Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Our Turn

Today probably would have been the day we wrapped up telling you the last of what happened in the Arena, but Hurricane Rita has another plan for us.

Fortunately, with plenty of resources and the lessons you learn listening to hurricane stories for three weeks, we're heading much further inland a full two days before the storm hits. Fortunately, we have relatives of mine (Tracy) to stay with because, already, there's not a hotel room to be had in the State of Texas that I can tell(unless we're willing to travel all the way to El Paso).

Wish us well -- we hope to be back next week.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Blankets Needed at Reliant Arena

A post from Tracy:

If you are in the Houston area and have extra blankets you might be willing to take down to Reliant Arena to donate, that would be awesome. Reliant Arena has been exceptionally cold, and the Red Cross has been unable to provide sufficient blankets for the evacuees. As of yesterday, the best way to get in was Gate 5 -- it's off the Fannin exit of 610 South, and it's right at the corner of 610 and Fannin on the 610 access road. Fair warning: traffic is likely to be heavy tomorrow because of the Texans season opener at Reliant Stadium -- however, this is the gate closest to the Arena and, therefore, the one designated for folks helping out volunteers as of yesterday.

Until further notice, please do not continue to send us money for medical supplies or boxes of medical supplies. We'll explain more about that later. The money that we have left will be used to buy blankets. The supplies that we have left will either be donated to the Red Cross medical station at the Arena, providing limited medical assistance to evacuees, or to private shelters housing evacuees around the city.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Update on Reliant Park

We can no longer call it Update on the Dome, because the Dome has been cleared out and residents moved to the smaller Reliant Arena to shield them from public view in anticipation of the Houston Texans season opener at Reliant Stadium. Clearing the Dome, of course, is great. You may recall from earlier posts that there were three shelter facilities in the Astrodome/Reliant Complex: The Astrodome, Reliant Center, and Reliant Arena. Of the three, Reliant Center was definitely the cleanest, safest, and best run. It had a reasonably nice play area and library for children and plenty of room for clothing and food distribution, as well as a press room and offices for other services that needed to be provided for evacuees and administrators/organizers. However, the shelter chosen for consolidating all evacuees in Reliant Park was the smaller Reliant Arena. As the first evacuees were moved in Wednesday night to a part of the building that could best be described as looking like an indoor parking structure, evacuee tensions were running high.

As of this afternoon, Reliant Arena is already filled to capacity. It does not have enough room for the remaining evacuees and the service providers that need to be with them in the building (medical, informational, food service, etc.). Again, officials are to be commended for moving evacuees out of the Astrodome. However, it's a shame that Reliant Arena was chosen as the place to consolidate all remaining evacuees instead of the far more welcoming Reliant Center, especially in light of the Arena's obvious space limitations. If one were to inquire as to the reason for choosing a facility too small to hold all evacuees and service providers, we suspect the reason might be -- as it has in the past -- something along the lines of "insufficient time to plan."

The cut in medical services has caused some predictable problems at the Arena that we've witnessed firsthand. At this point, though, recounting individual tragedies is just traumatic and -- in this particular case -- unnecessary in light of the news story below. More medical problems are predicted at Reliant Arena in addition to the predictable strain on the already-strained Houston emergency care system. Following is a story from the local ABC affiiate describing the problems.

The main clinic at the Reliant shelter closed its doors on Thursday and for the first time Houston's emergency rooms will be put to the test, to see how they can handle the additional people. Already there are concerns about increased wait times for patients.

First of all, Houston emergency physicians say if you have a medical emergency, go to the emergency room. That's where you need to be. But if your medical problem isn't an emergency, be prepared to wait.

Doctors from the Texas Medical Center built the Astrodome clinic from the ground up in just 8-12 hours. Baylor doctors were proud of what they did, but it was also a calculated way to prevent Houston's overloaded emergency rooms from drowning.

"We all expect we will be getting lots of patients," said Dr. Joan Shook, Director of Texas Children's Hospital Emergency Center.

With the Astrodome clinic closing, emergency rooms like Texas Children's are bracing themselves.

Dr. Shook said, "We're gearing up for larger volumes. In effect, Houston has a whole new little city transplanted onto it without a whole new healthcare infrastructure, so these families will be seeking care in emergency departments."

Already, the Texas Children's ER has seen a spike in the number of patients. Typically 210 patients a day are treated in the ER. Now it's 260 a day. That can mean long, long waits.

"I think for relatively minor illness, it could be as long as 8-10 hours and not just here -- at other hospitals as well," Dr. Shook explained.

There is advice for Houstonians.

"I would recommend to families they access their primary care provider or community clinic before they try the emergency system," Dr. Shook advised.

And to new residents from Louisiana and Mississippi she suggests finding a clinic before they get sick.

She said, "They might be able to find a clinic or primary care provider close to where they're living rather than having to go to the emergency department."

