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.

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