Beyond the Astrodome

Helping the evacuees in Houston.

Evacuees at Reliant Arena, near the Astrodome

HOUSTON—As of today, the Astrodome is empty again. Over the last week the city has been quickly phasing evacuees out and into temporary housing; on Wednesday and Thursday, the last 2,000 or so hurricane evacuees in the stadium and in the newer Reliant Center next door packed up their things and were transferred to another building in the Reliant Park stadium complex, the Reliant Arena, which is sometimes used for livestock shows.

I arrived last Saturday, to help out, when the place was mobbed by volunteers and about 5,000 evacuees were still living in what officials referred to as “Astrodome City” and “Reliant Center City”—down from 24,000 in the Reliant Park complex on Sept. 4. (Thousands more were originally housed at the downtown convention center, aka “George R. Brown City,” in smaller shelters, and in hotels around Houston.) The Astros played their last game in the Astrodome in 1999, and the facility is seldom used these days; next to the clean, glassy Reliant Stadium, the older park’s concrete exterior and huge cooling apparatus give it the look of an industrial relic. Inside, the turf had been removed, exposing the concrete floor, and the surrounding tiers of cushioned orange seats were clean but dingy-looking under the glare of the daytime floodlights. With a couple thousand cots set up, covered by coarse gray blankets and people’s belongings, the place felt like a giant, gloomy bedroom.

The hurricane survivors, most of whom had arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, acquiredwhat they could from the distributions of donated goods and—once the Red Cross began distributing cash cards—from Ross Dress for Less, Target, and other stores in the area. (At least once, the nearby Sally Beauty Supply had to close in the middle of the day so that employees could restock the shelves.) Some residents had become hoarders: Walking across the dome floor, I saw stashes of stuffed animals, butter pats, orange soda, small bags of potato chips, Christian inspirational books, and bottles of hand sanitizer. During the day most of the kids went to nurseries or school, and many of the adults left to try to find housing or jobs or to get temporary Texas ID cards, but there were always people left inside, sitting on their cots or in chairs, reading Bibles, doing hair, gabbing, or staring into space.

A lot of what you did at Reliant Park, whether you were a resident or a volunteer or a staff person or a cop, was wait around. That was a symptom of the shelter’s necessarily impromptu nature: Spontaneity was both its strength and weakness. For instance, the phone company hadn’t waited for permission before installing free telephones. Video-game stations had been connected to monitors in the Reliant Center corridor, where people sat playing Mortal Kombat, and the monitors on the Astrodome concourse were wired for cable.

There were certain problemsof logistics and organization that good will alone couldn’t solve. On my second day of volunteering, I found myself helping transport children back from the crowded day-care center where they’d been deposited that morning, in a ramshackle house miles away from the stadium complex. This was at a time of volunteer shortage: Six of us and two staffers from the day-care center rode with 24 very young kids on a city bus that had been requisitioned for shelter use. Like most of the adults, I held a baby, a tiny girl in a yellow dress with enormous eyes whose name I would never learn; and as we cruised down the highway I tried not to think about accidents. Fourof the 2- and 3-year-olds had been belted into strollers and deposited in the handicapped section of the bus.

“Is this legal?” said the volunteer sitting next to me with a kid in her lap. I had my doubts. Later, I heard that the woman in charge had been reprimanded; evidently parents were supposed to accompany the kids on the bus both to and from day care, but no one had known that.

Celebrities made their appearances: Clinton, Oprah, Cosby, Joel Osteen, Macy Gray. Not to mention Barbara Bush. Some were less well-known but still appreciated: A young man in the Reliant Center told me he’d recognized one of the volunteers as an actor from television—”it was that guy from Two Guys and a Girl,” he reported with enthusiasm, though he didn’t know the actor’s name, and I had to confess I’d never even heard of the show. There were rumors that Sean Penn had booked a $1,000/night hotel suite to come volunteer. I missed most of the famous people, though I saw a guy who looked like Joaquin Phoenix and caught a contingent of Houston Texans cheerleaders, who rustled their mini red pompoms at kids in strollers. Thenthere was the man billed over the PA system as part of a “championship yo-yo team.”

Wednesday morning I was sent with a group of volunteers to the Reliant Arena, where 400 or 500 people were waiting restlessly in chairs. One woman explained that they were waiting to be assigned housing, but that the city didn’t haveenough units ready. Quite a few police officers and Homeland Security agents were on hand. A man from the Harris County Housing Authority, short and round with a moustache and glasses, greeted us, and then had us gather around a schematic sketch of the room. He stood over it wielding a big marker, like a coach or a commander. “These people are frustrated,” he told us. “They’ve been waiting 10 days for housing.”

