Skip to comments.The Truth About Katrina Relief: Dispatches from the George R. Brown Convention Center
Posted on 09/16/2005 10:04:09 AM PDT by Pookee
The Truth About Katrina Relief: Dispatches from the George R. Brown Convention Center
Calm after the storm
Like everyone else in America I watched the Hurricane Katrina disaster unfold on TV in horror. If you live in the Gulf Coast states long enough you will see hurricanes and floods destroy cities and towns but this one was different. Directly following the storm the damage seemed to be minimal for a storm of this magnitude. Many of us breathed a sigh of relief. But then the levies broke and created a whole new kind of disaster a hurricane ravaged city being filled by a lake. Many of us quickly learned about the topography of New Orleans and wondered to ourselves why anyone would build a city in such an environment. How could a city exist below sea level and be surrounded on three sides by enormous bodies of water in a region where the summer is spent watching hurricanes line up in the Caribbean to take pot shots at our coast? How could they not see this coming? Regardless, the damage was done and we all knew that the flooding would cause far greater problems that the hurricane itself.
Evacuation orders had been given and thousands of people were jamming the roads to get out of the area, though many stayed behind. This is, in my opinion, when the even greater tragedy broke out. We have been through many tragedies and disasters in this country and we have seen many others around the world. One thing that has never failed is that while the results of these tragedies are terrible, they bring out the very best in the human spirit. On September 11th we heard stories of office workers, facilities workers, unlikely heroes risking or even sacrificing their lives to help total strangers. When the tsunami hit India and Asia last year we saw locals and tourists unite to help each other survive. For reasons unknown, this new disaster seemed to have a mixed effect on those who remained in New Orleans. There are the stories that you would expect people pulling neighbors to safety, people from Texas and Louisiana loading their boats and trucks and driving into the city to help. But we also saw something very different. Lawlessness like that in a third world country. People looting, robbing, raping, killing. People cried out for the police but many of them had abandoned their posts. Some even contributed to the chaos.
As the local systems failed people began to appeal for "the government" to do something, believing that someone somewhere should have been prepared for this and would be able to resolve the growing problems. As FEMA and National Guard personnel arrived prepared to deliver food and supplies they were, in large numbers, forced to retreat into defensive combat positions. Helicopters were turned around because they were receiving fire from the people they were trying to evacuate. I found myself in shock completely unable to comprehend why those people who are so desperately in need would step on each other and attack the only hope they had for survival. This is where the media's reporting on the situation left the road. In an instant the government became the cause for the rapidly worsening crisis in the area. The lawlessness was due to the government's inability to gain control of the city instead of the behavior of the gangs who roamed the streets. The suffering in the city was being caused by the government's slow response instead of the gun wielding thugs who chased help away. And worst of all, "the government" came to mean the President.
Bad to worse
To me this second disaster was far worse than the hurricane or the flooding, possibly the worst disaster I had ever seen. I saw a part of our country's character that I did not know existed and that I was deeply ashamed of. I echoed the comment that I heard many times "I feel like I'm watching a third world country". In fact is was a modern American city just a few hours from where I live. In Houston we have endured many storms as well. Just a few years ago Tropical Storm Allison flooded much of the city, the worst of which was focused on a poor area of town. In droves Houstonians flocked to these areas to help these people salvage what they could from their flooded homes. I worked with volunteer groups made up of people from all backgrounds and income levels, going house to house helping any way we could. Everyone I came in contact with was completely grateful and most were already in the process of planning out what they would do to overcome their loss. So how does one explain what happened in New Orleans? How did areas in Mississippi and Alabama and even areas just outside of New Orleans avoid this human tragedy even though they were hit with the very same natural disaster? It may be some time before any of these questions can be answered.
