UC Berkeley Web Feature
Rumors, fraud and new access rules mix a dangerous cocktail for evacuees
HOUSTON – I have a super-power as a Red Cross volunteer, just like a comic book character, and that is freedom of movement. With my red-and-white vest and a picture ID hanging from my neck, I can go anywhere in the Reliance Complex – the Dome, the Reliance Center (another housing area), or the Reliance Arena (where other services have been provided – medical care, housing searches, church services). I can cut through waiting lines of people, duck under police tape, enter doors that say "no entry," proceed behind forbidden counters, and walk through security areas without being searched. No one told the Red Cross volunteers that we had this freedom, but I discovered it early on, and believe you me, I have taken full advantage as I've tried to secure information and services for Dome residents. The only time I regretted my roaming capability was the day that I mistakenly entered the back door of a large room in the Reliance Arena, a room filled with cots and people spaced noticeably far apart. When I attempted to exit by the front door, the guard posted there insisted that I first disinfect my hands. I had wandered, it seems, into the isolation ward of the medical center.
Dome residents are restricted in their freedom of movement, and this restriction has grown greater over the time I have been here. Being denied access to go where they want, when they want, with whom they want, and especially to move around at will to seek services on their own and their family's behalf, has contributed to anger and frustration on the part of Dome residents and other evacuees who come to the Dome complex seeking help. To be sure, we all have to do our time standing in lines at grocery stores and entertainment events, and we are all restricted in our movement through buildings and spaces whose access is structured according to institutional and private power, but these are restrictions that we suffer through together for the most part, that we have made a social compact to accept. I believe the spatial restrictions on Dome residents and visitors were experienced by many not only as nonsensical but as discriminatory and demeaning, a control over their bodies that identified them as lacking in knowledge, agency, and power. I probably don't have to mention that emblazoned on evacuees' psyches were their very recent experiences in New Orleans at the Super Dome and the Convention Center, restricted spaces in which they had to remain after the flood waters left them no other place to go. And even when they were taken away in buses and helicopters by the military, their physical freedom was sorely constrained, as they were separated from family members in the unorganized and frenzied rush to transport them. I have heard story after story of how parents were separated from children, the elderly from caretakers, and friends from friends, as they were loaded onto buses and other transport that would bring them to Houston and also to shelters in other cities.
We all knew that the Dome complex was scheduled for shutdown – this was reported in the newspapers and other media, and we heard it as well from Red Cross officials – but we didn't know precisely when this would happen. Simultaneously, however, as preparations were made to close the Dome and the adjacent shelter at the Reliance Center, there seemed to be an influx of evacuees to the Dome: people who had been staying with relatives in the area, like Van the Vietnamese man; people who took a long time to get from Louisiana or Mississippi to Houston because they had no car or were ill or out of funds; people who had originally been sent to shelters elsewhere in Texas but who somehow had heard that family members were at the Dome. We also heard from Red Cross officials, Dome residents, and the media that various local people who were not Katrina evacuees were likewise coming to the Dome, hoping to take advantage of suddenly available resources. Remember that both FEMA and the Red Cross had promised to give out debit cards or to send checks to Katrina victims; the initial amount was $2,000 per family from FEMA, while Red Cross checks varied according to need. Some local people felt they were just as poor and deserving as the hurricane survivors and tried to find a way to collect some money themselves. Thus, the lines outside the Reliant Center grew longer and longer. To complicate matters more, there had begun to be allegations of fraud at higher levels, too. One rumor had it that employees of the subcontractors hired by Red Cross to mass-produce debit cards were guilty of embezzlement, giving out debit cards to themselves, their family and friends.
And thus a potent and potentially dangerous cocktail was mixed: expectations of checks in the mail and fears they wouldn't arrive (or would be stolen once they did); debit cards that didn't work or stopped working; rumors of corruption that favored some and excluded others; the extreme stress of relocation and communal living; grave concern over family members still not located or known to be living; and general worries about the future, which loomed suddenly near once folks knew the Dome would be closing. New rules suddenly went into effect limiting freedom of access. When evacuees had initially arrived at the Dome, they had been given colored arm-bands (babies' little legs were banded), each housing center with its own color, and each color granting access to buildings and services. Now, with the influx of outsiders to the Dome complex, and a general feeling of unease, Reliant complex administrators decided not to allow anyone inside the complex who was not wearing an armband of the appropriate color. And this rule applied to hurricane evacuees who had previously been housed at the Dome but had subsequently moved elsewhere.
