Welcome to the Dome
Associate editor John Spong talks about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, its survivors living in the Astrodome, and new beginnings.
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texasmonthly.com: What was your first thought when you walked into the Astrodome? Was the scene you saw what you were expecting? Why or why not?
John Spong: The first things that occurred to me walking into the Dome were “How can this be? How can that many people exist in this situation? How could that many people get in this situation.” It’s weird now to think about that reaction in light of what I was expecting walking in. I’d heard all those Superdome stories and was worried that this would look like that. Thankfully, it didn’t. But that fact was little consolation.
texasmonthly.com: How many people did you talk to for your article? Did you ever find yourself thinking you had heard the same story before?
JS: I talked to hundreds of people, many at length, others for short periods. I’d guess about twenty or thirty of those were people who I sat down and visited with about how they survived. And their stories never blended together. Even if two families had come from the same neighborhood and had the same number of kids and the same number of nights up on some roof, even with the shared quality of what they were all going through, when you sat and talked to one family, you were hearing about something they’d just endured. They were talking about something that had, at one point or another, made them wonder if they were going to survive. Seeing how personal that was for them made it personal for me.
texasmonthly.com: Obviously, a lot of thought went into preparing the Astrodome for the evacuees. Did you get the sense that most people had what they needed?
JS: As far as the bare essentials went, everybody had what they needed and easy access to them. Food, showers, clothes, and beds were all in abundance and nearby. The next level of needs, mail, spending money, a job, a home of their own, were harder to get to. Those things required long waits and lots of patience. Most of the New Orleanians I saw would have rather had those things handed to them as readily as the bottled water was, but everybody knew that wasn’t going to happen. So people made do.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of reporting this story? Why?
JS: The material was pretty heavy-duty emotionally, and every now and again I’d stop feeling lucky to be hearing these first-hand accounts of history and start to realize how lucky I was just to have a home to go to. The handful of times I made that realization, I had to go sit by myself and regroup for a little while.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
JS: I was impressed by the SBC and Technology for All people and the way they went to work without getting any invite or permission. It reminded me of things I’ve read about the World Trade Center cleanup: Natural leaders emerging to get a job done.
texasmonthly.com: What was your overall impression of the mood inside the Dome?
JS: There were two things that really struck me. The first is that most of the people in there were concerned only with getting out of the Dome and back to real life. There were plenty of grumps and plenty of people who just seemed lost. And as the week wore on, as the crowd thinned out, the malcontents and the truly wounded became more and more obvious. But that’s because most of the people in the Dome had gotten out as quickly as they could. They wanted to get back to work, get their kids back into school, and they weren’t going to waste any time getting it done.
The other thing that struck me was these people’s faith that everything would be okay, and how steeped that belief was in people’s ideas about God. I’ve always heard people say things like, “It’s not for us to question God’s ways,” or “God works in mysterious ways.” Usually I’ve heard that at funerals, most often when someone died unexpectedly. As there was always an easy, earthly answer for the cause of death at those events—“That wasn’t the Lord working in a mysterious way; that was a drunk driver acting in a terribly predictable way”—I never put much stock in that teaching. But the Katrina survivors were people who’d lost just about everything they owned to a force that was, in fact, completely out of their power to influence. For the most part, their faith did not waiver one bit, and they all seemed optimistic that this was the beginning of something rather than an end. That really blew me away.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the kid you wrote about at the beginning of your story ever found his father?
JS: I have no idea.
texasmonthly.com: Almost every family had basically the same story. Did you find it difficult to keep your writing lively?
JS: Like I said above, when you see that strange mixture of pride and gratefulness that comes over a person’s face when he or she describes surviving a near-death experience, the story becomes that person’s alone. It doesn’t blend with anyone else’s.
texasmonthly.com: Is there one thing you saw or heard that has stayed on your mind?
JS: I’m disappointed I didn’t manage to reconnect with a guy I met named Otis. He was an older guy, a big flirt, and he sat on his cot trying to get women’s attention as they walked by. He took me into the computer center so that I could learn how the New Orleanians were going about contacting missing loved ones. We were only on the Internet about ten minutes when I realized Otis was just trying to find this woman he liked. She’d been safe and sound in a shelter in Corpus Christi all week, but he wanted her to come to Houston. He had me text message her with my car phone, but she never responded. I think I was the third or fourth person he’d enlisted to try to reach this woman.
I expected to see Otis when we moved everyone out of the Dome. He’d made it very clear that he wasn’t going anywhere so long as the Dome was open. But he wasn’t around at closing time. I wonder if he’d found that woman and moved on already.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
JS: Seeing that second line form on the second Sunday in the Dome and watching all those New Orleanians getting to act like they were actually in New Orleans for a short while was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.