As thousands escaped the deplorable conditions in the Superdome and other shelters and headed for Houston, we got ready. The city prepared one of our stadiums and other smaller shelters to house the people fleeing New Orleans. On an even greater scale, Houstonians donated food, money, clothes, supplies, blood, and anything else they thought would be of use to the relief effort. Area Churches evolved overnight into service and logistics organizations assessing needs, organizing donated supplies, raising money, training volunteers, and assisting in the daily operations of the shelters. When I visited the Wal-Mart in my area to shop for hygiene items I found that the shelves were cleaned out. Employees told us that they could not keep the store stocked. Grocery stores struggled to prepare grocery "gift bags" as quickly as people were buying them. Public schools enrolled students, families took total strangers into their homes, hospitals were filled. Many feared that the insanity that we had seen in New Orleans would be imported to our city but we first saw a group of people in need and hurried to help.
Inside the Convention Center
On the night of September 14th I volunteered to serve at the George R. Brown Convention center where over a thousand refugees were now living. I had completed all necessary training and arranged to take off work. Upon arrival at the Convention Center I got the feeling that I was entering a military compound armed National Guard soldiers paced outside the complex and streets were blocked by police. We entered and got our assignments from the coordinators in charge. Once inside, the center took on a whole new feel. In a way if felt like an enormous hotel. People were coming and going with luggage and food and were greeted at the door by registration volunteers who behaved as though they were welcoming people to the Hilton across the street.
My first impression of the operations inside the George R. Brown was of complete awe. It could be very accurately described as a fully functioning city. Among the countless services available to the guests staying there I found these: sleeping quarters, cafeteria serving hot meals, snack bar, coffee bar, laundry, private showers, clean bathrooms, a fully functioning hospital, X-ray, MRI, dialysis, prayer rooms, chapels, phone room with free long-distance, computers, internet, a housing office, a job placement office, a movie theatre, child care, counseling, AA meetings, a police station, and the list goes on and on. The people who were staying there were clean, safe, and well-fed. The parents tended to their living quarters just as they would at home and the kids chased each other around and played ball in the aisles. During the six hours I spent at the George R. Brown that night I did many different things. I checked people in and out, brought people in wheelchairs to the cafeteria for dinner, moved beds, inflated mattresses, answered questions, and played all kinds of games with the kids.
The kids were truly incredible. Without any shyness they would run and jump on my back or pull me by the arm over to where they were playing some game. They laughed as I struggled to understand the rules of the games they had made up with beach balls and tricycles. They got mad and pouted when I tried to move along to the next group of kids. The best part of all was being able to sit down and talk to the people and hear their stories. One blind man that I escorted to use the phone and restroom told me of wading through chest deep water for blocks to get to the Superdome, navigating only by following the curbs that he could feel with his feet and knowing the streets by heart. Another 92 year old woman told us of her long bus ride from her home on the east side of New Orleans. An 8 year old boy told me of how at one point he drove the bus that took his family to safely because no one else could drive. Everyone there had a story and they all enjoyed having someone to tell it to. Many of them talked about when they were going home and what they expected to find. Some said that they were going to start a new life in Houston. TV images from inside the Astrodome and the Convention Center show many people resting on their beds lazily, seeming to have no initiative. I discovered early on that many of those people are planning to return home when the water is drained and can do nothing in the meantime but wait. Most of the questions I was asked were about the FEMA provided apartments and housing and when the job placement office opened.
There was some bad there too. One worker volunteered to watch a woman's children while she ran to the restroom. Four hours later is was apparent that by restroom she meant liquor store and place to get drunk. Some others sat and watched as we worked on moving beds and replacing linens in their sleeping area. On the greater scale, these instances were few and almost all of the people I came in contact with smiled and said thank you for even the smallest bit of assistance.