One day just after I'd finished breakfast service, another Red Cross volunteer grabbed my arm as I was walking past him and asked whether I could work at Holly Hall, the primary gate to the Dome complex. I said yes since he seemed very agitated, though I didn't know exactly what working the gate meant. He promised to send someone to spell me after an hour, saying he didn't want anyone to remain there in the heat for a longer period. And hot it was, wretchedly so--suffocatingly humid, the air heavy, the pavement broiling. There was one little tent set up at the gate (I later learned it had been purloined from a news network until the Red Cross could go out and buy its own). Under it were two Red Cross volunteers, one of whom immediately left, saying she couldn't take the heat any longer, and approximately 12 to 15 people who identified themselves as Katrina evacuees. They had come to the complex seeking a variety of services; all were desperate, a few were resigned, and many were angry. Katrina is by far the largest disaster relief effort ever attempted in the United States by the Red Cross (9/11 is dwarfed by comparison), and resources are stretched thin, as personnel are drawn into areas outside the organization's usual expertise in the provision of food and shelter. In this instance we were being asked to provide directions, information, resources, and advice about a range of things, most of which we ourselves had no direct knowledge about or control over. Further, we were the people who had to explain and enforce rules about access that we did not make and largely did not endorse. A small group of policemen sat opposite us. Their only job was to let cars in when passengers had on the correct wrist bands, and to send passengers or pedestrians to us to be sorted out when they did not.
Oh my! Try telling a former Dome resident that he cannot come inside to check his mailbox to see if his check has arrived, only because he had moved and had discarded his wrist band and could therefore no longer prove his identity using the expected means. What advice would you give a Chinese couple who spoke so little English that the only thing you could determine was that they wanted you to follow them to their car, this because they gestured with their car keys? How would you placate an articulate African American woman who could not be convinced that the Red Cross was not, here at this very spot, supposed to give out furniture vouchers? What would tell the numerous people who had traveled far, having been sent – erroneously – by other shelters and social service agencies to the Dome to fill out FEMA and Red Cross paperwork? How could you comfort a young Honduran, a monolingual Spanish speaker, who wanted to enter the complex to search, cot by cot, for his mother but was not allowed? How would you assist a person whose only relative was a cousin he believed to be in the Dome but whose last name he couldn't remember? This situation was a madhouse, by far my most intense and frustrating experience out of many such experiences at the Dome.
My strategy, if I had one, was to try to find some way, abiding by the rules if possible and circumventing them if it came to that, to help whoever was there achieve the greatest measure possible of what they came for. In addition to protracted, interrupted conversations and explanations, that strategy usually came down to escorting them to buildings or areas or going to those buildings or areas myself on their behalf. For those who came to pick up checks at the makeshift post office but had no wrist bands, I walked them through the security guards and accompanied them to the post office, and then returned, if I could, to escort them out. The post office experience itself was surreal. It was at the north entrance to the Dome, and during normal times was a sporting events ticket office. The lines were divided with railings according to the alphabet: a-c in this line, d through f in this one. People were packed in the lines, and I mean packed, even in the intense heat. If they left, or attempted to have someone hold their place in line, they lost their slot and had to go to the back of the class. Police stood watch on both open sides of the line, and I was amazed there wasn't a riot.
On this day I gratefully did my sweating and waiting outside the post office queue. One happy moment came when a guy in line yelled to me and motioned to come over, and I recognized him as the young man who had owned a hair salon in New Orleans and had been so frustrated with the housing process. As we shook hands that were sticky in the heat, he told me that he had indeed gotten housing, a nice 2-bedroom apartment in Houston, and that his rent was covered by FEMA for several months. He also said he was going to take this opportunity to go to school and change careers, as was his wife. He wanted to do something related to computers, and she was interested in training to become a medical technician. He was happy and upbeat and confident, and he reminded me that people actually are experiencing some successes; they are reorganizing their lives around the new opportunities that have become available in the wake of the tragedy, veritable phoenix-rising-out-of-ashes stories. It's easy to forget this when you work mainly on the front lines of people's frustrations.