Also with so many living in shelters, doctors are worried about infections -- especially hepatitis A.

"We are looking for an outbreak of hepatitis A," said Dr. Shook. "We don't know that it's going to happen but it's reasonable to assume it might. So we're preparing for that possibility. We also expect more diarrhea."

Doctors are also watching to find any increase in tuberculosis, meningococcal disease, even the super staph infections -- any illness that can be transmitted in close quarters.


I (Tracy) have to say that my "favorite" part about this story is that it wasn't news when medical services began shutting down Monday night and having an immediate effect on evacuees. It was only news when the warning had to go out to Houstonians explaining how it would effect them directly. Priceless.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Kudos to Local Volunteers; Update on Astrodome

It's been a few days since the last post. Here's what's up.

The citizens of Houston have been abuzz with activity since the first busload of evacuees arrived on the evening of Wednesday, September 1. The caravans of busses didn't begin arriving until Thursday evening, September 2, so that's when everything really got into full gear. Since then, you can't drive more than a few blocks anywhere in the city without seeing a spontaneous citizen- or church-sponsored drive or donation center set up in a parking lot for Katrina evacuees. As far as the people of Houston are concerned, taking care of the evacuees has been a top priority. In the grocery stores, you see shopping carts full of what are clearly donations for the various shelters, both the huge city and county shelters (George R. Brown, Reliant Arena, Reliant Center, and the Astrodome) as well as local church and Red Cross shelters. When you talk to people in Houston, the question isn't whether you've volunteered but where and when. The outpouring of donations of time, money, and goods has been really wonderful, and we're proud to be just two of the many volunteers in this awesome effort. The George R. Brown Convention Center shelter stands as a model of the kind of organizational effort that we're capable of. It's a warm, welcoming facility that really makes good on our invitation to welcome and care for evacuees during this time of crisis.

We have continued to make pharmacy runs for the OTC pharmacy on the Dome floor. We've become pals with the night shift and they keep a running list for us. We cannot thank enough the folks who have contributed money and boxes of supplies to help keep the pharmacy stocked. The medical staff sends its thanks as well. Night before last, we were asked to bring saw dust and "pooper scoopers" to help them clean up the vomit on the floors -- there's an intestinal bug going around. Naturally, bugs of various kinds are going to go around when you have that many people in a space together. So last night, we arrived around 8:00 p.m. with the saw dust and scoopers along with several boxes of supplies that had just arrived in the mail. We wanted to pass on what we learned.

* All medical facilities in Reliant Park (including the Astrodome, Reliant Center, and Reliant Arena) were to close at 11:00 p.m. last night. Medical staff received this information at 8:00 p.m. Many arrived for the night shift only to be told to go home. Many already there left only because they had direct orders to do so.

* All facilities re-opened at 8:00 a.m. today. From today forward, we were told that medical services will only be provided between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

* Between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., we were told that the only medical care available will be the emergency care that's available via EMS transport to a hospital.

* Medical staff were required to leave at 11:00 p.m. last night. Some medical staff asked lay volunteers (including us) to stay if we could to monitor the elderly and babies while they slept and identify anyone having trouble breathing and report it to the EMS worker stationed at the Dome for the purpose of making contact with an ambulance if necessary. They had an incident the night before in which a 45-day-old infant did go into respiratory distress overnight. No ambulance would be guaranteed stationed at the Dome.

* No medical supplies whatsoever, including band-aids, fever reducers, aspirin, cold & cough remedies, anti-diarrheals, insulin, glucose, etc. were to be given out until the pharmacy opened at 8:00 a.m. (unless and until the patient developed a medical emergency requiring an ambulance). This means, of course, that fevers, coughs, colds, and other ailments last longer and add to the pool of already-quickly-spreading pool of bugs going around. This is especially difficult on the very young and the very old.

* Before leaving at 11:00 p.m., the dedicated medical staff did tend to a potential tuberculosis outbreak, taking the potential patient to the hospital for testing and alerting the family and those on nearby cots that they may need to get tested. Fortunately, it appears that the patient was not suffering from tuberculosis, but some other ailment with similar symptoms. Also fortunate is that it was caught before 11:00 p.m.

* We were told by a Red Cross volunteer that all evacuees will be moved from the Astrodome and Reliant Center into Reliant Arena before the Sunday football game in Reliant Stadium, immediately adjacent to both of those buildings. Any remaining evacuees will be housed in the much cleaner, well-lit, and more easily monitored Reliant Arena. All services for evacuees will be centralized in that building. Medical services will also be housed in that building and will continue to be available during normal business hours.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Purposeful Acts of Kindness

Another night at the Dome. Kathy and I were both actually home by midnight tonight. We're meeting up tomorrow to start on our newest project -- we'll share that tomorrow as well as report on conditions at the Dome (conditions that the press "for some reason" is not able to access and report on).