He indicated the four seating areas, and then the place where we were standing, and explained our strategy as one of containment: People were not to cross from the seating zone into our zone. To that end, he would post pairs of volunteers in front of the seating areas. “People are going to try to engage you with a lot of questions. You don’t know the answers,” he warned, urging us to ask someone official for an answer, rather than make one up.

I wound up handing out lunch. “Are the sandwiches frozen again?” I was asked. I didn’t know the answer. “Is there any mayonnaise?” I didn’t know that either. I asked someone and was told there was very little mayonnaise. Later on a woman accused me of having lied, since I’d said there wasn’t any mayonnaise and it turned out there was a box of it someplace else. I said I was sorry.

While all these people waited for lodging in Houston, a gray-haired, kind-looking man with an earring held up a piece of paper that said “Washington State Housing.” He told me that he and some other private citizens in Washington had arranged to provide houses and job assistance to hurricane survivors but that he hadn’t found any takers at Reliant Park. A very beefy Houston cop turned to him and shook his head and said, “They want to stay close to the south. They think they can go back. But they won’t ever rebuild that Ninth Ward. The city of New Orleans has been wanting to get rid of them for a long time.”

The man from the Housing Authority marched by with a bullhorn, telling people to keep the aisles clear. A woman would later tell me that she’d waited eight hours at the arena, and at the end had been rewarded with a wristband that would give her priority in line the next day. But some elderly people, at least, were granted apartments. One of them, a handsome mumbler named Mr. Ramsey, got cold feet at the last minute, worrying that his newplace would be shoddy. It took a pair of young female medical workers to coax him into gathering his belongings and boarding the shuttle.

That afternoon, I was assigned to the Red Cross “information desk,” though I was far less informed about what was going on than the evacuees who’d been living there for two weeks. The idea was that a representative from the Red Cross would answer questions while I served as a runner, taking messages to the announcer or to other shelter personnel. But after a bit, the Red Cross person—a frenetic redheaded lady from California with the unfortunate habit of answering questions before she had listened to them—bolted off to look for somebody’s lost purse. When she came back she admitted that she was usually the runner and didn’t know much either, and we were helpless answering most questions: How, a couple asked, could they look for housing in Baton Rouge? Where had the people with the bus passes gone? Which agency was paying for 14 days in a hotel? Often we would suggest that people try another desk or office; often they had already been there and had been sent to us. After several different people told us they’d heard there was a furniture-store representative in the building who would help them get free furniture, I finally called the store and learned there was no such representative. In fact, they were offering a 10 percent discount to Katrina survivors.

I did know the answer to one question: A lady had heard about some people giving out $200 checks? Yes, I said, those would be the Taiwanese Buddhists at the other end of the building. (At a table near the entrance, four representatives of the Tzu Chi foundation in matching navy polo shirts and white caps were offering $200 to every family.)

The residents I spoke with seemed neither overly eager nor particularly disinclined to tell the stories of how they’d left New Orleans. Everyone had a story, whether it was of being rescued off a roof, or waiting terrified in the Superdome, or climbing up onto the interstate on foot and spending the night there. But people were much quicker to talk about how grateful they were to Houston and to the volunteers and to me personally. Given what they’d just been through, being thanked for handing out bottles of water was embarrassing; somehow I wanted to thank them, though I don’t know for what.

It was hard for even a generally stoic person to spend any length of time in the Astrodome and not get teary sooner or later. One ripe occasion was the Wednesday afternoon wedding of Rebecca Warren and Joseph Smothers, an older couple who’d planned to get married this week. A long aisle had been fashioned out of police tape and traffic cones, leading to a makeshift circular chapel in the middle of the stadium. At 3 p.m. people clustered around it, waiting for the ceremony to start.

Then Evander Holyfield arrived. He marched down the aisle, in the company of the Harris County judge and the actor Tommy Ford, and walked around outside the chapel area, shaking hands. All the reporters who’d been let in for the wedding now gravitated toward the boxer, and I began to worry that Rebecca and Joseph wouldn’t regain the limelight. But after a bit, Holyfield, who’d arrived by coincidence just as the wedding was about to start, was dispatched to escort the bride down the aisle. Chamber music played from a boom box; a Pentecostal preacher presided over a brief ceremony; Rebecca cried the whole time. The married couple posed for pictures for hours afterward, and the message “Congratulations Joseph and Rebecca Smothers” was posted on an electronic scoreboard for the rest of the afternoon.

Toward the end of the day I spotted Mr. Ramsey again, outside the Astrodome. I worried that his place had fallen through. Then he pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and jingled them. “The place is not bad,” he said. He’d come back to let his friends know where he’d be living, he said. He jingled his keys again as he walked away.