My expeditions to the post office soon ended, for the access rules changed midday, and no one was allowed inside the complex without a band on their wrists, even when they were accompanied by somebody like me. (As you might predict, there quickly grew up an illegal market for wrist bands; the going rate was reported to be $200 each.) In one very funny moment, the guards refused to let me enter, despite the fact that they knew me, having conversed with me each of the many times I had traipsed back and forth that day. In fact, ironically enough, we had all joked together about the ridiculous rules, agreeing that the people who made them should have to be the ones to enforce them! Nonetheless, I had to go and get the shelter supervisor. The guards told him the same thing they told me, but we eventually determined that they had just been instructed not to let anyone with an orange volunteer wrist band pass through unless today's date was printed on it. Red Cross volunteers had been given these bands days before and told not to remove them. I asked if they'd let me pass if I cut off the band, they said yes, so we got out the scissors. Such a silly little incident, but it illustrates in microcosm the difficulties with access that were ever so much greater and more serious for Dome residents than they were for me. Instead of being escorted over to the post office to get their checks, people were now escorted to a table where two little old white-haired white ladies gave out change-of-address packets, so that people could change their address from the Dome post office to wherever they were living and receive their check there. This was a brilliant strategy on the part of the Dome complex administrators. The little old ladies could not be persuaded, no matter the situation, to bend the rules, yet it was hard for people to yell or curse at little old ladies, so most unrequited P.O. box seekers just stomped off, furious. This strategy, effective though it was, was low on the compassion scale, for it ignored the fact that many people really needed their money and felt they couldn't wait for the change of address process to be completed.
When I returned to Holly Hall gate I saw a young man who I'd say was in his early twenties surrounded by three construction workers who had been waiting to put up a second tent. This young man sat there looking as miserable as it's possible to look, with tears streaming, and I mean streaming down his cheeks. He spoke no English, and the construction workers, who were all Latino, had come to his aid. One had given him a sandwich that I recognized as Dome lunch fare. He'd take a bite, then spoke in Spanish about having become separated from his mother, as the tears continued to run across his face and even drip down his neck and wet his shirt. He was from Honduras originally, had lived in New Orleans for just two months, joining his mother who had lived there for several years. They had gotten separated in the hurricane evacuation process, he being bussed to a different city. However, he had some reason to believe she was in the Dome along with his aunt, and he stated he would not leave until he found one or both of them. He would not listen to advice to get himself situated at a shelter somewhere and attend to his own immediate needs; he just wanted his mother. We thought we made headway in persuading him to go to a shelter, each of us chipping in a few bucks for his cab fare. In the meantime I offered to find out whether his mother and aunt were registered at the Dome complex. He carefully wrote their names, as well as his own, in my notebook.
Locating missing persons is a very important part of the work that is done at the shelters. On this day I went for the first time to the computer center in the Dome, a clean and air-conditioned room on the first-floor perimeter, entered through glass doors, where there are about twenty computers and people, all dedicated to finding missing relatives for Dome residents. It was my great luck to meet a young Houston man named Mark, who told me he'd been at the Dome since day one, and had personally been responsible for a dozen or so "reunifications." Whenever a missing person is located, someone rings a big cowbell in the computer center, and everyone pauses to clap and cheer. Another of Mark's projects has been looking after gay, lesbian, and transsexual evacuees, finding them housing in compatible places. Mark quickly determined that neither the young man's aunt nor his mother were in the Dome database. He then took me upstairs, way to the top of the Dome, where people are compiling a national database of missing persons. I didn't even know this area existed in the Dome or that these activities were being carried out there. In the little rooms where the sportscasters do their broadcasting and reporting in normal times, there are now computers and telephones dedicated to the search for missing persons. Unfortunately, neither of the names we sought was in the national database. This did not mean that the young man's mother and aunt were not at the Dome, or that they are not safe, but just that they had not registered. I was not surprised, for many people don't register, and I would imagine that recent immigrants would be especially leery of doing so. And what if you were an illegal? Just a few days before this I had met an elderly, very distinguished-looking and tidily-dressed man who told me, with amazement and joy, that he had been searching for his niece at the Dome, his sister's daughter, and had checked all the databases to no avail. That very afternoon as he stood talking on his cell phone to his sister, he saw his niece standing not 10 feet away, just in front of him. She had been living in the Dome the whole time he had, but he had never seen her, nor she him, although he had walked by this same spot where she had placed her cot a hundred times.
