[NOTE: 5/7/12–I took a break from maintaining my hard-as-nails, cynical curmudgeon persona to read over this post I made about visiting the Austin Convention Center while it was being used as a shelter for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. I had forgotten how intense the experience was, and reading the text and looking at the photos I took during that visit made me cry.]
My buddy Matt is Aide to the Mayor of Austin, and a few days after Katrina evacuees started arriving in Austin he called me and said, “You oughta come down here to the shelter at the Convention Center and meet some of these people. They’re great! Everybody’s got great New Orleans stories. There’s this old musician … You’d love talking to these people.”
I said I wanted to come down and begged him to get me in there, but I never got anything definite out of him. I knew they weren’t just letting private citizens in off the street–you needed security clearance or a badge or something. I knew I’d need Matt to escort me in.
I just had to get in there. I wasn’t so much concerned with hearing entertaining stories as I was feeling a profound need to help, and to get a more in-depth, realistic feel for what actually happened. I e-mailed Matt and left him phone messages for several days with no result.
Monday I had to go into town to do research for my column and buy a copy of an historical photo from the Austin History Center and then drop it off at my publisher’s office two blocks away….
I did my research, then headed over to the office….I paged Matt and told him I’d meet him at the new City Hall.
The Mayor’s Office has been turned into Katrina Central. I was ushered in just behind some charity group headed by a black guy who, though being a doctor and an adult, was at best only 4’10” tall. He also wore a sort of 1977-style black safari suit and looked more than a little like Sammy Davis, Jr.
My publisher had asked me to get some photos of the Mayor and evacuation shelter scenes for the paper. I had offered to write the feature on Katrina a week before, but he had put his brother-in-law on the job. My publisher had actually been at the Convention Center earlier in the day with his camera and saw Sandra Bullock volunteering.
He said, “Yeah, I saw her handing a bottle of water to a black woman and it would’ve been a perfect shot. I had my camera right there. I could’ve gotten that shot and sold it to ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or someplace and made thousands of dollars! But I was too polite. Then she gave me a dirty look and said something like, ‘No paparazzi! I’m doing the whole press thing next week.’ Whatever that means.”
As much as I love money I was shocked by what he said and made myself a promise that if I got a chance to take a good paparazzi-style picture of a celebrity at the shelter, and sold it for five figures, I would be bound to give all that money to relief organizations. It would be blood money, and I couldn’t live with myself otherwise.
Apparently Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey have put in a lot of appearances at the shelter, and not a few evacuees, doctors, nurses, volunteers, et. al., have been rendered star-struck.
So Matt and I drove to within a few blocks of the Convention Center, picked up the Mayor on a corner, then the Mayor and I got out on the east side of the building, went in, and I tried to take a picture of him for the paper. The Mayor posed by the entrance to the Job Bank, but for some reason my flash wouldn’t go off. It worked, however, when I pointed the camera at the crowd. I sensed the Mayor was getting impatient and I was very embarrassed.
[NOTE: This turned out to be because, as a novice photographer, I hadn’t yet learned never to take a picture of a subject with the like source behind him.]
The Mayor and I went back outside, and while he talked to a reporter I saw a school bus pull up full of evacuee kids just back from a day at their new elementary school. Photographers and camera-men rushed up by the bus and started getting shots of the kids, who in turn yelled, cheered, and flashed the peace sign. They were really eating up the “rock star” treatment. I’d not seen kids that happy in a long time.
We took the Mayor back to City Hall, then returned to the Convention Center, parking near the service entrance.
Some of you are not familiar with the Austin Convention Center. Some of you may not have been there since they added on to the building, at least doubling its size. It’s now a “C”-shaped structure, its longest portion running on a north-south axis, with lofty corridors skirting the outside edge, and a service court/loading dock on the inside of the “C,” facing east.
Matt explained that for all the large numbers of people still in the Convention Center, there had been 85% more last week. Austin was lucky, he said, in that we had 24 to 48 hours more to prepare for the evacuees than Houston did. He showed me where the processing tables had been set up last week. He said he’d helped build the shower facilities off the loading dock, put up an awning so pets in carriers wouldn’t be exposed to the sun, and claimed he’d lost track of how many cots he unfolded and assembled.
He showed me where the buses had pulled up, and said the first face each evacuee saw was that of the Mayor. The Mayor shook everyone’s hand and welcomed them to Austin. Now I am a huge cynic, especially when it comes to politicians, but Matt said the Mayor drives his staff to distraction with his refusal to promote himself, and I think, based on my encounters with the Mayor, that he wasn’t grand-standing or politicking by greeting the people like that, but was rather just being gracious.
