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The Kindness of Strangers

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In her fourth dispatch from Houston, JEANNINE AMBER reports on the real progress being made by volunteers at the Astrodome. In the days and weeks ahead, as part of our mission to keep readers informed, we'll bring you other accounts of the personal and political realities now being faced by Katrina's survivors and those who are trying to help them reclaim their lives.

 

A little more than a week after the first of Katrina's survivors arrived at the Houston Astrodome, the mood is decidedly improved. The giant stadium, which at the peak of the disaster housed some 20,000 displaced people, is now home to less than half that number. Cots that once lined the corridors of the upper levels have been removed. The extra space is no longer needed, thanks in large part to the efforts of a virtual army of volunteers. The main floor teems with them, hundreds of folks wearing bright red T-shirts who have come to do paperwork on behalf of the American Red Cross.

 

The volunteers sit on the edge of cots, crouch on the floor, lean in close to hear the elderly, pens poised over registration forms as they ask the evacuees a few simple questions: "How many children do you have?" "Are they all here with you?" And: "Are you are the head of your household? Okay, take this paper to the Red Cross table tomorrow and we'll get you your money."

 

In one of the most needed forms of relief, the Red Cross has begun making immediate cash allotments of $2,000 to Katrina's survivors to get them back on their feet. "We don't have to pay it back," says one woman, smiling. "This is really going to help because I have $180 in my bank but I can't get it. My bank was in New Orleans."

 

And that's not all. Over the loudspeaker, all day long, there are announcements: "People wanting a ride to Atlanta, a bus in the parking lot will be leaving at 4:30 P.M."

 

"Will the following please report to the Red Cross table for your housing vouchers."

 

"Jimmy Smith, go to room 262. Your brother is here to pick you up."

 

The signs are everywhere that people are finally moving out of the Astrodome. Phyllis Santiago, who four days ago seemed despondent, is beaming. "We're leaving on Monday," she tells me. "They got my sister a house. Four bedrooms for us and our kids and our cousin. It's in Channelview, Texas. I've never heard of it. But my sister went to see it and she says it's real nice." Not far from Santiago, in the middle of the Astrodome, a group of young children are sitting in a circle. In the center is a man dressed in a clown outfit doing magic tricks. The kids laugh and giggle at his antics, and for a moment it almost seems that everything is all right.

 

Tomorrow: A volunteer's view

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