Sunday, September 18, 2005

Katrina Evacuees in Houston: A look inside a megashelter

It's been about 3 weeks since Katrina now. Anyone interested in how the megashelters are actually working, and how people are actually doing inside there?

After the initial scramble to get everyone situated here in Houston, things have settled into a bit of a routine. The various religious groups within the first few days coordinated the massive volunteer efforts, with each group having a designated day or set of days to staff the volunteer posts. (Mental note: next time someone goes on about how they don't like "organized" religion, tell them how nice it was to have this organized.) My group doesn't come into rotation until next week, but they put out a general call for extra hands for some special projects this weekend, so I found myself at the Astrodome/Reliant Park complex Saturday night. A number of people find homes or apartments daily, and some people are now able to go back home, so that now only a few thousand people are left in the megashelters. In fact, today they consolidated down to only one megashelter, from an original high of 4 megashelters in town.

Outside, dozens of national guardsmen in uniform made a very visible security presence. Inside, both the Houston Police and the National Guard had a visible presence. There obviously wasn't going to be much trouble with that much display of security. Volunteers were tagged with wristbands to identify us and cycled through orientation sessions beginning roughly every 10 to 15 minutes. Then we were staged much like day laborers in a pool of people waiting to be called. As I went through my orientation I could see the occasional people in Red Cross uniforms or various other official uniforms come call out their needs for jobs and number of volunteers, and the volunteers filed away to work. After my orientation, it was only 5 or 10 minutes waiting in the labor pool before I was put to work: evening food service. They formed us up into teams to work the half-dozen serving lines that were open. My team was four typical Houstonians (a white woman, a Hispanic woman, two black men) and a man who had driven all the way from San Jose, California to find some way to help, and had been helping all day every day since he'd arrived in town. Our team stayed intact during the entire evening meal service.

A TV camera crew was moving through the commons. Most people seemed bored with TV cameras by now. The camera crew sought out a family with an extra-cute toddler with her hair done up pretty sitting at a large table and picked up an interview. Some of the residents who weren't tired of cameras made their way over. One was the angriest woman I'd seen in the shelter. She got an interview. (Most people looked more bored and worried than angry.) Another man with an odd grin and shuffling walk followed the cameras around and tried to walk in front of the camera as often as he could. He did not get an interview. Mental note: glad they got the angry woman's interview *before* she saw what was for dinner.

Saturday night dinner: sweet and sour chicken over rice; bread; ice cream for dessert (really nice big individual-serving containers); bottled water or kiddie-sized juice or milk containers; granola bars; fresh apples. Special needs meals on request. Lots of funny looks for the sweet and sour chicken. Lots of people looking and walking off. Lots of people getting huge helpings. Policy: serve as much as they want. Comments: Chicken again? We had chicken for lunch. When I'm at home, I make red beans and rice. At the Superdome they fed us red beans and rice. I wish we could have catfish. The guy from San Jose mentioned that there had been many more people at dinner the day before. Later, when I was bussing tables, I noticed many tables with no signs of the sweet and sour chicken, but instead loaded with McDonald's bags, or Burger King, even the occasional KFC or Popeye's Chicken bag from a smiling person who had his red beans and rice. (That's a Cajun favorite, for anybody not from around these parts.) Luckily there are several fast-food outfits in walking distance of the complex. After all the residents had their fill, the San Jose volunteer took a large helping of the sweet and sour chicken and said it was great, went back for seconds.

For a short time I was sent as our line's official line helper to carry meals for people pushing wheelchairs or strollers. One fellow in a wheelchair wanted help carrying his ice cream and bottled water back to the dorms, which was my first view of any of the dorms. It was a huge open area, just a sea of cots. His family had a section of cots together.

How are they doing? Everyone had food and clothes, was clean and fed. Some are still looking for family. Most are worried about their homes and about how they will replace what they lost. All of them are tired of being in a shelter. Some are frustrated to still be here, had hoped to be out by now. The apartment waiting list is long, the city has only been able to place a few hundred people per day in apartments and other homes, as they're also trying to arrange at least basic furniture as well.

The resident kids were bored. Some of them had basketballs and were dribbling around. Two had "borrowed" unused wheelchairs and were having a wheelchair race. Someone put a stop to that pretty quickly, they were having a blast but it wasn't the safest thing for them to be zipping around that fast between tables in a crowded commons. A toddler had a push toy. Two tables full of teenage and pre-teen boys had an electronic game hooked up to a portable TV plugged into an outlet.

Bussing tables, I had the chance to see one thing mentioned in orientation. "Excuse me, sir, I'm clearing up the trash. May I take that?" "NO NO NO that's MINE." No problem, let me know when you're ready. After the same scene had recurred three or four times, it sank in: They've lost everything. Some of them cannot handle the thought of being parted from anything at all, even if it's just an empty chicken McNugget box. Eventually, maybe on the next trip through the commons, they were all ready to let me take their trash. After my third round of the commons bussing tables, it was about time I had to head out. My volunteer coordinator replaced me with another busser. A cloud of smoke outside the door, no smoking indoors. Outside, a man with a resident wristband who had saved basically only his clarinet from the flood was playing a bluesy tune. Reminded me of my last trip to the French Quarter. One boy was in the parking lot with a wheelchair he obviously didn't need, popping wheelies and staying like that longer than I would have believed.

Quite a mix of ok and not ok. It'll do for today.

No comments: