Monday, September 05, 2005

City Within a City

On Saturday I went to the Astrodome to volunteer. After tossing and turning all week, I figured it was the least I could do. Driving up to the dome, I was immediately shocked by the sheer number of people I saw. They were everywhere. There were many pants less children being pushed around in shopping carts by their parents and others walking around with signs looking for relatives.

After being processed I was assigned to the Reliant Arena shelter--the smaller of the shelters. I was happy to have been given an assignment in the actual shelter instead of loading supplies in some warehouse.

When I walked in, my senses were overwhelmed. The odor of the arena was very familiar--almost nostalgic. After a few minutes, I figured out what it was--wet clothes. The smell in the arena reminded me of summer camp--of swimsuits hanging to dry inside musty cabins. The red cross leader led us through the shelter. The cots were basically right on top of one another. Some people tried to sleep, but I don't know how they managed it with the noise and bright lights.

After seeing the news coverage, I kind of expected to see a tough crowd, but that's not at all what I encountered. I didn't see thugs or looters. What I saw were families--families and lots and lots of children. There seemed to be as many children as there were adults. And everyone was incredibly grateful.

My first task was to serve lunch. Chick-fil-a dropped off a few thousand sandwiches, so we handed them out. After we ran out we served dry ham sandwiches. It wasn't the most nutritious meal, but the people were very grateful to have it. I wished we had juice for the kids, but they had to settle for soda or water.

Many people were without shoes. I guess they got lost along the way. And many children were without multiple articles of clothing. I spent a solid hour searching through piles of clothing to find a shirt for an 18 month old baby. Never did find one. I did, however, find multiple sweaters (very helpful in the 100 degree weather) and torn swimsuits.

After lunch I walked through the shelter and let people use my phone to try to call relatives. People cried on my shoulder. One man told me about how he held onto a tree for fourteen hours until being rescued.

This was the play area that was set up for the children. There weren't many toys, but kids tend to find a way to play no matter what. Even a hurricane can't destroy the imagination.

These gentlemen were waiting outside of the shelter because their dogs weren't allowed inside. They were sitting on the hot concrete until the SPCA people could come by and check in their pets. Supposedly, they were going to be able to get the dogs back when they left. I hope they do.....

Although it was a terribly depressing day, I couldn't help but leave with a sense of hope. A lot of these people's lives weren't so great in New Orleans. And as much as I rag on Houston, it's a pretty great city. There are plenty of jobs and plenty of diversity. If you want to succeed in Houston, you can. I think that many of the people stranded here will end up staying, and it might just end up being one of the best things that ever happened to them.