Dome Away From Home
For two weeks in September, the Eighth Wonder of the World was miraculously transformed into the largest emergency shelter in the universe, where 17,500 Katrina survivors found comfort, hundreds of families were reunited, and New Orleans showed its first signs of rebirth.
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IN THE EARLY MORNING OF SATURDAY, September 3, five days after Hurricane Katrina lit into New Orleans and rerouted the course of America’s natural, political, and economic history for God only knows how long, I walked up a ramp in the Astrodome with a blank-faced kid from Houston who never did tell me his name. Neither of us knew what we were walking into, but the kid, who looked to be barely twenty, at least knew what he was looking for. It gave him no comfort. His father lived in New Orleans, and he hadn’t heard from him since the storm had hit. But in the wake of Katrina’s third flood, the one that came after the rains and the levee breaks, the one that washed 245,000 hurricane survivors into Texas, the Dome had become the largest shelter the American Red Cross had ever organized, a temporary home to 17,500 people. When a Houston TV station had broadcast live from the Dome the previous evening, the kid had seen a man on-screen who he was certain was his dad and, after a sleepless night, needed to find him in here this morning.
We left the ramp and moved as quietly as we could through the shadows in the second-level concourse just outside the stadium seating; there were people sleeping on cots wherever we stepped. We turned onto an aisle that took us into the stands, the field opening in front of us as it does every time a sports fan walks to his seat. Our expectations had been colored by the horror stories that had poured out of New Orleans’ Superdome and convention center. Thankfully, this scene was nothing like that. But it would still suck the wind right out of your lungs: row upon row of cheap green cots spread over almost every square foot of Astrodome floor, with no kind of wall or curtain to separate any one cot from the next. There were signs of the building’s original use, but these were afterthoughts to the initial impression. The scoreboards above the green outfield walls showed the names of missing people, not ballplayers. The Dome was no longer a stadium. It was a big bedroom with thousands of beds, each one holding a person who’d just lost everything he owned.
It was barely seven-thirty in the morning, and most of the people looked as if they were trying to keep sleeping. They covered their heads with Red Cross—issued gray flannel blankets like the kind U-Haul sells you on moving day, an effort to block out the Astrodome lights, which never turned off. Some people sat on their cots scratching and stretching, either from just waking up or never having gotten to sleep. There were also clusters of people scattered in the stands, grasping at some semblance of privacy in their remove from the floor. You sensed that they were families by the way they lay across one another as they tried to sleep. Weirdly, despite all the children up and running around, little sound made it into the stands. And even more striking, judging from the faces I could see and the arms and feet sticking out from the sheets, almost all the cots were occupied by black people.
I looked at the kid, who stood there in silence. His eyes surveyed the crowd, the magnitude of the task at hand still a happier thought than the prospect that there might not be any use in pursuing it. His father was alive or he wasn’t. The son looked as if he might be saying a prayer or wondering if it wasn’t about time to start. “I’ve got to go find my dad,” he said, and then walked down through the stands and onto the floor. I saw him about an hour later. He was still looking. I never saw him again after that.
THE EARLY ASSISTANCE from the Astrodome caregivers, a loose coalition of the Red Cross, FEMA, state, county, and local officials, plus area churches and sincerely concerned citizens of Houston, ran to immediate, essential needs. The Dome provided a roof, and its locker rooms, mostly dormant since the Astros stopped playing there in 1999, offered a place to shower. Clothes were dropped off and sorted in a building across the parking lot, arriving in such quantities that volunteers had to quit taking them each day around lunchtime. A medical center was set up in a building next to that one.
In the Dome itself, food was handed out at tables that ran the circumference of the fourth-level concourse. There were hot meals at breakfast and dinner and sandwiches and snacks available throughout the day. Since many of the New Orleanians—most of the people I talked to bristled at being referred to as “refugees” or “evacuees”—couldn’t make it up the stairs, volunteers pushed carts of food through narrow aisles between the cots on the floor, and bottled water was available in iced-down tubs everywhere you looked. There was a busy triage station where one Oilers end zone used to be, and at the other end of the old playing field was a large message board where missing-person notes were posted. There were poster boards with family names taped to the netting that used to keep extra points from sailing into the stands.
Security was everywhere, but quietly so. After the tales of rampant lawlessness in the New Orleans shelters—stories that were in large part debunked in the following weeks—the Dome and surrounding grounds were teeming with uniformed lawmen. But they weren’t patrolling so much as milling about in groups of five or six. These were cops simply being cops, their mission largely just to be present. The only place where cops were actually acting like cops was in the fenced-off parking lot near Kirby and Main, where buses were still arriving one after the other. There was a checkpoint there, with metal detectors and pat downs to make sure nothing made it onto the grounds that would threaten the safe haven.
With the essentials provided, that first weekend at the Dome was all about stories. The building had been filled for a couple of days; new arrivals were being lodged elsewhere in Reliant Park, the sprawling 350-acre complex of ballpark and parking lot that was home to the fading Astrodome and her shiny new stepsisters, the Reliant Center, Arena, and Stadium. Here in the Dome, most of the people had caught their breath, and with a matter-of-fact mixture of pride, appreciation, grief, and relief, they talked about how it was that they’d made it to this place.
Jeffrey Peters was straightening up the area where he and his wife, Pecola, and eight-year-old daughter, also named Pecola, were living when I walked up. He stood about five-ten, with thick forearms, a robust paunch, and intense almond-shaped eyes. Like everyone in the room, he was wearing someone else’s clothes: a white V-neck undershirt, jeans, and gardening clogs. Pecola was wearing gray hospital scrubs and flip-flops, with patches of royal-blue nail polish still clinging to her toenails. She sat quietly while Jeffrey folded their blankets and situated plastic trash bags filled with donated clothes, linens, towels, and toiletries under their cots.
“I sent my wife and daughter to be with my wife’s mother in the St. Bernard projects,” he said, describing the hours before Katrina came. “And when the water rose, they ended up having to go to a bridge on the interstate. But our home is in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I was going to stay. Katrina could come and do her business, but I was going to ride the storm out. And that’s just what I did; when the water came up over the porch and in through the front window, I took a door off its hinges, dropped it out the window, and rode it out off the porch and six miles up to the highway where they were.”
A volunteer walked by us pushing a cart filled with baby needs—formula, bottles, diapers, and wipes—as Jeffrey continued. “Up on the interstate we made out all right. My brother had taken a grill up there, and we cooked up eggs and mixed in some beef-in-a-can, you know, commodity can meals. We were up there for one night, my family, my wife’s mother, and a bunch of people from the St. Bernard projects.” Pecola’s mother’s building had in fact been recreated in the Dome, the thirty or so cots around the Peterses’ all occupied by neighbors from home. It was a scene that played out all over the room, as many neighbors and families had been evacuated together from rooftops and bridges and then bused into Houston en masse.
Jeffrey seemed at ease while he talked about it all. As he grabbed a towel and shampoo to go wait in line for the showers, a woman’s voice made an announcement over the Astrodome P.A. system. “If you are looking for a person whose last name begins with a letter between A and L, please report to the message center on odd-numbered hours and wait there for an hour. If you are looking for someone whose name begins with a letter between M and Z, please report to the message center on even-numbered hours.”
Jeffrey’s tone shifted. He said he’d heard about evacuees robbing people at nearby hotels. Pecola spoke up. “Man, what’s the mentality of people jacking people in the middle of something like this? They’re not human.”
Jeffrey said he and Pecola both worked two jobs in New Orleans, his for construction companies, hers as a housekeeper for a couple hotels. He figured they could find work anywhere. “She wants to go to Baton Rouge. She’s got family there. But that’s never been one of my stops. I want to find work in Dallas. But first I need to get back home. When I got out, I forgot to get my wallet.”
TEN ROWS OF COTS and two thousand or so people away, a couple in their fifties, Benjamin and Ermica Wilson, sat next to each other on a cot with a Bible. He was a big man, wearing a black T-shirt and a black New York Mets cap. She was much smaller, in bright purple sweatpants and a white T-shirt covered in little purple flowers.
Benjamin said they’d gone to their Ninth Ward church, St. Mary of the Angels, to weather Katrina. When the water rose too high in St. Mary’s, they’d climbed to the roof with their own family of 18, from Benjamin’s mother on down to his young nieces and nephews, plus about 75 other people. They were up there for two nights.
“We had a grill up there,” said Benjamin, “and I put a life jacket on and swam to my mother’s house to get meat from the freezer. We had pork chops, ribs, smoked sausage. My mother made a pot of gumbo for everybody, and my wife made a pot of chili. It seemed like we were stretching those five loaves and two fishes. Everything was all right so long as the children didn’t look over the roof at the bodies floating past.
“The worst part was at night. It was pitch-black. No street lights or lights in the buildings because there was no electricity. It was dead silent except the sound of people trapped in their attics screaming as the water rose.”
As volunteers with push brooms and mops cleaned the aisles on either side of the Wilsons, Benjamin reached under his cot and pulled out a big black flashlight that looked as if it held a car battery inside. “This is what saved us. Coast Guard helicopters found us because of the smoke from the grill, and the kids had made a big sign that said, ‘We need water.’ But the helicopters took us just three or four at a time. When they came back at night, I signaled ’em with this flashlight.”
The P.A. interrupted him, announcing that if anyone wished to relocate to Colorado, an airline had donated fifty seats on an afternoon flight to Denver. The message was repeated throughout the morning, with all fifty seats available each time.
Ermica said they never lost faith up on the roof. “We saw people in boats loaded with so much liquor and beer you would have thought it was JazzFest.” The Superdome was never an option. “Every time there’s a storm, people go into that Superdome and loot. A woman told me there were two inches of feces on the floor in those bathrooms. I’m fed up with New Orleans. I don’t want to go back.”
“But, man,” Benjamin went on, “I got a brand-new GMC Sierra in the church parking lot, and that truck’s under water.” He shook his head. “And I just filled it up with seventy dollars’ worth of gas.”
That was the way of most conversation. By and large, Katrina survivors were counting their blessings, not losses. But other kinds of stories were floating around. A woman complained that things were not as fine as they seemed. She said she’d heard that a white man dressed as a woman had raped a ten-year-old girl and slit her throat in an Astrodome bathroom. Half an hour later I overheard a volunteer repeat the same story, minus the cross-dressing, to a grandmother minding four little kids. The volunteer was with a group of people wearing dark-blue shirts with “Harris County Juvenile Detention Center” written on the front, and they looked official enough to be well informed. But when I asked them about the story as they walked off through the crowd, I was told that it had been made up just to scare the old woman into keeping better track of the kids.
THE BEST MEASURE you’ll get of how poor the response to Katrina was in New Orleans—no matter which level of government you choose to blame—is how quickly the Astrodome was readied. At three o’clock Wednesday morning, August 31, with New Orleans still filling with water, Harris County judge Robert Eckels was awakened by a phone call from the coordinator of Governor Rick Perry’s division of emergency management. (The Dome is under Harris County jurisdiction, making Eckels, the county’s chief executive, the man to call.) By six o’clock Eckels was at the home of Reliant Park’s general manager, and the two of them were working with Mayor Bill White and a host of others to make the relief effort happen. The Astrodome had seen only occasional use in the past six years, and the first step was to get it up and going. That morning the air-conditioning and plumbing were upgraded. While that was happening, the Red Cross shipped in tens of thousands of cots, blankets, and “comfort kits,” little bags containing toiletries. The televisions along the level-four concourse, once wired for closed-circuit broadcasts of games so that fans at concession stands wouldn’t miss any action, were rigged with basic cable so the new residents could watch television. When the first buses arrived at ten that night, the Dome was ready.
The initial arrivals were brought in by a twenty-year-old named Jabbar Gibson in a school bus he’d “borrowed” in New Orleans. It was a perfect symbol of the effort under way in the Dome, where some of the most significant contributions were made by people and institutions who didn’t wait for an invitation. Alice Aanstoos, a regional manager of external affairs at SBC, realized early on that the relief officials would be concentrating on essentials and that once those were covered, the Dome inhabitants would need to be able to communicate with the outside world. SBC had once serviced the Astrodome phones. Aanstoos knew where the wires were buried. Without being asked, she sent a team over with 185 red phones equipped with POTS lines—SBC-speak for “plain old telephone service,” which included free long distance—who set them up at tables scattered throughout the Dome. SBC also donated five thousand telephone numbers with voice mail accounts so that calls could be returned.
When Aanstoos described this, I pictured phone company employees dressed in ninja suits, sneaking into the Astrodome with armfuls of red telephones. She said it wasn’t that dramatic. “We just went in and set up, and if anyone asked what we were doing, we said, ‘We’re setting up telephones. What does it look like we’re doing?’”
The interloping didn’t end there. Jim Forrest, a longtime SBC employee now working for Technology for All, a Houston nonprofit that provides recycled computers and wireless Internet to low-income neighborhoods, called Aanstoos on Wednesday afternoon and told her that he had forty spare desktop computers. She told him to bring them over, and together they set up a computer center where evacuees could search Web sites on which Katrina survivors were registering and looking for others. By Thursday night it was done. But there were more than a dozen sites with lists of survivors—FEMA, the Red Cross, the Gulf Coast News, MSNBC, craigslist—and the searches were taking too long. As luck would have it, Yahoo, one of SBC’s corporate partners, happened to call and ask what it could do. By the end of Friday, fifteen of what Aanstoos and Forrest both called “Yahoo’s best and brightest” had shown up and created a webcrawler that ran through all searchable sites. A dozen or so registration sites, one search engine, and every half-hour the computer center breaking out in applause at another virtual reunion.
I WAS BACK AT THE Dome at seven Sunday morning and, seeing the room come alive a second time, felt the need to be of some help. I went to the fourth level to grab a tray of breakfast food to pass out on the floor. On the concourse, people were trying to conjure up regular life. Some barbers from the crowd had bought electric clippers at a nearby beauty supply store and set up chairs to cut men’s hair against the wall on the walkway. And behind the tables where the meals were being served, in small recessed areas that housed the Dome’s old concession stands, families had found places where they could almost be alone. They ignored the bustling cafeteria-like lines just ten feet away and looked as comfortable as they were going to get.
After handing out what I could on the floor of the Dome—items coated with glaze and powdered sugar went fast; fresh fruit went untouched—I returned to the concourse to get more supplies. Behind a food table, some police officers were in a tight circle around a screaming woman. There were six children standing there with her, aged from tykes to teenagers and looking confused, and she sounded like a woman I’d seen overdosing outside the afternoon before. I loaded up my tray and headed back down to the floor.
When I returned for more food half an hour later, there was a Red Cross blanket stretched over a body on a cot in the center of the recessed area. The food and the cops were gone, and the kids and the woman were sitting in silence. Two women in yellow cleaning-crew uniforms were standing nearby, and they told me that this family had wanted to let their father sleep late, but when it looked as if he might miss breakfast, they tried to wake him up. He’d died in his sleep.
A couple hours later I ran into Jeffrey and Pecola. They were taking the bags from under their cots and piling them into one of the hundreds of shopping carts that had found their way into the Dome. Some neighbors had offered a ride to Baton Rouge, and though Jeffrey would clearly rather make it to Dallas, he was ready to get back to real life. This was the surest, quickest way.