Alice in Wonderland
At some point one of the guests asked me what was being said on the news. I had to be very careful with my response and it was then that I first recognized the stark contrast between what is being reported and what is actually going on. When I returned home late that night I turned on the news out of curiosity. As I suspected, the media had continued to drift into a fairytale land of what the situation was. Most of the talk is consumed by activists of one form or another who are trying to retro-fit this disaster to their cause. The Governor and Mayor trip over each other to blame the President and FEMA for not responding sooner, environmentalists blame global warming, racial activists yell racism and point, one of Louisiana's Senators blames the President for not supporting public transportation, etc, etc. The fevered pitch of blaming and accusing is so high that one cannot even hear the words of the people who are there and know what is going on. Sadly this TV generated reality of the situation is the only one known to much of the country.
I considered the arguments of many of the agendas I have seen represented in the media in the past few weeks and feel that my perspective is in opposition to most. At one point when I was walking the floor of the George R. Brown I thought to myself about how this group of people, who all come from the same demographics, ended up in this situation. After talking to many of the people there I put my finger on two traits that many or all of them seemed to share. Almost all of them were very poorly educated and in some way dependent on the Government. These two traits, more than any other, have kept many of these people oppressed for much or all of their lives. Lack of education has kept many of them out of jobs that would allow them to attain a better standard of living. Government dependency has extinguished their initiative and self-reliance. Instead of forging their own future many of them have settled for a government provided life that is not fit for living. These two problems contribute to each other and create a cycle that is very difficult to break. It is my hope that in some way this tragedy and new beginning will provide incentive and opportunity for these good people to achieve the lives that they deserve. Then I thought of those who have said that this disaster has exposed the racism of America. To Jesse Jackson and any of the others who have cried "racism" from afar come down to Houston. Put on a vest and take a shift at the dome or the GRB. You will quickly find that 99% of those who are being housed in those facilities are black, and 99% of those who have taken off work and driven across town to volunteer are white and no one in either of those groups cares one bit. It is one person helping another and nothing more. To attempt to use this disaster as a bullet point in your life long argument that racism is alive in the general public of this country shows only that you have an agenda that has treated you well and that you must keep alive. All of these stories are counterproductive and have no business being reported in the place of the facts of the situation.
In a sense, the people who are participating in this grapple for TV time are similar to the looters that were seen running out of abandoned stores with their arms full of shoe boxes. They are stealing the attention and goodwill of our nation by directing the focus to a purpose that supports them.
What happens next
In the end, I know that our country will not soon forget about this national disaster and I know that it will bring about many changes. It is my hope that somehow the ugliness of both this natural disaster and the human disaster that followed will guide us as a nation to our roots. I hope that out of this we will find a renewed belief in rugged individualism and the value of family. Most of all I hope that it is the Christian principle of loving your neighbor as you love yourself that I have seen lived out here in Houston that make the greatest impression on our nation when it is all said and done. And as to Jesse Jackson's son's plan for revenge on God recently declared to the media good luck with that. Based on the massive outpouring of love and compassion in the name of God that I have seen these past few weeks, I think he'll need it.
Kudos, Pookee! Articles like yours.....the REAL look at the situation....are what the news should be all about.
All: Best Essay of the Month?
Let me tell you this: the city of Houston had 11 hours from the time mayor White announced the opening of Brown Center to the time the first evacuees arrived! Houston has outdone herself!
Too bad ABC didn't get to read this before their broadcast.
Thank you so much for giving us the inside scoop. We need
to hear the good stuff.
Having olunteered for two days at Brown Convention Center, I find your article to be the most accurate in tone and detail.
Congratulations, Pookie. Excellent read.
It's easy to understand the MSM and DNC taking this tack because It's the same formula that they use in the war on terror. When arabic filibusters murder a score or two of Iraqie civilians with a car bomb, it's not the filibusters fault it's Americas, in particular Bush's, fault.
Wonderful read..both (and mostly) the good which sadly, we don't see enough of..
"In a sense, the people who are participating in this grapple for TV time are similar to the looters that were seen running out of abandoned stores with their arms full of shoe boxes. They are stealing the attention and goodwill of our nation by directing the focus to a purpose that supports them."
That statement is right on the mark.
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