September 13, 2005
Last night I volunteered in the Reliant Center, which is one of the two adjacent buildings to the Astrodome.
A number of people stopped me to thank me for what I was doing and to complement the city of Houston on its response. I told one woman, “Well, this is one situation in which Houston has actually done something right.” Don’t get me wrong…there are also some dissatisfied evacuees; those who feel that they want “real doctor” or are upset about problems receiving assistance. There are a number of people with skin rashes, congestion, and intestinal problems who feel they should be getting better medical treatment. For the most part, though, there isn’t much to do for these people; for instance, several individuals wanted antibiotics when they probably just have a virus. But overall, just as it was the other night, people are generally pleased. Some are downright thrilled about their reception here in H-town….including most of those who had previously been in the Superdome in New Orleans. More than once individuals expressed the fact that they didn’t want to leave because they were worried that their next living situation wouldn’t be as accommodating. This really seemed to be the case of people
Although the cots were originally set up in rows, families have put cots together in a number of ways to create privacy and to delineate their own personal space. One family, including at least 20 different people, had set unused cots on their sides along the perimeter of their sleeping area to form a fence between themselves and the rest of the crowd. Although I have visited the sleeping quarters twice now, I cannot imagine coping with the lack of privacy that these people have had to endure. Many people, when I asked how long they had been in Houston, replied that they had lost count of the nights. This seems like it is partly a function of their stress and also a coping mechanism against the disarray of their lives.
Most of the people I spoke with had located all of their family members. One grandmother cried on my shoulder when telling me of her search for her daughter and her two grandsons. After wading through “shitty brown water” and fighting to be at the front of an unruly crowd, she put the three of them on one of the first trucks leaving the Superdome because she was worried about an infected rash on one of her grandson’s legs. Days went by and then she and the rest of her family (her two sisters, their children and grandchildren, her three other children and their children) were moved to Houston. She had no idea where her daughter went to and searched for her via the internet, Red Cross, etc. She told me she was so hysterical with fear and stress that when Bill Clinton arrived to do a press conference, she stepped up right behind him while he was on the air, tapped his shoulder, and said, “MR. President, help me find my daughter.” Well, to make a long story short, Clinton and a Representative Sheila Jackson Lee together helped her to find her daughter. She went to San Antonio, searched three shelters, and finally found the rest of her family. Now they are together here in Houston.
I can’t help but wonder what will happen to some of these families. Several had managed to already pull together different types of assistance and were working on buying homes and renting apartments in Houston. However, one large family I spoke with, including an 11-year-old girl who was about seven months pregnant, was unsure of what to do. Together, they were looking for an apartment in Houston. It didn’t seem to me that they had any assets, any bank accounts, any insurance to collect, much education, any employable skills, or any other family on which to rely. The children hadn’t been put into school yet and it didn’t seem like they were interested in placing them any time soon. What will happen to people like this? Will they be swallowed up in Houston somewhere? Not to mention, how can 8-10 people live in an apartment together?
When I asked one woman if all of her family was accounted for, she said that yes, they were all there together in Houston, but she hadn’t seen her son since the late afternoon of the day before. He is a teenager and she was worried he had taken off into the city and gotten into some trouble. Her children and grandchildren were running around and it was impossible to know where they were at any given time. The crowds are so large and the buildings are so cavernous that it is completely possible to lose track of somebody within moments if you turn your back. Not to mention the fact that everybody is a bit stir-crazy and needs to get out and get some quiet every once in a while. She was extremely troubled and anxious about the uncertainty of their living situation and was ready to get out of Reliant Center ASAP.
I am really impressed with Houston’s response overall and Houstonians generosity in particular. However, on several occasions in the last two weeks I have encountered individuals who believe that the fall-out from the hurricane is a consequence of “the culture of entitlement” and “Welfare.” I am completely appalled by these comments which I believe are made from positions of power and reflect classism, and racism, and ignorance.
I sincerely hope that this catastrophic event will have a long-lasting impact on Americans by raising our awareness of the pervasiveness of inequality and the disastrous effects of poverty. I have been doing some reading on the concept of social justice and equality lately and have really been thinking hard about my individual role and society’s role for ensuring that all people are treated justly, but I will spare you these thoughts for now! Those of you who see me as a “left wing nut” now…just you wait! J