A very sweet-seeming volunteer with a crumpled-up, handwritten piece of paper gave several of us who had come to Houstons Astrodome to help with the last of the 1,400 Hurricane Katrina survivors a quick orientation, a list of things we should know before going inside: Dont take any pictures. Dont let anyone use your cell phones. Dont touch anybody, especially the children. Dont hug them. Dont hold the babies. Use antibacterial gel as often as possible, and refer to the folks inside as your guests or clients.
This was disturbing. I didnt want the people inside to feel as though I thought they were dirty or different. I just wanted to be able to help and not think about germs, dirt and bacteria. If they looked just fine to me, then I wasnt going to worry about cooties.
Why are these rules so stern? I asked. The volunteer didnt really have a good answer except to say that I should just do as she said.
Today the displaced citizens of New Orleans were being evacuated yet again because of a hurricane, this time Rita, which had by now been upgraded to a Category 5 and was bearing down on the area. City and other officials were afraid that the home for all these families for the last two and a half weeks would not withstand the rain. But some of those inside thought it was just an excuse to get them out. From the moment we stepped into the Astrodome parking lot, the whole situation felt surreal and extremely sad. Because everyone was supposed to be out by the end of the day, most people were packed up and waiting outside in the 92-degree heat, with humidity that caused water rings in the worst of places, if you know what I mean.
Jose, the head of the Red Cross efforts there, delegated duties. He promptly sent the only male in our group of dancers and other cast members from the touring production of Evita off to work as a media escort. I spotted him later in the day dressed in a full volunteer outfit, equipped with fluorescent vest, sharpie pens and megaphone. After a brief detail spent arranging chairs and dividers so that people could be separated into groups, the four other Evita gals and I got the posts we would keep for the better part of the day. Mine was where I wanted it: working with the people.
The confusion inside was crazy and the communication even worse. It seemed totally haphazard. Some people were headed for planes, some trains, others automobiles. But most were headed to the Greyhound bus station with vouchers for tickets to Dallas, California, the deserted Arkansas Air Force Base, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Michigan, Colorado. We were loading them and their new belongings onto buses and shuttles, and into volunteers cars, off to some other way station in their now-transient lives.
Belongings were crammed into a few used suitcases, duffel bags and carry-ons, but most of them were stuffed into bulging trash bags and boxes. There was no tape or enough large bags or boxes around to re-seal their new, prized possessions. I did all I could to help people keep their things intact, because this was really all they had. After coming to the Astrodome empty-handed, they now had stuff, and it might not be pretty or perfect or new, but it was theirs. I was constantly surprised and happy to see that most of the refugees hadnt lost their attitude or style. The blankets, toys and hair rollers oozed out of the poorly taped boxes and ripped-up trash bags. There was barely any way to distinguish one persons things from anothers, because of the poor labeling options.
In between helping families get their 50- and 60-pound bags loaded into their rides, I was handing out water and checking to see if anyone might need anything. I kept running into the same problem with the water it was plentiful, but it was Anheuser-Busch canned water, which no one seemed to want because it tasted so bad. I made forays to the far side of the center, where a volunteer was handing kids cold bottled water from a delicious-looking tub of ice. When I would come back to give the older women or men some bottled water, they were so grateful. Im sure everyone with the Red Cross and the other volunteers were doing the best with what they had, but I have to say, the food being provided was a little repulsive. The menu consisted of pink minimuffins, dangerously red Hostess Zingers, Scooby-Doo fruit snacks, and apples.
Time after time, I would just help families lug their belongings to the shuttles, back and forth. Some of the families were huge, with grandparents and parents whose children had children of their own. And the amount of stuff they had almost wouldnt allow them all to sit down in the shuttles. I met a mother and daughter who said they were going to Cleveland to stay with family, but as soon as possible, they would be headed back to New Orleans. The mother said she was sure the city would be rebuilt quickly and it would be even better then. She explained that all her family was from New Orleans, and thats all they knew. She said shed been able to contact everyone, and they were okay. They were very lucky. Many people had no friends or family to stay with and were headed blindly to Arkansas or Dallas without a clue as to what comes next.
In between waves of hauling huge bags, I got to meet Kendra and Muffin, two vivacious and precocious young girls. They came up to me and unabashedly grabbed my hand and told me they were coming with me wherever I was going. They played with my hair and gave me hugs. After checking with their parents, I drafted them to help me deliver water. I spoke to one elderly woman as she was getting on a shuttle. She said she didnt really understand it, but she was sad to be leaving this place. I told her that it was understandable, because she was now faced with another unknown, but that there was also hope for whats possible. She just nodded her head. Another woman said she hoped she never had to experience anything like this again. The overall feeling seemed to be one of relief. I was constantly aware of how respectful they were of each others belongings.
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As things wound down, I was standing outside next to a group of policemen. One cop looked over at me and said, Ive seen you carryin a lot of heavy bags back and forth. You were workin hard today. When I said, sure, but it was necessary, he replied that he couldnt see why some of those men didnt do it themselves or help me. I suggested that maybe they were tired and stressed out. He said, well, all they do is sleep all day. Another cop chimed in about how great the refugees have it here, because where they come from they dont have air conditioning. I guess he was assuming that the dust- and bacteria-stale cool air inside the dome was a step up for most. It was almost as if he took his words right out of Barbara Bushs mouth.
This place is pathetic and these people have nothing, I blurted out. If you were given a bunch of sugar all day, would you be able to stay awake? It was the only reply I could think of.
Finally, all my colleagues met me outside, and we left on the monorail. We sat next to a Red Cross nurse, who spoke to us about her experiences and told us that while she had been cussed at several times, many people were extremely grateful for her care and services. She also told us to go home and shower, scrub our fingernails, and clean and wash our clothes immediately, because there were respiratory and gastrointestinal bacteria that were airborne. She said that, especially if we handled bedding or people, we most definitely carried them.
Later that night, after our shows opening, we spoke to Jose from Red Cross, who told us everyone had been evacuated. So thats good, right? I just cant stop feeling that for all those people, the journey is just beginning again.