"A Day At The Dome"
Less than two weeks after the eye of Hurricane Katrina crossed over the city of New Orleans, I find myself in an interesting situation. It's September 11, 2005. It's been four years since the terrorist attack on New York City and Washington DC. On this special date, memories are currently being overshadowed by the destruction of the city of New Orleans. An entire metropolitan population relocated just weeks ago while fleeing the turmoil of a Hurricane that has disrupted all life in the city of New Orleans.
Early this morning, my best friend George and I set out to try our hand at some volunteer work at Houston's Reliant Center Complex. We're in the right location because Houston has gracefully taken on the majority of evacuees from Louisiana. Upon arrival at the Reliant Center Complex, we're directed to a specific parking area on the west side of Houston's Reliant Stadium. A police officer points the way and we take the long walk across the parking area and into the Reliant Center located between the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium. Once inside we're greeted and sent over to a check-in table. We simply jot down our name and address and show a picture ID. We're each given a bright orange "Volunteer" bracelet and led to an area of chairs to be briefed. After a short five-minute discussion of safety and conductivity, we're then led to another area of chairs. It's in this area where job specifics are detailed and assigned.
The vast majority of jobs being handed out were for "bathroom and shower" detail. George and I both shared an understanding that we didn't want to partake in "shower" detail. So we rejected many job offers and waited for a more suitable opportunity. We even rejected a comfortable "data entry" opportunity out of a determination for something a bit more challenging. Suddenly, opportunity knocks. We're offered a chance to participate in "crowd-control" with the American Red Cross.
So here we are faced with volunteering for (thanks to George raising his hand) a "crowd-control" position with the Red Cross in the Reliant Center during Red Cross debit card distribution.
We're walked to the farthest end of the Reliant Center, past the area where evacuees are being housed and into a large area full of an endless array of tables, laptops, Red Cross personnel and volunteers, and waiting area chairs. We're given fast and simplistic instructions and a Red Cross smock to wear over our clothes. During this introductory period, we're standing around, listening to horrific stories of ugliness and police involvement that's been taking place the days before we arrived. One man in our volunteer group listened to the stories and decided to quit and walk away. George and I were a little concerned, but we felt good about this day and the people surrounding us. So we decided to follow through with our commitment.
George was paired off towards the front entrance where the displaced New Orleans evacuees would soon be arriving. George instantly became a Red Cross MVP thanks to his ability to communicate with the many evacuees of Vietnamese origin. I was paired off with two nice people to keep watch and assist with directing a line for people who already had nonfunctioning Red Cross debit cards.
Before we could truly learn the system, people started coming in. Everything moved surprisingly well. The setup was orderly and friendly. We were directing the majority of displaced citizens who were applying for the Red Cross debit cards for the first time. And
we were guiding the more impatient ones who already have a problem debit card to the correct place to receive help.
For several hours, this motion took place. We greeted hundreds of people with a smile and a simple "good morning". The response was moving for me. The vast majority of these people are extremely poor. These faces are very tired. These hearts are broken, and these passing souls are lost thanks to a storm that showed no mercy. And despite what you've falsely been shown by our media, the majority of these displaced former residents of New Orleans are passing me with a polite smile to answer my kindness.
Towards the end of our volunteer session, I was pulled away from my responsibilities to replace another volunteer who was helping a lady in a wheelchair. I was escorted to the processing area and introduced to a very sweet, middle-aged lady from New Orleans. Her name begins with an "R" but that's all I can remember. She was handicapped and wheelchair bound. I sat next to her at a table while she waiting for Red Cross management to come and explain a situating involving her debit card balance. We talked for a while. She told me about Hurricane Katrina. She explained to me how she escaped the floodwaters in New Orleans and found her way to shelter in Houston. Her stories touched my heart because she was sitting next to me, and she was real. She told me that she was separated from her only child. She did not know the whereabouts of her thirteen-year-old son. And then, out of nowhere, the Red Cross manager came and sat with her in private as I stepped aside. She was told that her debit card amount is small because a portion of the money was claimed at a Dallas shelter where her son was just located. I was with her when she got word that her son was found! They're arranging for her release from the Astrodome so she can be reunited with her son in Dallas as I write these words.
I was the lucky man who wheeled her back to the Astrodome to some of her other family. The trek involved in wheeling her from the debit card area of the Reliant Center to the Astrodome was not a short walk. As we entered into the Astrodome, it really caught me by surprise. A strange feeling swept across me, for I had never seen anything like this in my life. The sheer madness of this Hurricane combined with the displacement of one of America's largest cities, creeps up on you without warning. All of the mistakes made before, during and after this destruction in New Orleans, are visible on the floor of the Houston Astrodome.
The view is so grand, but in a disturbing way. Thousands of people are housed on the floor of this once-famous domed stadium. The interior of the Astrodome is crawling with Houston Police officers, volunteers, Red Cross personnel, US Army uniforms and hundreds or National Guardsmen and women. It's a sight to behold. There is a living, functioning, makeshift city within the round walls of this beastly, old sports complex. It's an almost unrecognizable place for me, even though it seems I spent half of my youth in this very building. Many moons ago, I would come to watch professional soccer in this once handsome house of cheers. Ironically, Houston's soccer team, back in my prime, was called "The Hurricane".
As I continue to wheel this sweet lady to her family inside the Astrodome, we're sent through a maze of small beds, cots, sleeping bags, pallets of water bottles, food lines, medics, and endless boxes of donated toys and clothes. My mind was traveling a million miles for I didn't feel like I was in America at this point. I felt as if I was dropped into a war-zone or another dimension. It's just difficult to swallow all of this information, up-close and personal.
I wish I would have remembered this lady's name, but I do remember her telling me that her sons name was Byron. With that being said, I gave Byron's mother a giant hug and I thanked her for the time and the stories that she shared with me. But I couldn't part with a single hug for she was too great of a lady for that. So I said good-bye to this charming lady from New Orleans (Byron's Mom) with a second hug.
Upon returning to the Reliant Center, I told George about my experiences inside the Astrodome and I told him that we could not leave before he went inside the Astrodome with me to see the city built within the round walls, and saying good-bye to Byron's Mother as well.
We continued our volunteer mission for a while longer. We waited until the Red Cross coordinators had found replacements for us and started training them. George and I had been helping another young lady from New Orleans find her way to the correct area to apply for her debit card. She was being entertained by our silly ways. Before you knew it, all of us were sharing our past New Orleans memories and discussing the food from that fine city. George and I are pretty funny looking, but I believe we were making people laugh by our equal hearts, not our goofy faces.
As we shook hands with our Red Cross coordinator and said good-bye to a few sweet people inside the Reliant Center, it was time for a final stroll through the grounds inside the Houston Astrodome. George and I pass through several stories inside the almost ancient, dome stadium. We were in search of Byron's mother. I retraced my steps, but came up short. So we decided to part and make the long walk back across the parking area.
And so I end this short story of a long day with some encouragement. George and I came to the Astrodome today on a mission. We had a goal of placing big smiles on the faces of the displaced former New Orleans residents. That seems as if we were looking to teach them something. Well, we did just that. We placed smiles on many faces. But we didn't teach them how to smile. They are the victims of Hurricane Katrina's ravage. They are the evacuees of the deadly floodwaters. And even though they just lost everything, they are the true teachers, for they taught us both how to smile, and smile we did.
Darren W. Brown