Submerged Series Part III: Just a Little While to Stay Here
Gambit Weekly editor reacts to Katrina disaster
LAFAYETTE, LA. -- She just stares at me, the Iowan volunteer. Silver and green Mardi Gras beads drape around her neck. She pushes a blank form across the table.
"It's been a long day," she says.
Sitting next to her, another volunteer quickly smiles. "Welcome," she says. "You came to the right place."
I tell them both it's OK, that I'm from New Orleans. I want to spend the night here at the Cajundome, one of a westward line of stadiums from Baton Rouge into Texas that have become homes for thousands of evacuees. Some of these shelters have been given their own zip codes.
I look at the form. Name, address, any phone numbers. The smiling volunteer asks me three questions, all medical.
Do you have a cough? Do you have diarrhea? Do you have any open sores?
I have my driver's license with my New Orleans address, but nobody needs to see it. The smiling woman goes to the walkie-talkie. She calls for a runner to bring me inside. Silence.
"Where are all the volunteers?" asks the Iowan.
"They're dropping like flies," says the smiling woman.
A few more minutes pass. We make small talk, the refugee and the Red Cross volunteers. On the table between us is a spiral notebook, with "Banned and wanted list" handwritten on the cover. I ask if it's a list of known criminals who might try to get in. No, the Cajundome has a no-discrimination policy. The notebook is a list of residents who broke the shelter rules.
More walkie-talkie. The two women speak quietly to each other. There seems to be a problem with people showing up here and thinking they're going to get money.
Skip, a lanky and good-humored volunteer from Michigan, ambles up. He sees me through an airport-style metal detector, asks what I brought with me. Nothing, I say. He takes long strides through the concrete corridors that circle the Cajundome. Clusters of cots are everywhere. Cardboard boxes of torn paperbacks and old children's toys. Walls are papered with typed or handwritten job offers for mechanics and manicurists. Every morning, a bus of day laborers leaves to clean up in New Orleans, for $9 an hour. Other signs state, "Report all child abuse to sheriff."
Skip asks me where I'm from, what I think I'm going to do next. I answer the first question. New Orleans. Before that, Minnesota. Ah, he says, Garrison Keillor. He has me pegged as a journalist. He doesn't seem to care.
Everyone here wears name tags to mark them as either residents or volunteers. Residents' tags include a photo, name and New Orleans address. You can read all the addresses, the old streets and neighborhoods, as you walk past them. Freret. Iberville. Central City. Ninth Ward. I see people who live just blocks away from where I live, where I work. Others from across town. We're all jumbled up now.
Skip enters Exhibit Hall A, a large room adjacent to the dome. He goes to a section lined with metal shelves and loads me up on supplies: a long box containing a new metal folding cot; a rolled-up, shrink-wrapped piece of foam; a bundle of sheets, laundered and wrapped in plastic; a Red Cross Comfort Kit with toiletries; a pillow. "This is quieter than the Cajundome," Skip says, steering me toward Exhibit Hall B. He finds an empty space near the door and starts setting up the cot.
On one side of my cot is a dirty box spring and mattress that's covered in blankets, old stuffed animals and a new pink Dora the Explorer backpack.
On the other side, an old man squeezes Fixodent onto his dentures. He's from Hollygrove, a neighborhood I'd driven past every day in New Orleans. He's alone; he left when the water in his living room got to 2 feet. Another guy here says he got up at night to take a leak and saw the water rising around his legs.
The cot is assembled: my new address. Sleeping quarters, the Red Cross calls it. Frequently, you hear a loudspeaker announcement that directs residents to their sleeping quarters.
Skip gets ready to leave, then fixes on the pillow, which is matted and awash in brown stains. "Sorry about that," he says. Then he shakes my hand and is gone.
The evacuees I know are all staying in homes, except for a few in hotels. I'm currently bouncing between a friend's living room and his 2-year-old son's bedroom. His son comes into his bedroom during the day, sees blankets and papers on the floor, backs out and shuts the door again.
We've landed and now we're trying to put the old puzzles together when so many pieces are missing. Some of our jobs are coming back, others aren't. Some schools are opening, others aren't. Some of us have seen our homes, and they're OK. Others have lost everything they own to wind, water and mold.
Those first days after the storm, as we cared for our kids and followed the horrors on CNN, the Cajundome was opening up as one of the country's first Katrina shelters. Thousands of New Orleanians were moving through the dome and into the dome. They came in buses that traveled across Interstate 10 without making bathroom stops. They landed here even when they were supposed to go somewhere else, the local daily reported. They arrived before cots were set up, say early volunteers, and long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency came near the scene.
Buses pulled into city after city. In Austin, Texas, a friend of mine was watching TV when he heard the call for a hundred volunteers to help out at the Convention Center. He assisted people getting off the buses, directing them to cots or triage. He'd try to determine how many people were in each group. "Do you have anybody else with you?" he asked one man. "They're all gone," the man said.