I am also pleased that many people are referring to the evacuees as “new neighbors,” and not going out of their way to run these people off as soon as possible. Matt did mention, however, that if there’s another disaster in the near future the City may not have the money to help.
Matt took me up a large service ramp, past a geriatric ward and a triage center. Out in the main corridor there was a group of tables and shelves piled high with pharmaceuticals. We walked through a large exhibition hall and saw even more drugs, as well as doctors, nurses, a diabetes treatment center, people waiting to get examined. From there we went into yet another exhibition hall where, set up on the floor, there was an actual trailer, about the size of a construction site office, donated by the CVS drug store chain, and filled to the rafters with even more medicine.
It really began to dawn on me then just how wealthy a nation the US is, how many resources we have available, and it angered me all the more that if a medium-sized city like Austin could put together a logistical marvel like this in such a short notice, then why the hell had the Feds, FEMA, the National Guard, and the State, and local governments in New Orleans failed so badly to provide for the people there?
Back out into the corridor, Matt introduced me to a couple of clergymen, one a priest who’d been at the Convention Center pretty much since the evacuees arrived, the other a black preacher who’d been giving the City grief because black leaders weren’t brought into the relief planning sessions early enough to suit him. (You’d never have known there was any friction between the two, though.)
While Matt was trying to decide where to take me next, we encountered a little old black woman in a wheelchair, who had gotten lost and didn’t know how to get back to her cot. Now getting lost in that huge building isn’t hard to do, even if you’re young and healthy. There is one vast exhibition space in the building, but it can be divided up into any number of smaller halls by means of folding metal panels, two- or three-stories tall.
And as the population and needs of the shelter change, often day-by-day, the spaces are re-sized and re-configured. While I was there the powers that be were moving the men from one hall into another, so they could clean and disinfect the old one.
Matt took ahold of the handles of the old woman’s chair and we proceeded to look for her section, while continuing with the tour. I tried to take pictures of the dormitories, but a woman with an ID badge came up and asked what I was doing. (I had no official ID on me.) Matt explained he was with the Mayor’s office, and claimed the pictures were for his office, not for the newspapers. The woman apologized, and said she just wanted to make sure no one was being exploited, and we assured her that no, she was perfectly right in stopping us.
As it was, 1) I did not send in any photos that I thought might be construed as exploitative, 2) any pictures I sent in where I did not crop out the faces of evacuees were ones where the people were happy and not clearly suffering, and 3) Matt kept moving and I really didn’t have time to stop and do good, deliberate set-ups, so the dormitory shots were all blurry, and anyway, it was more important to get the old woman to her cot than for me to get pictures.
There seemed to be no end of rooms and storage areas. There was a functioning post office, whose lines were moving faster than they do at the post office in my neighborhood–and they didn’t leave three windows unmanned! There were banks of telephones, rows of computers, a section of baby strollers, boxes and boxes of diapers, and on the floor, a large pile of school book bags, which for some reason made me very sad.
These rooms smelled the way hospitals or nursing homes do. As we made our way Matt would ask different people, “Ma’am, are you doing okay?,” “Sir, can we do anything for you?” Some people just murmured that they were fine, others didn’t respond. (I think one of the women who didn’t respond had her ear phones on, listening to music.) But one older man with a grizzled beard just walked off shaking his head that no, things were not in fact okay.
I can sympathize with these people. If I was poor and black and had been through that hell in New Orleans and some smiling white politician came up and suddenly acted all interested in me I might be a little suspicious too.
There were people sitting or laying on some of the cots, staring into space. Some fingered small possessions like a toy or a CD. I made a quick appraisal of the grouping of cots that constituted a family’s “home:” a few clothes jammed into a plastic trash bag, a stuffed animal, a newspaper, a Bible, a coffee cup, a tube of hand lotion. That was all these people had left in the world, and more than likely they’d just been given those things in this shelter. That was when my eyes really began welling up and I started blinking hard. But I figured that if these people weren’t crying then I certainly hadn’t earned the right to do so, at least not there.
Another really strange thing was that the shelter, especially the sleeping rooms, felt oddly sacred, as if all the suffering these people had undergone made the place where they finally found sanctuary a hallowed one.
We finally found the old lady’s section and led her to her cot. She thanked us both and grasped our hands and we wished her well. Matt went over to talk to a bed-ridden guy he’d gotten to know and I took a picture of a cot with three stuffed animals on it.
Matt told me he’d thrown about six tantrums when dealing with businesses or other official-type people in regards to this relief effort. Now there are a lot of really overweight people from New Orleans. Matt is no slouch himself in the weight department, so he pretty much cleaned out his closets getting over-sized clothes for some of the male evacuees.