The Peterses had far more stuff than they could easily carry. A van was picking them up just outside the Dome, so they grabbed everything they could and headed out past the triage station and up the east ramp to the parking lot. Jeffrey refused my help with the cart, which was stacked about eight feet high. He kept one hand on top of the pile and pushed with the other, and about halfway up the fifty-yard ramp, exposed now to the oppressive Houston heat, he started to run out of gas. A New Orleanian coming down the ramp jogged over, grabbed the front of the cart, and without saying a word, helped pull it to the top of the hill. Jeffrey never saw him, and when we reached the parking lot, the man quietly walked off.
A white Ford Econoline van was waiting, as were some ten other people with just as much stuff. Nobody acknowledged that there might not be enough room. Instead, they hustled to get their own things and themselves into the van. As Jeffrey forced bags under the seats, Pecola said she had to go back inside to get her mother, who was waiting at triage for a flu shot. We’d seen her there as we exited, standing at the wrong end of a very long line. Jeffrey’s eyes flashed. “Why the hell didn’t she do that yesterday?” Pecola said simply, “I’ll be right back,” and headed down the ramp.
It was too late; while they were talking, the van had filled up. The driver looked at Jeffrey and shrugged his shoulders. Quietly, Jeffrey put their belongings back in the cart, then took them back to his cot.
THE DOME LOOKED different the second weekend after Katrina. There was more structure to the security, with the introduction of a curfew and metal detectors at foot traffic checkpoints. But it did not feel locked down. “Reliant City Town Square” had been erected in the parking lot just outside the Dome’s east ramp, with twenty basketball hoops, large air-conditioned tents housing arcade games and a day-care center, and three inflated moonwalk-style amusements, $70,000 worth of recreation organized and paid for by Houston furniture king Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale and his wife, Linda.
Life had changed inside the Dome too, where people were adjusting to what one volunteer called “the new normal.” It helped that there was more room. The Houston Chronicle reported that just three thousand people were living in the Dome. A great many had left to move in with family in Texas and elsewhere or relocated to Houston apartments provided by the relief effort. But just as important for the remaining residents, financial assistance had started to arrive in the form of debit cards handed out by the Red Cross and FEMA. According to news accounts, the initial day’s distribution of the cards had been a disaster, with people standing in line on the hot parking lot asphalt for hours on end. The Chronicle reported numerous faintings and fights. But the people I talked to Saturday were just grateful for the money. While some of them said they weren’t touching it until the Astrodome generosity ran dry, others were using it to reclaim a little of everyday life. Many people now walked through the Dome carrying boom boxes—played at respectfully low volumes—and many more had Discman-type devices and headphones. It was refreshing; the thought of that many New Orleanians in one place with no music had been almost as hard to fathom as the sightings the previous weekend of young black men in Toby Keith T-shirts. That wrong was remedied with Red Cross—funded shopping sprees at an urban-apparel shop across the street.
On Sunday afternoon I saw two men outside the Dome dressed as if they were looking for Mardi Gras. One was wearing a black suit and hat, with a silver sash across his chest that read “Katrina.” He was carrying a tall pole with a banner at the top that sprouted royal-blue peacock feathers. The banner read “This is how we do it where we come from.” The other man, short and round, had on a white dress with purple, gold, and green clown faces on it and a long blond wig done up in Swiss Miss braids. His shoes were lace-up wingtips made of dark-purple and lavender ostrich skin. There were clowns tattooed on his right arm and Indian chiefs on the left, and his name, I learned later, was John “Big Poppa” Porré. He and the other man, Alfred “Chippy” Weston, were here representing a New Orleans social aid and pleasure club called the Tremè Sidewalk Steppers.
Their presence wasn’t necessarily going to create a stir. The previous weekend I’d seen Al Sharpton, Joel Osteen, and Dr. Phil walk through the Dome without creating a quarter of the ruckus caused by a guy who came in dressed as Laa-Laa the Teletubby. But the Steppers had four horn players and two drummers in tow. I heard a man with a trombone and his ball cap turned sideways tell a radio reporter that these musicians were part of the New Birth Brass Band, recently relocated to Houston from New Orleans. He said that like everybody else, they’d lost most of what they owned and that a couple of his bandmates were carrying donated horns.