I walked back to Holly Hall gate with heavy feet, dreading having to convey the information I had gotten to the young Honduran. But he had gone, and I never saw him again. This too is not unusual. I can't count the times I have left a person, asked them to wait while I find something out, only to return to find them gone. Sometimes they get the information from another source, sometimes they give up waiting, sometimes they leave to try again another day. So I turned my attention to other evacuees. Surprisingly, there were several white people waiting under the tent. There were a couple of young men from Mississippi who were looking for shelter, the first Mississippians I had encountered. There was a middle-aged white man, hoping to file with FEMA and the Red Cross, who brought his dog in his beat-up Chevy and asked for a bowl of water for the dog to drink. He expected to have to put the dog down because he didn't think, at its advanced age of 23, that it could survive much longer given the stress of travel and the heat. There was another older white man, very grizzled and unhappy, who complained to me that whites weren't getting any assistance; everything was going to the blacks, he said. I gave all these people FEMA and Red Cross numbers, lists of shelters, and various other bits of information that I thought might help them. The only one of this group that I saw again was the grizzled fellow; the next day he yelled a greeting at me like a long-lost friend, and I almost didn't recognize him, so transformed were his features by his recent good fortune: he said that he had found a nice place to live and was moving that very day.
During the early afternoon a reporter came by our tent, a young woman working for an affiliate of KPFA, and she began to film evacuees gathered at the gate, especially, it seemed to me, the most irate evacuees who were ready to give her an earful about the services they were not receiving. Reporters are supposed to be accompanied by a staff person and she was alone, but I didn't have time to deal with her. As I worked I heard just snatches of their conversations. A lot of the complaints were about the Red Cross because people were mad that they had come there to register for various services and were being turned away, yet the only people staffing the tent had on Red Cross smocks. Their anger was sincere and justified, but I couldn't help noticing that it was directed inaccurately. The Red Cross didn't have anything to do with the rules about access at the Reliant Complex and were in fact providing more services than they were responsible for or could perform well. There were no FEMA people at the gate, no Reliant park officials, no social service personnel, just Red Cross volunteers, and we were taking it on the chin.
Eventually the young reporter asked me to speak off the record; I could not let her record me as I didn't have permission to officially represent Red Cross to the media. It was an interesting exchange. I told her that the situation at the gate was complex, which she interpreted as a defense of the "system" and said she supposed there always had to be two sides to any story. I replied that a dichotomy of "two sides" was way too simple in this case and one too often used in the media. She responded with some derision that I must just listen to mainstream media and advised me to try to find a more progressive source for my news. Well, that got to me. The young whipper-snapper. I told her I'd been listening to KPFA when she was still in grade school (a slight exaggeration), and that finally got her attention. "You listen to KPFA?" she asked incredulously, suddenly warming up to me. The thing that amazed me most about this little interaction was how quickly I, a liberal's liberal, found myself positioned – perhaps by virtue of my uniform, perhaps because I didn't agree with all that the evacuees had to say – as being against them, as being on the other side. The conservative media are not the only ones to over-simplify, it is sad to say. I saw the reporter again later, as she was accompanied into the Dome by a yellow-shirted guard, I guess having lost her ability to stroll and record at will. I wonder how her eventual story will represent the situation at the Dome.