He then figured out how many more men needed big clothes and he called a big and tall men’s store he patronizes and asked for a donation. The manager said he couldn’t do anything about it, that Matt would have to talk to the regional manager. And then the regional manager balked too, giving some bullshit excuse for why they couldn’t donate the clothes.
Matt went nuts, and started screaming and cussing, saying, “I have been on the phone with just about every business in the city and they’ve all been more than happy to help out these people, and you mean to tell me you won’t?!!! If you don’t help, I fucking swear to Christ to make it my mission to fuck you over, and when all this is over and the Mayor gets on TV and reads off a list thanking every business that helped I’m gonna make sure he reads off your name and singles your store out as the only one in town too chicken-shit to help in an emergency!”
[NOTE: I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of Matt as I was when he told me that.]
As it was, the regional manager refused to play ball. Eventually the local manager donated the clothes after paying for them out of his own pocket. I cannot believe anybody would be so heartless at a time like this.
We cut through the dining room/snack bar, then went out on the loading dock. This was the smoking area, where the young and old men, particularly the old men in wheelchairs, gathered. It also led down to the showers. Matt cautioned me the area was “kinda rough.”
We passed a display of letters and drawings from local school kids, expressing their sorrow to the children of New Orleans, welcoming them to Austin, and assuring them that things will get better.
A City Maintenance worker came up to Matt with a complaint, then Matt explained, “The first couple days you could tell everybody was so relieved to get here, they were like, ‘Thank you so much. We’re so happy to be here.’ But after a couple days people began to get comfortable and they started getting annoyed. They were like, ‘Where was the government? Where was FEMA? Why didn’t the government come and help us? What took them so long?’ Then some people started getting a bit rambunctious, tempers started to get a little high. (Voice lowers.) Actually, I’m wondering why there’s so little of a police presence here. (Raises voice to a normal level again.) But the other night somebody was playing some music out back here and everybody was really getting into it. It was a real community feeling. It was fun.”
“I would’ve enjoyed seeing that,” I said.
As we were turning back into one of the halls two young men asked me to take their picture. I thought they were evacuees, and they kept saying something about “Graebel,” which I assumed must be some neighborhood near New Orleans, but they turned out to be delivery drivers for a trucking company of that name. They’d brought in a bunch of supplies and were apparently just inordinately proud of their company.
On the other side of the hall I told Matt, “This is pretty intense. I’m having trouble not bawling at some of this.”
“Oh, I know it. You think this is something, you should see it when families get re-united. I had to step outside a few times when I saw that. (To a pair of policemen) Hey fellas, you’re doin’ a great job!”
Out in the corridor Matt introduced me to “the real queen of this place,” a young black woman who had set up a beauty salon on the premises. Actually I didn’t think the idea of a beauty salon in an evacuation shelter such a far-fetched idea. I can imagine after spending days wallowing in mud, blood, sewage, and industrial waste in the streets, then dealing with the hellish conditions in either the Superdome or the New Orleans Convention Center, that it would be a great psychological boost for the women and girls to feel beautiful again. I may have to go back and interview that woman and write an article about her.
Just past the make-shift basketball court outside I spotted a group of dogs and Miniature horses. Matt let me out a door that was locked from the outside so I could go investigate.
A group called “Hearts and Hooves” had brought these little animals to provide animal therapy for the traumatized people, especially the children. Petting and being around animals helps bring down stress and blood pressure, and often people with deeply-internalized traumas can explain their problems to and bond with animals in a way they can’t with people.
I fell into a conversation with one of the volunteers, but soon realized I had to write an article about this. She told me how one day she set up outside the Convention Center and a large group of children gathered around her. One was an eleven-year-old boy with a shell-shocked look. He’d lost several members of his family, including his aunt and grandmother.
The lady suggested that if he needed a shoulder to cry on he should talk to one of the little horses. He took the horse, went off in a corner, and sat with him for the longest time. Finally he came back, gave the lady the horse’s lead, thanked her, and said he felt a lot better. She said he did in fact look as if he’d been relieved of a great burden. He then went back inside the Convention Center.
Not five minutes later the kid came running back outside, excitedly shouting that they’d found his grandmother. He took the volunteer in to meet her, but his grandmother was off somewhere getting processed.
Before I left I took several pictures. One lady picked up what I think was a Schnauzer. In the background three men were walking away, one with a T-shirt saying something like “WHO YOU CALLING THE BIG DOG?” I tried to frame the dog and the T-shirt up in a shot, but someone stepped in the way.