The Red Cross has provided Katrina refugees with more than 2 million overnight stays in nearly 900 shelters in 20 states, according to latest estimates. Other shelters around the Lafayette area included the Rayne Civic Center, in a town of about 8500 known for its frog-export business. I went there on Monday, Sept. 12, after I read in the paper that the evacuees were getting moved out the next day to make room for the annual Rayne Frog Festival. When I showed up, the arena floor was already scrubbed down and a carnival was setting up on the front lawn. The Ferris wheel was taking its first practice spins. Someone told me that the evacuees had all been bused out at 9 a.m. Sunday, ahead of schedule.
Behind the Civic Center, I found a small group of evacuees living in recreational vehicles. They'd just gotten moved off the front lawn to make room for the carnival. I talked with one old woman in a faded housecoat, who sat in a folding chair in front of her daughter's RV. A volunteer had been helping her use the Civic Center computer to check on her son. He was in an intensive care unit when the hurricane struck; he is still missing. When the Civic Center closed, the old woman says, she was told that the Rayne public library has a computer. She hasn't gone yet.
Where are the Rayne Civic Center evacuees now? I was told that many went to the Cajundome. I was also told that people in Rayne have been truly wonderful, but it's hard, this moving around.
The Cajundome isn't as well-known a Katrina shelter as the massive Houston Astrodome, which has been visited by Dr. Phil and Mickey Mouse. But Lafayette made the news a couple times during those first days. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Charles Boustany, both Republicans, met crowds of evacuees here. "We've waited too long without answers," said Boustany, a week before he started to more closely follow the lead of White House operative Karl Rove, who is now heading the New Orleans reconstruction.
On Sept. 2, the day President George Bush went to Mobile, Ala., to praise then-FEMA head Michael Brown, the First Lady stopped by the Cajundome. The White House's website features a number of photos of her here, dressed in a cream-colored pants suit, administering aid. A typical caption reads, "Laura Bush leans down to comfort a woman and her young child inside the Cajundome . . ."
Lafayette resident Seth Touchet was volunteering in a makeshift computer room that day, helping evacuees find family members and fill out FEMA forms. The Bush visit shut down both the computers and the kitchen for about three hours, he says. With nothing to do, he and a kitchen worker watched as Bush aides hand-picked evacuees to be photographed receiving a plate of food.
"We were disgusted," he says. "There were still people literally dying to get out of New Orleans at that point, and the federal government really hadn't done anything. The folks here were the same folks who'd been in on the bridges, in the Superdome."
New Orleans isn't even in New Orleans anymore, but in many ways it's still a divided city. In Lafayette, it's divided between home evacuees and shelter evacuees. Like most divisions in New Orleans, this one generally falls along racial lines. Most of the evacuees in the Cajundome are African-American; nearly all the home evacuees I know in Lafayette are white. You don't see the borders until you test them. A friend who's a home evacuee in the town of St. Martinville showed up at the dome with her daughter, a fourth-grader. They wanted to help. A volunteer turned them away, telling them that people from New Orleans should be relaxing.
I also showed up at the Cajundome during that first week. There were thousands of New Orleanians here and I just wanted to find anyone I knew. That's really all I wanted to do that week -- locate everyone I knew in the city and determine where they had landed. The Cajundome staff turned me back, too. If I wanted to find someone, I could page them, they said.
Then I thought I'd enter the Cajundome with a press pass, but I heard that was getting difficult, too. Security was tightening. So one afternoon in Lafayette, I left a message for my wife. I'd see everyone the next morning. I was checking in.
My cot is one of about 200 in Exhibit Hall B. Many of these cots are filled with people sleeping. Some rarely leave their cots the entire time I'm there. I never see any help for them.
Currently, 2202 evacuees are in the Cajundome, according to The Daily Dome, a pink sheet of announcements that I see posted in various spots around the arena. There are cots in the dome, in the exhibit halls, in the back hallways, in the TV room. Some are single cots; others are pushed together and stuffed with belongings, like small rooms without walls.
There is, of course, no privacy. Everybody sees everybody else sleep, read, take medicine, play cards, braid hair, laugh, cry, or do nothing at all.
There are reminders everywhere that the Cajundome is just a way station in a building designed for other uses. My cot is in an area marked "concessions." A few tables are set up for medical help and counseling near a sign that says "premium cocktails." Taped-up signs point you to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, housing seminars, jobs, a bank of bolted cellphones, haircuts, meals, showers, church.
Outside, between the exhibit halls and the dome, is a little concrete park. People go there to smoke. A group of teenage volunteers in matching orange T-shirts set up to play Christian rock. An area cordoned off by barricades is a basketball court. Two Lafayette cops lean against their police car, watching young men sink rainbow jump shots while children run around the players' legs. Children are everywhere.
I see Randy, who signed in the same time I did. (I told evacuees I met here that I was publishing a journal and that I'm not using any of their real names.) Randy is chatting easily with two Air Force guards. Like everyone I meet at the Cajundome, Randy rode out the storm and left a couple days later. And like many of us, he had situations in life that Katrina hopelessly complicated. He calls his ex-wife's house but her new husband answers. There's a final paycheck waiting for him but he can't get to it. Tomorrow is his daughter's 15th birthday. He is trying to figure out how to get to her.