I was more successful in my next project at Holly Hall gate. Having noticed a young child with his mom in the tent, and knowing I had some candy in my pocket, I offered it to him with his mom's okay and learned from this child, whose name was Jeremy, that this was his birthday. "I'm six years old today," he announced (after checking with his mom to see whether he was indeed six or five), "and I'm going to have a birthday cake!" She corrected him gently, saying he definitely would have a cake, but maybe not today. I couldn't get him a cake, but I knew where the toys were, so I went to the Dome to search the remains of a toy center. Hundreds of toys had been unloaded in the Dome the day before and quickly picked over by the many children there, but the volunteers were able to help me find a small truck, Jeremy's favorite toy according to his mom, along with some books and crayons and stuffed animals. I gave them to his mom to give to him later, and took him over to meet the idle policemen, since he said he wanted to be a cop when he grew up. They chatted with him and amazed him by realizing, without his telling them, that this special day must be his birthday. He explained to them, with my encouragement and with a little stutter, that he was going to be a "c-c-c-country cop." They advised him to stay in school, study hard, and keep out of trouble. Original, huh?
This might have been my most extended encounter with a child at the Dome. I had imagined having much time to get acquainted and work with children and youth, but this was not to be, given the pressing adult concerns that needed mediation. I tried to talk to kids whenever I could, but the conversations were usually brief – a few words here and there during lunch service, for example. I noticed that a good many children seemed to be coping with living in the shelter; they played noisily and raced around and responded brightly to questions and comments. Others looked pretty dazed and seemed to stare a lot. I saw several children who were obviously physically handicapped or had various special needs. I remember trying to chat with a young boy, maybe about 12 or 13, who seemed very withdrawn. His grandmother then told me he was looking for his mother, who was still missing; she told me her unusual name, "Arizina." Mostly children went unsupervised in the Dome, as their care-givers attended to a million different things. I did hear that there was a child care center for tots and infants in another building, but it was under-staffed; Red Cross workers were not allowed to assist there because they had not been fingerprinted. I saw many groups of young men, around 16-20 years of age I'd say, walking about in their gigantic T-shirts and saggy pants, all around the complex. I talked to a few of them about whether they'd be interested in being interviewed on Youth Radio, as I had promised a colleague I'd do. I kept thinking that it would have been nice if there were something to keep them occupied at the Dome. Sure enough, about midweek some portable basketball nets were set up. I also mused that no one would ever use them in this heat, but I was so wrong.
On another day I helped a young volunteer from Michigan, an out-of-work teacher, scrounge to find books to set up a reading area for kids in the Dome. We discovered that most of the donated books and school materials were being sent to the other shelter on the premises, Reliant Center, while our kids in the Dome were getting short-changed (again). We also realized that many visitors were shepherded toward the other shelter as well, most likely because it was newer and more aesthetically pleasing and seemed therefore more orderly and likely to make a better impression on guests. Several NBA players, including Kobe Bryant, visited Reliant Center one day, and the young out-of-work teacher scrambled to get a group of our kids together and to secure permission to go over and meet the players, joining a group of the kids from Reliant Center. He was able to do so, but not without exercising a lot of ingenuity and determination. It is depressing to me that even in the Dome complex, social hierarchies are beginning to form, with one shelter and its residents coming to be viewed with more approval, as better than the other.
I stayed at Holly Hall gate that day as long as I could physically manage it, which was until about 6:30 p.m., at which time most of the evacuees who were seeking services had gone elsewhere. The articulate African American woman who wanted a furniture voucher remained. We talked for a while about this and that, and she gradually lost her anger as together we scorned and laughed at the ineptitude of bureaucracies, including the ones running the Dome complex and the evacuation in general. I gave her what I called my special number (a direct line to the Houston Red Cross chapter that has always resulted for me in a person on the other end), and she said when she used it she would think about a special lady. That comment and the good feeling behind it were a swell way to end the day.
As I walked to catch the light rail I realized that I could feel my throat getting sore and feared I'd soon be joining the ranks of the sick volunteers. Several have already gone home with bronchitis, flu-like symptoms, and intestinal upset, while some employees of the complex are actually afraid to go into the Dome, feeling certain they will catch something. I myself was very grateful to be able to escape that day from the heat and the chaos to my hotel room, a spatial privilege, as it were, available to people with the sorts of resources and cultural capital that are in short supply at the Dome.