But tonight, we agreed that I would report on some Purposeful (as opposed to Random) Acts of Kindness.

Our first "shout out" goes to the Harris County Sherrif's Department and the Houston Police Department for sealing off the areas we posted pictures of. We've been so focused in the medical area that tonight was the first chance we had to check those areas again. We (and the people who did not get hurt in those areas after the sealing off was completed) appreciate your response. Our apologies to both departments for not posting new pictures of your good works-- we forgot to take the camera in tonight! :)

Our second big thank you goes to those who have kept the pharmacy train running. I don't want to mention specific folks by name in case it would embarrass them, but we want to thank faculty at Albany Law School for sending two boxes of supplies and faculty at the following law schools who either individually or in pools got together to help us out: Lewis & Clark in Oregon, CUNY in New York, Nova Southeastern in Florida, Rutgers in Camden, NJ, Loyola in Los Angeles, Thomas Jefferson in San Diego, St. Johns in New York, Quinnipiac in Connecticut, Santa Clara School of Law in Santa Clara, CA, and -- of course -- our own South Texas College of Law in Houston, Texas. In addition, we've received donations from several private citizens reading the blog. There's also a woman named Justine in Houston who patiently tried to track us down with a bag of supplies for two days before finally finding the law school and leaving the bag at our security desk for us. Thank you, Justine. We're currently tapped out, so if you haven't made a donation but wanted to, now's the time -- it looks like we have another week to go at the Dome.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

When the Independent Investigation Begins . . .

Over many nights at the Astrodome, we have heard the same story from evacuees describing a disturbing event. This is what we've heard:

After Katrina, evacuees in poor, black areas were left with anywhere from one inch to one foot of water. Shortly after the hurricane passed, emergency and/or law enforcement officials came through neighborhoods with megaphones or bullhorns and announced that "we're opening the flood gates" and that up to 20 feet of water was about to be "dumped" on residents. Within 5-10 minutes of the announcement, the water began to rise quickly. Within minutes, the water was up 10-20 feet from where it had been just minutes earlier. We were told that residents had no chance to evacuate, only the warning. Survivors told us about the many who drowned.

After the last person is rescued from New Orleans, these stories should be investigated to find out if they're true and, if so, who authorized lifting flood gates that would save property at the expense of lives.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Police Presence Increases Safety; Pictures Provide Suggestion for Additional Locations

The news we had intended to post today will have to wait for tomorrow. We decided that this needed to be today's post.

Every night that we're at the Dome, we notice more and more law enforcement. Sunday night, we noticed city, county, and state law enforcement both in and out of the Dome. We'd like to thank law enforcement for stepping up their effort to make conditions safer for evacuees. Not only have we observed that this makes conditions safer, we've talked to many evacuees who have said that they feel safer. Although more monitors outside the bathrooms are needed, we've certainly noticed that many of the bathrooms are monitored on a regular basis. Thank you to all of the law enforcement that are working hard to make evacuees safer during this time.

To further help law enforcment organize their effort to make the Dome safe, we've taken some pictures of areas that have no law enforcment presence but that do have some evacuee activity. These are areas in which women, children, or the infirm could be taken without any difficulty and could be assaulted and left injured without discovery. Police presence in these areas would make the Dome even safer.

Again, we want to thank law enforcement for increasing their presence, and we hope that these pictures help you direct additional efforts at maintaining safety. These areas are predominantly accessible through the West entrance of the Dome and are on the first and second floors. These are just examples of the kinds of places available for acts of violence were someone so inclined.
























Tomorrow

One caveat about this post: all of our posts have been complete joint efforts, drafted and edited together. This post is Tracy's alone. I know that folks are checking back, so I wanted to give you a short udpate while Kathy and I get some rest and some bearings before joining up again tomorrow. So the opinions expressed here are Tracy's alone. TMc

Kathy and I are at our respective homes tonight. My husband promises me that it's Monday night, and since I'm disoriented, I'll go by what he says. Since the last time we posted until tonight was another long stretch with, again, some observations of improvements and some discoveries of things that you can't get your mind around.

Thank you to everyone who has donated money. We made four pharmacy runs last night and early this morning for the Dome. After coming back from one, we learned that a woman had almost died from diabetic shock because they didn't have liquid glucose. They found something that would do in a pinch fortunately. We went immediately back to the 24 hour pharmacy for liquid glucose. It's your money that makes those back-to-back-to-back pharmacy runs possible.

On a related note, we went to George R. Brown and asked if they needed any medical supplies. They thought for a minute and said, "Lotion." When we asked what kind of lotion, they said, "You know . . . hand lotion." We left. I was thinking, "Let the national press pick up your damn lotion for you. They're all over this place." By the way, I think we had a typo that said, GRB had a "move room." That should have been "movie room." In case you're wondering, at the Dome location (lacking life-saving liquid glucose) there's no movie room.

