September 8, 2005

In her second dispatch from the field, our reporter JEANNINE AMBER talks to evacuees at the Houston Astrodome about what they need more than charity. In the coming days and weeks, as part of our mission to keep readers informed, we’ll share other first-person accounts of Katrina’s aftermath, and report on efforts to help our displaced citizens resume their lives.

Five days after being evacuated from New Orleans to the Houston Astrodome, Jimmy Jones and Jim Johnston are off on a mission to fill a need that none of the relief agencies are providing. “We’re going downtown to sell our food stamps,” says Jones, a welder. “What we need is some money in our pockets.”

Johnston, a retired veteran who has wounds on his face from breaking through his roof to escape the flooding in his house, rattles off a list of the donated clothing and toiletries that he keeps in a plastic trash bag under a blanket near his cot: five pairs of pants, seven shirts, 12 bars of soap, two bottles of hand sanitizer, eight briefs, five pairs of socks. “And they gave me about eight different deodorants,” he says.

Food, too, is abundant in the makeshift shelter. Sandwiches, packaged chips, water and soda are laid out on dozens of tables lining the perimeter of the auditorium. Piled in small pyramids and available 24 hours a day, the food almost seems too much. “They wake you up first thing in the morning and push a sandwich in your face,” Jimmy Jones says. “But really, all I want at that hour is to sleep.” It’s not that he’s not grateful for the provisions, but a grown man can live on handouts for only so long. “I want to get back home,” he says. “I want to get back to work. I can’t keep going like this.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the evacuees. They appreciate the help that has been offered, but as the days add up, they need more than food and clothing. They need what most of us take for granted—the ability to make basic decisions about their lives. They want to buy and prepare their own meals and decide when they will go to sleep each night (the Astrodome has an 11 p.m. curfew). After more than a week of living at the mercy of Mother Nature and a faceless political bureaucracy, they need to feel in control of their lives again. They need their dignity.

Tomorrow: Finding Shelter From the Storm