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.

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.


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