Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Friends and family have been pressing me for any information about the situation in Houston. Here is some information about what I've been up to.

The Astrodome

September 7th 2005

I will gloss over the bureaucratic confusion that confronted me when I entered through the gates to Reliant Park. I first spent some time walking around the outside of the various buildings in the area taking in the sights (and also trying to find the volunteer registration center.) I was surprised to see, among other things, a makeshift playground perched on a small area of grass in which several young kids were playing. Across from the playground a very thin older woman was shuffling along with a vacant look on her face. I assumed she was mentally ill; it could be she was simply alone and in shock.

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 Reliant Center.

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 Houston, cruise ships, even other states. But when I entered the Dome a veritable sea of people greeted me.

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 New Orleans, at least those at the Astrodome, demonstrated a strangely calm faith. Many people talked to me about miracles, about God’s purpose, and about resiliency. Several people understood the hurricane to be a result of God's wrath on the evil that lurked in New Orleans...a la Sodom and Gomorrah. One woman told me that she had lost everything once before in a hurricane and wasn’t bothered by losing everything again. She was just glad her family was alive and accounted for.

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 Reliant Center as I am sure several people have already discovered.

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 New Orleans. Some were thinking of Houston as a temporary home, but others were emphatic in their refusal to ever return to New Orleans. After what they have been though, I can’t blame them. I heard several people complain about how they were neglected for days, how they were treated in the Superdome, and about their anger toward FEMA and state and local officials.

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.


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