Please forward the blog URL to everyone you know and check back tomorrow. We're going to sleep, organize our thoughts, and post the thing that we had so much trouble getting our mind around tomorrow. It's not being reported in the news, and it's mindboggling that it's not. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Astrodome Still in Crisis

We have today's report, which is no more cheerful than yesterday's (unless you count the movie room in George R. Brown Convention Center where the national press are stationed!). First, though, an update on what you can do to help on the ground at the Dome.

We posted a list of priory items last night. Add to that Neosporin and latex gloves. Yes, the list includes reading glasses. No, this is not a luxury item. As once clinician told us, many evacuees are "swimming” in AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. The visually impaired need to negotiate darkened stairwells and sharp corners. They’re already bruised, battered and scratched. Bleeding spreads contagion and they can’t afford that now. Med volunteers are working under a standing order to sanitize with Purell after touching anything - wheelchairs, door knobs, pens . . . ANYTHING. Triage is over, but a general health crisis is quietly escalating.

Note that it's not that these items aren't somewhere in the donation pool, it's that the organization isn't available to get them to the floor of the Dome so that the medical personnel can hand them directly to evacuees. That's something we've been able to do very easily. We go to the medical station, ask them what they want, run to the pharmacy, pick it up, and bring it back. Problem is, we're now about $2,000 in and need some help.

One idea for getting these items is to ask the good people at Walgreens! Managers at Walgreens stores are authorized to give up to about $150-$200 worth of pharmacy-type items for evacuee relief. You can bring those items to us and we'll get them to the floor of the Dome. Another way to volunteer is to contact us if you're willing to join this door-to-floor effort. We need to expand our team beyond the two of us so that we have time to continue to monitor safety conditions at the Dome, report them to the public, and take a little time to sleep here and there.

If you are in the Houston area, you can bring the medical items directly to South Texas College of Law at 1303 San Jacinto Blvd. and mark them to the attention of Prof. Tracy McGaugh & Prof. Kathleen Bergin. We will get them to the Astrodome floor. If you want to donate money, you can PayPal it to us at tracy.mcgaugh@usa.net.

And now, the report.

The Astrodome is still in crisis. Conditions have improved over the past 2 nights, but media and blog reports documenting calm are misleading. We suspect that those who report having “been there” have driven to the gate to drop off supplies without having spoken to the evacuees in the “pit,” as we affectionately call it.

A child was reportedly raped at the Dome on Saturday. We also met a young girl of about 12 who escaped a man in the ladies room who was trying to get her into the men's room. A police officer at Reliant reminded us to "walk in pairs" because a woman had been assaulted there as well. We helped another man outside who had been at the Dome for several days and was making his way to Reliant across the street. He "just had to get out of there" before his step-daughter was assaulted.

As we were about to leave the Dome around 2:00 a.m. Sunday, we met a young couple with four chidren -- 3 girls about 6, 8, and 10, and a boy about 4. We asked if they had just arrived, and they said that they had and that they were trying to decide whether to register at the Astro Arena (on the south side of the Dome) or the Reliant Arena (on north side of the Dome). We told them that we didn't believe that either location was safe, given that sexual assaults had occured in the Astro Arena and that frustrated "residents" of the Dome were beginning to move into the Reliant Arena. We offered to drive them downtown to George R. Brown for the safety of the whole family, but for the children in particular. They said they wanted to at least look at Reliant Arena before deciding to get into another vehicle. We went with them to Reliant Arena so they could look around and still come with us if they changed their mind.

When we arrived at Reliant Arena, it had the same cool, quiet feel as George R. Brown. Of course, it didn't have any of the amenities, but it was clean and well-lit. Tracy approached an officer and asked him if he'd heard about the sexual assaults at the Dome and Astro Arena. He said he had. She asked if anything like that had happened at Reliant Arena, and he said it hadn't. He offered his opinion, though, that "things like that were just going to occur." That's too bad -- the next day, Reliant Arena was expecting 1500-3000 new residents -- mostly the elderly and the orphaned. The family wasn't especially encouraged by his attitude, so they agreed to come to George R. Brown with us where they could rest under the watchful eye of the national press.

