Outside the Houston Astrodome earlier this week, dozens of tents for State Farm Insurance, Bank of America, Chase, Veteran's Aid, and many more seemed to promise a quick return to something like shopping-mall normalcy. It was easy to sign up for a credit card. An ATM city had sprung up, so you could slide your new card in and get cash right away, and pay the bill later.
At press briefings organized by local officials, the story was upbeat; a shining example of government, business and charity coming together to do good. Thousands of evacuees were being processed, more than 500 children were been reunited with their families, and life went on. But behind the doors of the Astrodome, survival and frustration were the order of the day. Jamel Bell, who fled his flooded Ninth Ward in New Orleans, found no salvation here. "Inside it feels like prison," he said. At curfew, he says, the evacuees were locked in.
News teams from independent sources, such as our own, were continuously harassed by local officials and police. Reporters from KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston, tossed their press badges for Red Cross volunteer badges in order to do their work. In Baton Rouge, hip-hop journalist and WBAI reporter Rosa Clemente was arrested and briefly detained after National Guardsmen attempted to confiscate her recording equipment.
Despite news reports that evacuees were being moved through the system and out of the center efficiently and quickly, there were up to 35,000 evacuees daily in the building. Cots filled with weary people stretched across the floor. Celebrities, followed by television cameras, filed in and out. The food was terrible, the meat in the sandwiches sometimes served still frozen. Surveillance was heavy, and tensions on the floor remained thick.
Many evacuees tried to forget the brutal images of their evacuation: skin sores on a man wading through toxic waters, a chaotic stampede of evacuees on a bridge toward a line of buses, the traumatic separation of families at evacuation checkpoints. Amidst the apocalyptic scenes, Dionne Wright, a custodian in her mid-30s, tried to calm her daugher. "This is not the end," she said. "This is not the end."
Raver Price, 19, from the largely black and poor Ninth Ward, said she heard rumblings before the levee break, and wondered if they were the sounds of dynamite. When she and her hungry friends took food from a flooded store, she said she encountered a Guardsman who sneered at her and said, "I can't wait to kill you bitches."
Among the displaced New Orleans youths in the Astrodome, some neighborhood rivalries did not go out with the tide, and fights sometimes broke out between different crews. Many evacuees said that when they went to sleep, they kept one eye on their belongings.
Before dawn, often as early as 5:30am, lines for basic services -- including those to find housing or obtain the much-desired $2,000 relief check from FEMA and the $235 relief check from the Red Cross -- began forming. Processing continued until 8pm.
Many people were mystified by FEMA rules. Households are only allowed to report one address for the one-time check to be sent to. For families still in the midst of being reunited, or on the verge of being sent to another evacuation center or even another city, the logic seemed bizarre.
Yet some families left without anything. Immigrants, including many of the estimated 30,000 displaced Vietnamese Americans in Houston, were being turned away. Even legal residents learned that their green cards were not enough to qualify them for disaster aid. These realizations invariably came after hours of waiting. And FEMA and the Red Cross had no translators on hand.
Au Huynh came down from Philadelphia to help in the relief efforts. "I was a refugee, I came here in 1989," she said. "I don't think there is a political mark on being a refugee. [Being a refugee means] being displaced because of political reasons or environmental reason. It's important to recognize the rights of refugees, it shouldn't be based on being a citizen in terms of getting relief."
Huynh had called the Red Cross to volunteer as a translator, but they said they had no need for her. So, through the Internet, she found a small Houston group called Save the Boat People SOS that was setting up relief efforts. The organization is one of the Asian American community organizations working with a network of Buddhist temples in Houston on an extraordinary parallel relief effort.
With most Asian American evacuees being routed away from the Astrodome, volunteers took them in at the Hong Kong City Mall. In the parking lot, there are piles of donated clothing. At a card table, volunteers work on their own personal laptops and cell phones to find shelter, make urgent medical referrals and reunite families.
Some 50,000 Vietnamese worked the Louisiana coast as fisherman and in New Orleans in the service and manufacturing sectors, alongside a large community of Filipino American shrimpers, the oldest Filipino community in North America. So the volunteers at the Hong Kong City Mall expect many more evacuees.
But these efforts are short-term. Houston officials have been pushing to move all the evacuees out of the Astrodome and the Reliant Center by Saturday into the Reliant Arena. They say that they might not be able to complete the efforts until next week.
Meanwhile, the evacuees wonder and worry about their future. Many want to return, and most believe they will be able to do so in a week or two. But while New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has allowed the homeowners and business owners of the Garden District and the French Quarter to return this week, there are still no dates set for neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to reopen.
Evacuees are being shipped all over the country -- San Francisco, Michigan and New York -- with no return ticket. As pundits and planners across the country have begun to call for neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to be bulldozed and permanently abandoned, many evacuees voice their fears, wondering if there is an agenda afoot to eliminate the city's poor and people of color. Organizers from the New Orleans organization Community Labor United have begun calling for "evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans."
In the Astrodome, Dolores Johnson has another cold sandwich and shakes her head. "We're able-bodied," she says. "Why can't we be involved in the process to rebuild our homes?"