Friends and family have been pressing me for any information about the situation in
September 7th 2005
I will gloss over the bureaucratic confusion that confronted me when I entered through the gates to
I have been volunteering on behalf of the UT-Houston School of Public Health’s Student Epidemiologic Intelligence Service (SEIS) for the Houston County Health Department. Their task each night is to complete a survey of all of the remaining 7500-8000 individuals in the three sleeping areas who are in their cots at the time of the survey. We are doing what is called a rapid assessment; in short the task is to get an idea of the prevalence of health problems such as skin rashes or wounds, gastrointestinal problems, you name it. As you may have heard there have been some viral outbreaks. This survey is occurring on a nightly basis to help track the scope of the symptoms and to identify any emergent outbreaks. Through our daily counts of the “active cots,” we are also providing the estimates of the evacuee population at the three buildings in the
During orientation, I was told that we would be screening for mental as well as physical problems. In fact, during the previous evening’s survey, a volunteer had identified a suicidal evacuee and helped to make arrangements for care for this individual. We were also warned that on most nights so far, volunteers had witnessed vomiting. I was nervous about my task, worried about being exposed to disease, and wondered how I would be received.
I was assigned to the Astrodome along with 13 other volunteers. Despite days of being flooded with media images I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Basically, my first impression can be accurately summed up as holy shit. I had been repeatedly told how most of the evacuees had been moved to other shelters in
I was assigned to walk up and down two long rows surveying everybody who was awake and in or near their cots. All but two of the people I eventually interviewed were African American. There were senior citizens, families, and children. Many people were there with their family, but some were alone. One 17 year old girl was there with her boyfriend and his family. Despite registering with several services and searching lists of evacuee names across several states, she had yet to find her family. I couldn’t help but think they had died in the storm.
Like the rest of us, I had being hearing about filth, sickness, violence, and despair. But the people of
For the most part, people’s physical complaints included runny noses, congestion, coughing, allergies, diarrhea, vomiting, and skin rashes. Most people had already had their prescriptions filled and their acute and chronic conditions handled by the medical staff. Several people had already been hospitalized and/or quarantined for gastrointestinal problems and were now feeling better. However, a handful of people were still sick and trying to rest on their cots. That’s hard to do when you’re surrounded by thousands of people, a loudspeaker, and bright glaring lights.
I was also struck by the fact that a number of people were dealing with withdrawal issues. Most of the serious cases had already been handled by medical staff, but there were a number of older men, especially, who had rheumy eyes and shaky hands who, when I asked how they were feeling, told me they needed a drink. There is a liquor store nearby to the
Probably the funniest response I got was from a girl about 10 or 11 years old:
ME: “How are you feeling tonight? Do you feel sick at all?”
GIRL with a huge plate on her lap containing 5 1/2 donuts and a sugary-coated face: “Got a stomach pain. Real bad. Ohhh.”
ME: “Think that has something to do with all those donuts you’re eating?!”
Most of the people I spoke to were not interested in returning to
After the first two hours of interviewing, I was exhausted. Every minute or two there are announcements over the loud speaker that make it nearly impossible to hear anything else and kids were running around playing and chasing each other and trying to get my attention. The stories I was hearing were appalling and the I couldn’t help but think of the enormity of the obstacles that these people are facing. Eventually, though, I pulled myself together and kept up the pace for the evening.