We collected the family and drove them to the GRB Convention Center. About a block away, I pointed out the new park with a basketball goal, gazebos, and pristine grass that their children could play in. To make sure they got settled and, honestly, to see how the registration and entry process differed from that at the Dome and the Arenas, we accompanied the family inside. Upon arrival, we were fully patted down outside, subject to a metal detector wand wave for weapons and sharp objects, and told to empty our pockets for inspection. Tracy's cigarettes and lighter that she'd been carrying in and out of the Dome and Arenas for days were confiscated. The can opener Kathy carried around for protection was also confiscated. Once inside, two boxes overflowing with toys were waiting for the children to dive in. The limit was as much as they could carry, and the three year old’s pants were stuffed with toys in no time. our family was escorted to the computer registration area (which is somewhat different than the "technology" used at the Dome) where they were automatically assigned a FEMA number, given a security badge, and provided a “color” that correlated with the “color coded” shower schedule. Their “personal escort” walked them to their sleeping area before bringing them upstairs to the dining room for something to eat. In addition to the laundry service, we've learned that the GRB We’ve since been told that they set up a “move room” at GRB. Security personnel at GRB - federal, state, county and city law enforcement as well as private security - are, well, pick a word: organized, compassionate, engaged, sympathetic. In the short time we were there, we saw them helping a new flow of evacuees off the bus, carrying their bags, offering support and sympathy, and seeking out mental health and medical assistance as the needs arose. We commend them.

Meanwhile, over at the Dome, it smells like human waste. Food and urine are all over the floors, and children are still eating and sleeping on dirty, cold unsanitary concrete. Doors leading to long, darkened hallways remain unlocked and unsupervised. We found an entire labyrinth of secluded rooms where anything can happen, or perhaps more accurately, already has. Past a vacant hallway is a room where ceiling fixtures and electric wires hung from above. There was no lighting, and no window access to the outside. The floors were wet; it smelled like piss, and we were stepping over torn, wet, dirty clothes. Glass bottles and broken furniture were strewn across the floor. Everyone knows the room is there: we found it only after seeing two men climb over a moveable guard gate to get inside. We brought a Houston PD officer to the room and were there when another was making rounds. Intermittent inspections though are not enough. The room needs to be locked and made inaccessible. Immediately.

In the chaos of Thursday and Friday at the Dome, there wasn’t any time to document who was being transported where for medical treatment. Someone kept a scratchpad to document sick and injured evacuees taken from the Dome: “Black male, 37, broken ankle - clinic.” Families got separated, and -- as late as yesterday -- parents searched for kids, brothers for sisters, friends for friends. Med staff had a yellow pages to guess through, but no list of hospitals. One women received a message that her brother was at “airline,” but neither she nor he knew whether this was a hospital, clinic, street, whatever. Kathy’s partner created a spread sheet that lists every hospital and clinic address and phone number that we’re bringing to the Dome and other spots tonight.

We can see how the Dome seemed like a good idea initially. However, after we (whoever we is) realized that it wasn't going to hold all the evacuees, and we began housing them in currently-used building like the Arenas and George R. Brown, we should have immediately found another location and begun moving the evacuees out of the Dome. Now that we know what's possible -- even via the minimally adequate facilities at the Arenas -- and what our unbounded potential is, via the George R. Brown Convention Center, it's unconscionable to continue to house people for even another day in the Astrodome where rape, disease, and disintegration of the human soul are the order of the day. If the Dome were all that the State of Texas and the City of Houston were capable of offering, it still wouldn't be acceptable, but you might at least give us marks for having our hearts in the right place and for offering to help when an offer was needed. However, with the George R. Brown Convention Center as our potential, it makes our continued housing of human beings at the Dome so shameful that I wonder how we can continue to sleep at night until every last person is out of there and we've razed the place. Clearly we can do better; we're just not.

Please let as many people as possible know what's going on in the Astrodome. There's a public health crisis, both medical and mental. A child was raped and women continue to be sexually assaulted. There's still inadequate law enforcement, and what law enforcement is there is focused in the wrong direction. Until the light is shone in the Astrodome the way it is being shone at George R. Brown Convention Center, no one will be embarassed enough to do better. This can't just be a local volunteer effort. This has to happen at higher levels, but individuals can bring the pressure to bear that can make things happen at higher levels. Go do good work.

Medical Supplies Needed

Another long day at the Astrodome; however, we both need sleep, a shower, and time to process before we can share.

Here's what's needed immediately and on a continuing basis at the Astrodome, though:

* hand sanitizer, both in large and small bottles
* reading glasses (the kind you can buy at a pharmacy or grocery store)
* Zantac 75
* baby powder
* petroleum jelly
* Tums
* Sudafed
* condoms (to prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV)

Here's what's needed immediately and on a continuing basis at George R. Brown Convention Center:

* Robitussin
* laxatives
* milk of magnesia
* mucinex (sp?)
* lancets (for diabetics)
* insulin (nph, 70/30, regular, hemalog)
* precision extra monitors (for diabetics)
* band aids
* reading glasses
* condoms (to prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV)

We have an "in" at the medical stations at both locations, and we're going to both locations often -- so please feel free to send items or money for those items directly to us, and we'll get it to the med stations ASAP. We made two pharmacy runs tonight, and we'll make another in the morning. Please send money or supplies that we can include in our frequent pharmacy trips.

