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.

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