By: E&P Staff
As usual this week, blogs and readers’ forums at the Times-Picayune have provided some of the most valuable and up-close and personal accounts of the harrowing week. This morning, a man named Rick Barrett posted a lengthy account on one of the forums of volunteering to help out at the Houston Astrodome, where thosuands of evacuees are now sheltered. Here is an edited version:
I just got back from the Astrodome and had to write….
They searched everyone, yet had no questions of any kind, and moments later I was on the floor of the Dome which looked like a third world country. It was completely packed with every cot full; the overload of people were in the field box seats on the sides. There was very little order to things…I was able to roam by myself anywhere I wanted throughout the Dome without any credentials. The few cops I saw were in pairs or threes, and basically just a visual presence. The Red Cross people seemed to mean well, as did most all the volunteers, yet most order had broken down. It was a calm free-for-all.
I took in everything for a few moments and then figured I was there to help, and the best way I could do that would be to connect with individual people somehow. So over and over I picked up flats of 24 water bottles and walked around and handed them out; many people were overjoyed by that one small thing. A few asked for food or clothes or blankets; there were apples and bananas available on the concourses, boxes of clothes being sorted by size at one end of the floor, and all blankets had been given out.
It was an amazing cross section of humanity…young, old, big, little, etc. Nearly all were black, and practically everyone appeared like they’d been through a war zone. Most seemed content with their lot at the moment; I saw no arguing or frustration…I think they were just glad to be inside and settled for a bit. About half were able to sleep amidst the chaos; the others were pretty quiet. Children were everywhere; I was amazed at their resilience…they seemed oblivious to the reality of things, and were just happy being kids. I gave out packs of gum I’d bought on the way to the Dome, and that made a few eyes light up. I told them to share. Some other sights which embedded themselves in my mind:
* The Bibles which I saw on several cots
* People sleeping and clutching their kids
* The number of people in wheel chairs
* A wooden leg with a shoe on it, detatched from its owner while they slept
* The instant smiles some people expressed when I handed them a COLD bottle of water
* The HUGE board with ZILLIONS of names and phone numbers, hoping to help reconnect people
About 3:30 am I stopped and sat with one person for over an hour, mostly listening to his stories of the past 4 days. He was separated from his wife and had no way to contact her, as all of his phone numbers were lost when his cell phone got waterlogged.
His tale was one of survival, having stayed in his home until the water got up to his shoulders, and then he evacuated and walked until he reached an island of safety. About 150 people were on it, and there was a nearby restaurant (closed), where they got food that was still frozen a day and a half after the electricity went out. Someone cooked the frozen shrimp, and he said that was the only meal he had (on Monday) until the bus he was on stopped at McDonalds en route to Houston.
Eventually he left the island because the rescue helicopters were not stopping, and a boat finally got him and took him to an elevated part of I-10 to wait for buses. He and hundreds of others waited over a day and a half on the freeway with no food or water, desparately trying to flag down passing buses who were already full of people.
Finally several empty coaches came on Thursday evening, and other than the McDonalds stop, he slept all the way to the Dome. We remarked that every single person in the stadium had their own harrowing story. Finally a few more blankets arrived, and he felt lucky to get one; at that point he said he felt grateful for what he had at the moment…
I lasted until about 5 am, and then had to either sleep in the Astrodome seats or go home. I passed out one more flat of water bottles and gave away the last of the Juicyfruit, and stopped for one final mental snapshot which I’m sure will never get erased from my mind.
Riding home I recalled my own flooding ordeal with Tropical Storm Allison four years ago, yet still felt a twinge of guilt that I was leaving those people with virtually nothing and headed towards my quiet, comfortable home with a nice bed awaiting me.
Still, I thank God for the opportunity to experience those people’s plights firsthand and empathize; it’s so much more than I could take in from the television reports.