If you're sending things through the mail, you can send it to us at:

Profs. Bergin & McGaugh
South Texas College of Law
1303 San Jacinto Blvd.
Houston, TX 77002

Saturday, September 03, 2005

We Are Watching, Too

For the past 40+ hours, we have been involved in the evacuee sheltering and safety effort, primarily at the Houston Astrodome in Southwest Houston. Despite the best efforts of local volunteers, the relief provided to evacuees at the Houston Astrodome is inadequate. Nearly everyone we served was black. The press was all but banned.

Today, the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston opened as a second mass shelter, and we have been inside that location as well. In addition to its many amenities for evacuees is a press room.

The disparities in conditions between the two sites is appalling. Having witnessed it firsthand, we have concluded that the only explanation for the different treatment given to similarly situated evacuees is who’s watching.


Friday, September 2, 2005

We were at the Astrodome Thursday night from 7:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. Friday morning. The volunteer effort was fairly disorganized inside, so we went and bought groceries (fruit, granola bars, water, juice, etc.) and handed them out to people getting off the buses all night. We went through $600 of supplies in about 3 hours and then went back for another $600 of supplies and handed those out until they were gone. We were shocked to hear the FEMA director say on the news around 5:30 a.m. that people might hear of isolated instances where evacuees had not been fed but that it wasn’t prevalent. The people we talked to getting off the buses said they hadn’t eaten in days and scarfed up everything we had. We finally left to shower and go to the law school to meet with our classes long enough to cancel them, describe the conditions at the Dome, and ask our students to use the extra time to go drop off supplies at the Dome.

One of the things they needed desperately was insulin – they ran out Wednesday night. We had no fewer than 5 diabetics approach and tell us that they were experiencing problems ranging from really low blood sugar to impending shock. Fortunately, we had orange juice on hand. On our second store run, we bought lots more orange juice and some chocolate specifically for that purpose -- we took lots of that to the medical tent after a medical tech told us he didn’t know what they were going to do about the diabetic evacuees.

The conditions inside the dome are absolutely awful. Unfortunately, most people didn’t know about because access by news organizations was so restricted. After watching the news that morning and realizing that the truth wasn’t getting out, we went to our awesome PR wiz, Sheila Hansel, and she got the word out to news outlets that we had information from inside the Dome. We spent the rest of the day fielding calls and giving interviews to the press, who told us they were not allowed inside the Astrodome until very recently. Even so, we’ve yet to see much reporting about the things we’ve seen. Here are the main issues as of this writing.

Safety. Conditions are not safe for women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. First, the “pat down” before going into the Dome gave me chills. Tracy had objects in both pockets (cell phone, cigarettes, lighter) – the woman patting her down felt just lightly enough to know that she had objects in both pockets but not enough to know what they were. She didn’t bother to ask. Next, as we began walking down the ramp to get to the floor of the Dome, Tracy turned to Kathy and said, “Women are going to get raped here.” Kathy said, “I was thinking the same thing.” Dark rampways, unminded hallways, and dark spaces under bleachers are untended by law enforcement or volunteers and make excellent hiding places for frustrated, exhausted individuals to exert some control of their situations again by taking advantage of the weak. What little law enforcement was present seemed nonplussed by our concerns about this environment and its potential for danger.

Kathy approached several police officers in the well and on the outside to ask if they knew whether conditions were safe for women, children and elderly evacuees. They said that they "had heard the rumors about sexual assault but no one had reported anything yet." When asked whether they would be increasing their presence in the problem areas, they said they were "making rounds." We did not see them doing this. They told Kathy that they were advised to always walk in pairs and that volunteers should heed the same advice. She told him that we were not concerned for our own safety but were instead concerned about the evacuees. He said "I wouldn’t be so sure." Then again, they may be in shock like the evacuees – with about 1 law enforcement officer per 1,000 evacuees, maybe they've calculated the odds if things start to get out of control.

This is why we desperately need national guard in Houston to help keep these unbelievably large shelter venues safe. With thousands and thousands of tired, hungry, displaced, frustrated, angry people pent up in such close, unsanitary conditions, even the presence of additional law enforcement would go a long way toward preserving order before it's lost.

Sanitation. The bathrooms that we saw were disgusting. We did a search of some of them after a woman asked us to help her find her 4-year-old granddaughter "before she gets raped." The toilets were filled with human waste and hygiene products and clearly unusable. (The woman did find her granddaughter a little while later even though the three officers we could find to ask for help seemed uninterested that we were looking for a small child -- none of them offered to help us figure out who to ask where to report lost children within the Dome – none of them used their radios to call other officers.)

