September 6, 2005

As thousands of evacuees, fleeing the flood waters in New Orleans, arrived at the Houston Astrodome, our reporter JEANNINE AMBER was there. Here she files her first dispatch from the field, giving a close-up view of life in and around the Houston Astrodome. 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.

After watching broadcasts filled with sobbing mothers, outraged politicians and agitated celebrities, I find the scene at the Houston Astrodome unexpected. The mood here is subdued, somber. There is none of the anger and high emotion so visible on the news. The adults seem drained, their eyes vacant, yet their children are neatly clothed and groomed. Unnaturally quiet, they play in small circles close to their mothers, who speak in low tones among themselves. Nearby, young men sit with infants on their laps, feeding them bottles, patting their backs.

It’s clear that Katrina has left a small city of exhausted and listless citizens in its wake. “I just stay here all day in my little spot by my cot and watch my child,” says Phyllis Santiago, 39, a patient care technician at Tulane Hospital in New Orleans. Santiago is here, on the main level of the cavernous Astrodome, with her 11-month-old son Devone. It’s difficult for her to talk about what happened-the painfully slow evacuation that left her and Devone stranded on highway I-6 for two days; the terrible way they all were treated on the bus from New Orleans to Houston. “The soldiers fed us on the bus, but they would just pitch the water and food at us like we were dogs,” she says, her tone curiously flat. “They could have easily hurt one of the children. It was ridiculous.”

Recalling the chaos in the aftermath of Katrina “just fills me up,” she says. It’s better to look ahead and try to move forward. “I know FEMA is trying to help us, but everything takes time, and I’m just tired.” She shakes her head and looks off into the distance. “I’m just ready to go somewhere,” she finishes.

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On the fourth level of the Astrodome, in the corridor behind the stands, other families have set up their cots. Many are covered in neatly folded blankets, some are pushed together to form makeshift double beds. All of them look painfully uncomfortable to sleep on, let alone spend days on. Some people climb into the auditorium’s risers to watch the dozens of television monitors bolted to the ceiling. Some watch cartoons, others watch sports but almost nobody watches the news. They know all they need to know about the disaster. They are still living it.

Outside the Astrodome, men and women gather in small knots to exchange information. Most of it has come to them through rumor and speculation. Much of the talk has to do with the horrible things that happened in New Orleans, the dead babies floating in the water, the suicides in the Superdome, reported rapes in the bathrooms. Two of the men, Jimmy Jones and Jim Johnson, a welder and a retired veteran, stand on the sidewalk having a smoke and getting some air. They say they both heard that some parts of the levee were intentionally blown up so that the Black neighborhoods would flood, saving the more affluent White neighborhoods.

Again and again, people question why all this happened. “They didn’t give a damn about us,” declares Ann Marie Brown, 45, sitting on the sidewalk with her daughters and grandchildren. Brown says she and her family spent so long standing on a bridge waiting to be rescued that even now, when her 2-year-old daughter Claytell hears a helicopter overhead, she starts waving her arms and yelling.

“It was my twelve-year-old son, Victor Newman Brown, who finally rescued us,” she says. “He swam like from where we’re sitting to that sign over there.” She points across four lanes of traffic toward the end of a parking lot to show the distance her son swam in the fetid water. “He got a boat and came back and rescued all of us and a whole lot of other people. We were waiting for the Air Force, for the Marines, and they never came. Victor Newman Brown, he saved us. And as soon as I get some money in my pocket, I’m going to make him a plaque.”


Tomorrow: The Limits of Charity.