The reporter asked, “Could you please explain the famous New Orleans tradition of the second line?” She was referring to a funeral parade, in which the front end, or “main line,” contained the deceased, his family, and the preacher, and the “second line”—everything that came after—contained a brass band and mourners. On the way to the burial, the band played slow hymns, but on the way back home, the music turned into a raucous celebration of the dead.
The trombonist didn’t go into all that. He just said, “Lady, I don’t think I can explain that. You’re going to have to see it for yourself.” It was as if he had just cued the band. The sousaphone player started bouncing low notes out of his horn. Then came ringing booms on a bass drum and rapid-fire pops on a snare, the unmistakable rolling rhythm of New Orleans music. Boom, boom, boom-ba-doom-ba-doom. After a couple bars, there were blasts from the rest of the horns—a trumpet, a French horn, and a trombone. They started out playing a melody in unison but quickly diverged, calling and responding to one another’s lines like a game of follow the leader, weaving in and out of the bass line.
And then the band started to move, walking slowly through the parking lot while they played. The music flew through Reliant Park, and people who’d been hanging out in Town Square and lounging under shade trees outside the Dome came running to fall into the parade.
It was a perfectly joyous, instantaneous release. Every twenty feet or so the parade would slow down, and the musicians would form a circle around Chippy and Big Poppa, who danced with anyone who would enter the ring. There were enough takers that soon the circle was gone, dissolved into a solid block of three or four hundred dancing, shouting, smiling New Orleanians.
Chippy, the grand marshal, led the parade to the east entrance of the Dome, where a large Houston cop crossed his arms and said no way was this bunch going inside. No matter. The parade kept snaking through the parking lot. Men took off their shirts and waved them up and down to fan other dancers. Women clapped their flip-flops together to the rhythm. Little kids skipped along, bouncing basketballs and darting in and out of the dancers. Open bottles of water were twirled overhead so that water sprayed the parade, as if it was marching through sprinklers. Soon there were about fifty uniformed police officers following curiously behind, most on foot but some riding golf carts, three cops to a cart. It looked like the closing scenes of The Blues Brothers.
The crowd was now chanting along with the music, which blurred into one half-hour-long song. “Jesus on the main line! Jesus on the main line!” And then “New Orleans! New Orleans!” And finally, “Go, Blanco! Go, Blanco!” as the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco, appeared out of nowhere and started dancing in the middle of the mob.
I smelled a little pot in the air and talked to one reveler, who said he wanted a beer. He told me, “You people get to drink wherever you want when you come to New Orleans. Why can’t I drink where I want in Houston?” But he wasn’t too concerned. This was too good. I quit trying to interview people but started running up to dancers with my notebook and pen out, asking as many as I could, “Excuse me, can you tell me where you’re from?” None of them took the question seriously. They got the joke. And every one of them screamed the same answer: “Man, I’m from New Orleans!”
BY MONDAY, September 12, barely 1,400 people were still in the Dome and fewer than 5,000 total at Reliant Park. Shelter officials announced that they’d move these remaining people into Reliant Arena by the week’s end, a decision that would simplify managing the site and, though no one admitted it, provide incentive for those still on hand to think harder about moving on.
The Dome was the first facility emptied, beginning with careful transport of the elderly and special-needs cases after supper Wednesday night. Teams of volunteers spread out over the floor to help families get in line near the east ramp, where city buses would take them and their belongings on the short drive to the Arena. It was important that this not resemble the evacuation from New Orleans, so nothing was left behind. Trash bags and hand-me-down luggage stuffed with donated items represented everything these people owned, and all of it went. The work was done quietly and efficiently. One team of volunteers included actors Don Cheadle and Joaquin Phoenix, who was just four days away from an appearance on the cover of the New York Times Style Magazine. They worked the late shift Wednesday night and were back first thing Thursday morning, operating without entourages, publicists, or much notice at all.