Overcrowding. It was abundantly clear to us when we arrived at 7:00 p.m. that the Dome was not going to house 20,000 people. When we got there, it looked like there might be between 3,000 and 5,000 registered already – and the floor of the Dome was full and people were already setting up to sleep outside. By the time we left around 5:00 that morning, people were sleeping in the seating areas, in the hallways, and on the stairs. They ran out of cots and several people – including the old, infirm, and infant – were sleeping on concrete. In some of the more crowded corner areas, the smell of urine had started to permeate.

A little sleep to shake out the cobwebs, and we're headed back later tonight. If you're close enough to Houston to volunteer over the weekend, we can't imagine that there can be too many volunteers. We were there during the time period when volunteers were being turned away, and it wasn't because they weren't needed, it was because things were too crazy for anyone to even know what to do with them. Things are a little more organized now, so please, please come if you can.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

After a few hours sleep, we did go back to the Astrodome last night/early this morning (around 1:30 a.m.). Conditions at the Astrodome were only slightly improved from when we left Friday morning. Volunteers now check in at a parking lot about two blocks away from the Dome instead of driving into an adjacent parking lot and checking in inside the Dome – that’s an improvement because it leaves more space for cots. We did notice some National Guard in an the offsite volunteer parking lot (which is also where the evacuees going to George R. Brown Convention Center will be processed when they arrive). The volunteer effort is more organized now. However, it's difficult to understand why the organization of volunteers that's been accomplished since 5:00 a.m. Friday morning couldn't have been accomplished before the evacuees arrived -- it wasn't a complex operation and didn't require supplies, personnel, or organization that weren't already there 24 hours earlier. That said, the operation is still inadequate to the task.

When we got over to the Dome itself, we found less of a police presence outside the dome than the night before (unless you count the 7 police officers congregated together outside the police command center at the southwest corner of the Dome’s parking lot). Police presence inside is still sparse. We saw two police officers patrolling “hot spots” at one point, and we saw two police officers stationed at the entrance to the floor of the Dome with a view of one area under the bleachers (one of the areas of concern from Thursday night).

We were irritated/angry/outraged (depending on when you caught us) this morning to learn that Bill Murphy of the Houston Chronicle first misquoted Tracy as saying that 800 people were sleeping on the lawn of the Dome. She said that a hundred were sleeping on the lawn. Even worse, he took our concerns about security in the Dome and used context to make them sound as if we were concerned about the safety of Houston citizens rather than the safety of evacuees. He used our concerns about how black Americans are being treated and turned them into fuel for baseless fear of those same black Americans.

The medical situation seems to have stabilized -- more medical personnel, fewer emergencies, and more supplies -- however, they apparently need band-aids and Neosporin. Insulin may still be an issue, according to a couple of medical personnel that we spoke to. Obviously more doctors are needed to volunteer. One of the volunteer medical teams that was walking around to make sure that everyone was alright medically was composed of a dentist and a second-year medical student.

There's a station at which clothes and toiletries are being handed out. It's about the length of two standard conference tables. At 4:00 this morning, it was being tended by about 6 volunteers and had about 10-12 evacuees requesting items. Nevertheless, the wait was pretty long -- it took a while for volunteers to locate needed items, and -- even then – the items found were pretty makeshift (not the right size, out of season, etc.). While some makeshift items are to be expected, We were surprised to find that the supplies being offered in terms of clothing and shoes, in particular, were so makeshift since local media and electronic signs around Houston had been advising citizens for hours to STOP making donations at the Astrodome. It's hard to imagine, with over 15,000 people in the Dome and surrounding buildings, that they have too much of anything for the next few days -- but the reality is even more shocking -- they don't have enough of some items at the time donations are being turned away. This was the only clothing and toiletry item distribution station, and this was the situation at 4:00 in the morning with most folks asleep. It's hard to imagine what the situation is as people are starting to wake up right about now [We’re writing this from our downtown Houston offices at the law school at 6:30 a.m. – what we’re doing at school becomes more apparent in about 2 sentences.]

We left the Dome around 4:30 and headed back to the law school for Tracy to pick up her car for the first time in two days. Because the law school is a couple of blocks from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the next wave of evacuees will be housed, we decided to stop in and see how setup was going. What we saw at first cheered us immeasurably.

The distribution center was a huge convention hall. Clothing and shoes in all sizes, shapes, seasons, ranges, and colors was bountiful, organized, and pleasingly arranged. Shirts were neatly folded in high, clean stacks. Dresses hung on hangers. Shoes were paired with their mates in row upon row of size-sorted bounty. Tables overflowed with books, games, writing implements, and paper for all ages. Everything was neatly stacked and carefully arranged. The hall was well lit and chilly with air-conditioning. Two police officers guarded the street-side entrance. Two volunteers wearing Center Point Energy polo shirts tended the exit leading to another exhibit hall. When we asked how things would be distributed, a careful and efficient distribution system was cheerfully explained to us. We asked who was in charge, and we were given the name of someone who worked for Center Point Energy. Clearly, we said to each other, they need to get some Center Point Energy folks over to the Astrodome!

