine, and the stress level is very high. Many people lie on their cots in a kind of depressed daze for much of the day. Others try strenuously to figure out a way to leave the Dome. But the people who are staying there now (and there are still thousands) are the most vulnerable – people who have no place to go and people who were injured while trying to escape the hurricane or who are chronically ill. I understand now what a large part of the New Orleans' African American population is both poor and in poor health, and how these of course go hand in hand. I also see in ways I didn't before how ironic and frustrating it is that so much money has been allocated or is supposedly available, yet there are so many people who are walking about the Astrodome complex desperate and hopeless.
Probably the most frustrating thing about the shelter situation for everyone is a lack of accurate information. It's hard to find out where to go for what, and because the area is so large, people waste a lot of time and energy walking from place to place in the extreme heat, only to learn that the service they need is now being provided in a different place, or they were given the wrong location to begin with, or the service has closed up shop for the day. Information is in short supply for everybody, including the volunteers. Today some women who were pushing shopping carts filled with their dirty clothes across the big parking lot next to the Dome asked me if I knew where the laundry facility was. That was the first I had heard of a laundry facility, so I asked them to wait until I could investigate. Probably the first five Red Cross staff members/volunteers I asked couldn't help me, but eventually I found a man in one of the control rooms who said that yes, indeed, washing machines would be installed; they were supposed to have been put in the previous day. He estimated that it would be 2 o'clock before they were operational. Later in the day I heard the start time had been moved to 4 o'clock, and on and on. In the meantime, people have been throwing clothes and blankets away because they have no way to wash them.
Many of the things people are seeking are crucial to planning their futures: Red Cross debit cards, Section 8 housing, FEMA assistance. There was an especially bad moment this morning about 8:30 a.m. when there was already a long line of people waiting to get a Red Cross debit (ATM) card. The word came that no debit cards were going to be issued; the only people who could stay in the line were people who had already received cards but whose cards weren't working! Two young African American volunteers were sent outside to break the news. I talked to these young men later, and they were clearly shaken by the unhappy response from the crowd, and they didn't like being sent to break the bad news, and I don't blame them. Usually whenever there is a hint of trouble the police appear en masse. There is a very big police and National Guard presence everywhere; they stand and watch. I saw one policeman today with binoculars watching from upstairs in the Dome. Yesterday I spent some time in the "grief ward" of the medical center and was surprised that there, too, were policewomen.
The stories that people tell are just incredible. Every time I hear one I am astonished all over again. Today I was at the medical center in the Dome complex picking up a prescription for a woman who had fallen in the bathroom and whose legs were so swollen that she couldn't possibly walk that far. On my way out I was snagged by various people needing help on various things. An aide asked me to take a man back to the Dome in his wheelchair; the golf carts they'd been using to transport people were all tied up (another story). I recognized him as a Dome resident I'd seen earlier; he was easy to recognize because both of his feet were swaddled in bandages. I heard his story as I wheeled him back to the Dome. He had worked for a long time at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans; he was in charge of setting up the chairs, tables, etc. for banquets, and supervised a staff of fifteen, he told me. At 7:30 a.m. on the Monday after the hurricane, he said, the Fairmont floor was as dry as a bone. By about 9:30 the water was knee-high. And then within 45 minutes it was shoulder-high. He and other employees left for the Superdome, wading their way through the streets. They passed dead bodies floating in the water, he said, and his theory was that some of these people had drowned because they stepped into sewer holes whose lids had been blown off by the force of the water. He was luckier, but his feet got so infected by the foul water that it'll be some months before he can walk again.
He enjoyed the wheelchair ride a lot today because this was the first fresh air he'd gotten since he arrived at the Astrodome. In addition, we ran into two other people he had worked with at the Fairmont who had escaped with him, and they had a nice reunion. He joked with them about how, just before the hurricane, he had ordered some new furniture for his house, but he literally hadn't even had a chance to sit on the sofa before the flood washed it all away! We were also approached by an older man who was handing out religious tracts. My charge accepted a booklet, saying it would give him a way to pass the time this evening. Last, we stopped at a bank of telephones, where you can call anywhere in the US for free, and he was able to reach both his brother and his sister for the first time since the hurricane. He is being relocated soon, he believes, to a nursing home in the Houston area where he will recuperate until he can walk again. Although his siblings said they'd like him to come to Baton Rouge where they live, he said they are unable to come for him. I wheeled him up to a huge ramp by means of which you go back into the Dome, and some other Red Cross workers came and negotiated that steep slope with him in his wheelchair, taking him back inside for one more night.