A line of the relatively able-bodied had formed at the east ramp by seven o’clock Thursday morning. I played gatekeeper, making sure that families boarded the buses intact and that their belongings were kept with them and separate from the others on their bus. To get that last one thousand people out took the entire day, and while moms and dads waited in line, groups of kids threw footballs and did tricks on wheelchairs that had been left in the Dome. Most people kept their cool, save the occasional squeaky wheel, like a big woman in a red muumuu who stormed through at lunchtime, riding in a wheelchair and constantly barking orders. She yelled at her kids and grandkids (of which there appeared to be about twenty), at the volunteer wheeling her around, at the people lugging her bags, and at the guy helping her get on the bus. The only people she didn’t yell at were the hundred or so in line whom her family had cut in front of. A couple of those people pointedly asked what the hell was going on. It was quickly agreed that everyone would be more comfortable once that woman was gone.
The last two people in line were Darrell Jones and his fiancée, Joanne Hampton. When the final bus pulled up at seven, they were both sleeping, Joanne in a wheelchair with a stuffed basset hound in her lap and Darrell in a chair next to her, with his head on her shoulder. Unlike a lot of people who got antsy waiting and left the line to walk around the emptying Dome, Darrell never left Joanne. And as they moved to the bus, he insisted that he push her wheelchair himself.
I rode with them out of the Dome. There were twenty other people on board, all talking loudly, about half of whom were kids under ten and the rest the kids’ parents. There were four women sitting together wearing “I survived Katrina” T-shirts.
Joanne tried to keep sleeping; Darrell had parked her wheelchair at the front of the bus, away from the crowd. Pulling out of the Dome, we saw volunteers breaking down the Town Square tents and the kids’ moonwalks lying deflated in three big piles. Darrell was sitting behind Joanne, and even though he had locked the wheels on her chair, he never let go of its handles. He was a small guy, about five-seven, with his two front teeth broken off at the gums. She looked up once, showing herself to be a gap-toothed beauty queen, with a blue do-rag on her head and a red bandanna over that. As she put her head back down, Darrell started to tell their story.
“I live in the St. Bernard projects, and when the water rose, this cat came by in a pickup truck, so I was gonna get out. But the water got too high and the truck died, but it just so happened to be right in front of a boat shop. Well, he had some bolt cutters, so we freed one of the boats and then started rescuing people. The last person we saw was her”—he pointed down at Joanne—“but I didn’t even know it was her. She was on a hill off a ways away, and I couldn’t tell. But it was her. She and I pretty much grew up together, and in fact she was holding onto a bicycle that I had built for her a long time ago.”
I asked him where her wheelchair had been.
“Oh, she can get around if she needs to. She’s not really sick; she’s just sickly. Though I guess if you think about it, she was kinda born sick.”
At that, Joanne reached behind herself and hit his hand. “Watch it, little man,” she said.
“But wait,” I said. “Why weren’t you together if you are engaged?”
“We weren’t engaged yet,” said Joanne. “But when he pulled up in that boat, he said, ‘Well, I guess you have to marry me now.’ He’s been asking me for years.”
Darrell smiled. “Well, I don’t know about that ‘asking for years,’ but yeah, we’re going to get married.”
We stopped at the Arena, where volunteers grabbed Darrell and Joanne’s bags. We walked into a room filled with cots, far fewer than in the Astrodome but in a much smaller space. Darrell paused near the front door, in an area where the Red Cross had told the new arrivals to leave their belongings. This “storage center” was just a roped-off section of floor. The only thing keeping any of their things safe was trust.
There were hundreds of piles, and Darrell’s was about the same size as the rest, twenty or so bags stacked three feet high and ten feet across. To make his things easier to find, he wrapped the pile with a band of bright-blue masking tape. Then he wheeled Joanne to a couple cots in the back of the room, where he would try to keep her comfortable until they had to move again.