We left that hall and went into the next hall. This hall was dimly lit and very cool. However, it didn't have the same spooky feel that the dimly lit areas of the Dome did. Probably because volunteers – “hall monitors,” as one volunteer described himself – walked quietly in between rows of double-bed sized air mattresses where evacuees slept quietly on fluffy pillows under warm blankets. These evacuees are rightly being comfortably treated as the traumatized and invited guests that they are . . . in stark and distressing contrast to the Dome evacuees, whose conditions we doubt are constitutional for prisoners. Very few evacuees had arrived thus far – probably 50 at the most -- mostly folks who had managed to get to Houston on their own, as the “hall monitor” told us. He also told us that the GRB was set up so that volunteers could register at either end of the GRB (instead of the area where cots or beds should be, as was the case with the Dome the first night; and instead of a parking lot two blocks away, as is the case with the Dome now) and that there was an information booth at the middle of the GRB.

As we looked around the room, we noticed the Information Booth that the hall monitor told us about. But something else caught our eye: the Immunization Booth. Immunizations? They can provide immunizations at GRB, but they can’t provide insulin a the Dome? Wow. We were perplexed, but happy that things were so on the ball. Good for Center Point! Where could we go to congratulate these Center Point organizers extraordinaire? “Third floor command station.” So off we went up to the third floor to find the command station.

Once on the third floor, we found the command station, but the person in charge wasn’t there, so we decided to just look around a little bit. However, unlike the Dome, where we’ve had complete access to anyplace we want to go, we were stopped at every entrance, asked who we were, regarded with skepticism, and even refused entrance to one area by either police officers,
security guards, or state troopers. While one might attempt to explain this by the simple passage of time and more opportunity for organization, we had just come from the Astrodome where we still had unfettered access and we still counted 1 law enforcement officer per 1,000 people. At George R. Brown, our estimate was about 1 law enforcement officer per 2 evacuees.

There's also a "dining room" with a buffet table that they were already starting to set up with breakfast items, pastries, jam, coffee, juice, etc., and dozens of dining tables so that evacuees could sit together with friends and family as they had breakfast and other meals.

As we continued walking around, we found an official Press Room set up. Now, at the Dome, locations are denoted by hand-written signs. At George R. Brown, areas are denoted with color laser-printed signs like the ones we used as trial exhibits. The Press Room was no exception.

We went into the Press Room and found a nice facility ready for a press conference with some very fancy diagrams of how the building is set up to accommodate the evacuees. A couple of hallways over, we found another meeting room clearly set up for another meeting with conference tables set up in a large square, linen table clothes, bottles of water on the table, next to the kind of water glasses we all only use when we have meetings in a square with linen table cloths. There was a coffee setup in the back with coffee flavoring bottles. Looks like that's probably where city officials will meet to discuss the situation. We noticed no such press room at the Dome, and city officials are definitely not meeting there.

So what's the difference between the Dome and the GRB? Is it the difference in warning? Probably not. What has been accomplished so far at the Dome could have been accomplished 24 hours earlier. Is it the difference in the private sector versus non-private sector? Surely not. The forces at work at the Dome certainly have more experience in disaster relief than Center Point Energy. Is it the difference in scale? That doesn’t seem reasonable. The volunteers were there; the willingness to organize was there; the supplies were there; the warning was there. All of the things needed to deal with the scale were present. All of those things were or are continuing to be ignored or turned away. Sure, it’s hard to get your mind around. But it’s not impossible. Sure, people are going to make mistakes, and we’re all going to learn as we go. But should the mistakes be on the same scale as the disaster? Surely not.

So what’s the difference between the Dome and the GRB? The difference was right in front of us as we left the third floor, passing the skywalk: It’s who will be watching what goes on at the GRB.

The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, is connected by skywalk to the Hilton of the Americas.

Anyone staying at the Hilton will have ready access to what’s going on. Those individuals are predominantly wealthy, white, and communicating with the outside world. The people who are watching at the Dome are local volunteers, the vast majority of whom are powerless to confront the images coming from the Press Room at the Convention Center. So when people are watching, you get fluffy pillows, freshly folded clothes in all sizes, and a police presence that made us want to feed the parking meter at the law school on a Saturday. When people are not watching, we throw 12,000 hungry people in a pit, tell Houstonians we’re full up on supplies, send 12 police officers down there, and hope for the best.

Sickened, we made our way down to the first floor and back out the way we came in, through the room with the neatly folded stacks of clothes, which all 20,000+ evacuees in Houston surely deserve. As we left, something else caught our eye: a huge sign that read “Laundry.” We asked what that sign was about and a volunteer explained that, “Here at the Convention Center, volunteers will pick up evacuees’ dirty laundry during their stay and return it to them laundered.”

Of course they will. The world is watching.