Matt and I made our way past the crowded Health and Human Services, Social Security, and Red Cross sections. We ducked into one of the medical treatment areas and talked with a doctor and a few other health care people, then went back into the corridor.
Matt needed to go to the bathroom, but was worried about leaving me out there with no pass or ID. He said if I just stayed in that one spot and didn’t walk around, I should be okay. He also explained the situation to a couple security guards. (This made me feel like a five-year-old.)
While he did his business I looked around at the resources that were available within a few feet.
At the foot of the stairs was the press credentials table. About thirty feet away a few people were taking their seats for an AA meeting. And forty feet from that came the unusual sounds of Vietnamese evacuees chanting during a Catholic Mass.
That day was quite a bit to take in. I felt useless, impotent, superfluous. I wasn’t a doctor, a priest, a counselor. I couldn’t tell people how to find work or figure out their government benefits.
I stayed up late Tuesday writing my column and the Hearts and Hooves article. I slept most of Wednesday, getting up around 6pm. My publisher had called around 4pm, saying he’d heard the Neville Brothers were supposed to give a surprise benefit concert for Katrina relief at the Convention Center at 4:45. I later e-mailed him that while I would’ve loved to attend the concert, I was way the hell up in the Northwest part of town with no car, and a round-trip cab ride down there and back was about $50 to $60.
He had also wanted me to write about the history of flooding in Austin for my local history column this week.
The more I thought about it the more convinced I was that the topic was in bad taste and exploitative of the tragedy. I wound up writing the column, but book-ended it on the front with a rant about the way the government botched things, then wrapped up with an explanation that since history shows that Austin is also vulnerable to disastrous flooding, we are morally obligated to give to the relief efforts not only now, but long after the media gets bored with the story.
The column turned out okay, but I still had my doubts, and shared them with my publisher. As it turns out, his brother-in-law’s article on the shelter was so long most of the columns got bumped from this issue, so presumably the horse article and a different history column will appear in the next one.
You can already tell the media is trying to wrap this story up. Bush gave his little speech in the French Quarter, promising another War on Poverty. Parts of New Orleans have already been re-opened. Yet animal rescuers are still trying to get injured and starving pets from the area, there’s no potable water, the police are sleeping in their cars, the town stinks of shit and death, and the people who will be doing the actual job of physically rebuilding the city, are many miles away, lost, dazed, and disgusted.
[NOTES: What follows is material I learned after posting this or material I had to suppress at the time.
A few days after the first wave of evacuees arrived in Austin from Louisiana, a huge number of people in the public and private sector were working long hours at the Convention Center and the Palmer Special Events Center to make sure Austin’s newest residents had all that they needed. At City Hall, everything except Katrina got put on the back burner.
About the middle of the second night, the dirty towels and bed linen at the Convention Center had really piled up. As I recall, laundry facilities had broken down, and for some reason, delivery trucks weren’t available. Mayor Wynn grabbed two large, wheeled laundry carts, told his staff and whoever else was in earshot to do the same, and he led the way up the street, lugging laundry carts about three blocks to what was then the closest hotel.
He then went into the hotel and announced, “I’m Mayor Wynn, and we just brought all this laundry from the Convention Center and need the use of your laundry facilities.” (I confess I tear up whenever I think of that story.)
Because many of the evacuees had lost all their records and some were in too delicate of a mental state to remember important information about themselves, the potential for inside and outside parties to take advantage of this emergency to engage in fraud was great. The staffers were working to process the evacuees quickly, before clever people with a criminal turn of mind could figure out the system’s loopholes.
A nurse told me and Matt about a young man who showed up at the Convention Center and the Palmer Special Events Center, dressed like a slob in T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, claiming he wanted to help in any way he could. He gave his real name, but he did not identify himself as someone fairly high up in a media position, and his mode of dress was apparently chosen so as not to draw attention to himself.
This guy took a liking to an old man at Palmer. They’d talk and hang out. Many a time the old man missed his scheduled nurse visits because he was outside smoking with his new friend. The old man seemed to have no family, and was so out of it mentally he thought he was still in New Orleans. As the days went by, the young man told the nurses that he was going to take the old man into his own home and take care of him himself.
All of this sent up a red flag with the nurses. They were just sure this guy was planning to use the old man and steal his benefits. When the one nurse told me this I said that maybe the young man wasn’t planning a fraud, but instead wanted to exploit the old man as the focus of a news story.
Whatever the young man’s motives, they were thwarted. The nurses did some research, and found that the old man had a grand-daughter in West Texas, and she came and rescued the old man before the sneaky young journalist could check him out of the shelter.]