"I don't have any presents for her, but I thought I would give her me!" he says. He laughs at how crazy that must sound. But he's not going to manage that present, either.
Cops, armed military guards, lights-out at 10 p.m., cots, concrete. After only a few hours here, I have to keep reminding myself that the Cajundome isn't a jail. City buses pass by on a regular schedule. You can leave anytime you want. But where? Why?
Randy and I watch the Christian rock show, the altar call, the teenagers praying over the evacuees. He takes off. I return to watching the basketball game. Then I look around. An old man in a wheelchair and long gray hair, a lit cigarette in his mouth, is pushing a small red fire truck to a tiny girl. She seems to be about 3 years old. She pushes it back. He leans over and pushes it to her. Back and forth. Her mother watches from a nearby bench.
I look back to the basketball game. Then I hear the man say, "See you later." I turn and see him wheel up a ramp into the Cajundome. The girl moves over to her mother's feet. Her face twists up and she begins to cry. It is an unspecific cry, a miserable cry. A teenager walks by and absent-mindedly kicks the fire truck. It clatters away. The girl doesn't notice.
I get up to retrieve the fire truck before it gets kicked farther. I push it toward the little girl. It gently bounces off her leg. She pushes it back to me. I sit on the ground and we start up the same game. Back and forth. Then another girl, a little older, sits down between us. We make a small triangle with our legs and keep the game going.
A boy sits down beside me. He wants in. "Where do you go to school in New Orleans?" I ask. "ISL," he says. International School of Louisiana. A charter school in Mid-City. Some of my best friends send their kids there. He's from my world.
We keep on, now forming a square. After a while, the game breaks up. The little girl climbs into her mother's lap and the boy leads me to his grandmother, and then his mom, Linda. They're all staying in the dome, their sleeping quarters under the Jumbotron.
Linda's family evacuated to a downtown hotel near the Superdome, where her mother worked as a housekeeper. It's what they do for every hurricane. For days, they survived in the hotel, with the manager of the nearby Walgreen's providing supplies. At one point, Linda saw two women, both in their nineties, walking with little purpose through the flood. They were St. Charles Avenue ladies, Linda says. She brought them with her, to the Causeway bridge where people were fainting, and then on a bus to the Cajundome.
Neither of us mention it, but it's a fact: last week, Linda likely saved two lives.
Right now, Linda's working through her new life in the Cajundome. She wants to keep her son's French language studies going, so she's not taking the first school they offer.
We're talking quietly. We talk about keeping it all together, how hard it gets. Someday in the next weeks or months, she'll be moving. The Cajundome is getting an emergency loan to keep it from going broke. Some other kind of housing is in the works, but nobody knows the time line. Linda says they're pushing -- no, encouraging -- people to move on. She has a cell phone; we trade numbers. She turns back to her kids, readying them for sleep. "I feel at home here," she tells me.
Home evacuees, we talk about the city constantly. Who's going in to check out the house, what's the latest on the flood waters, the politics of reconstruction. The only time I ever hear groups of shelter evacuees talking about New Orleans is in the corridor where a TV shows CNN day and night. People sit in plastic molded chairs, reacting loudly to old footage of buses sitting in water. Buses that should have carried people out. They talk about not going back.
There's a man here wearing his pressed airport shuttle shirt. A woman who drives a city bus in New Orleans; her husband conducts the Canal streetcar. Someone who's the head custodian at an Uptown school. We talk about our neighborhoods, blocks away from each other.
An announcement: Ten minutes to lights out. I make my way to Exhibit Hall B. The mattress inches from my cot is now filled with its family. Kids are buried under the blanket; adults are talking quietly. I sit down, pick up my package of sheets and untie the twine. I lift up a plain white sheet. Right in the middle are two circular eyeholes. One Halloween night, somewhere out there in America, this was a ghost.
The lights dim and a woman's voice comes over the loudspeaker, reading Psalm 89: Thou dost rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, thou stillest them. Then a lullaby of people coughing, babies crying, the rhythms of breathing. The door opens and shuts with a hollow, metallic sound as people walk out for a smoke. They nearly brush past my cot; with my eyes closed, I can sense their shadows falling over me.
These past three weeks, my experience of New Orleans has been in people's homes, sitting in living rooms, talking with friends. At the Cajundome, there are reminders of a larger city that every day seems to slip a little further away. A city where people live and work together. Where they have their stories, and you have yours. You meet in line at the store, you meet at Mardi Gras. You ride their streetcars, they read your newspaper. You might be worlds apart, but every day, you have at least some small chance to know each other a little better.
When I wake up the next morning, women are ironing clothes on folding tables. The bus of day laborers who will clean New Orleans is pulling out; children sit in a line waiting to be taken to school. I get in my car and drive back to my friend's house. My daughter runs to hug me when I walk through the door.