One History Professor's Experience with the Katrina Relief Effort

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Ms. Kossie-Chernyshev is Associate Professor of History, Texas Southern University, Houston, TX.

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It is Saturday night, September 3, approximately 8:40 PM.  My husband and I have just arrived at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the second public facility designated for Katrina evacuees. 

My goal is to pick up a schedule to plan my volunteer activities and to help my Texas Southern University students do the same.  I want all of us not only to participate in this unprecedented historical moment, but also to examine it within the context of the many migrations shaping African American History from the Middle Passage to the present.

As we cross the threshold of the center, we are immediately guided to a registration table to the left, given name tags, and asked to sign-in.   Impressed with how well organized everything is, we decide to do a short practice run.

"Barb," a woman volunteer, provides us with latex gloves and an assignment.  Given our energy level and initial intent, we choose ushering over loading the docks.  The latex gloves are no longer necessary.

We walk toward a second volunteer entrance and notice"the store" to our immediate left. Evacuees select from hundreds of pairs of shoes and piles of clothes arranged neatly according to gender and size.  They also gather toiletries, books, toys, diapers, strollers, walkers, and a host of other items.  

Further ahead, policemen stand on guard between the store and living quarters.  The elderly occupy the first section, families the middle, single women the next, and single men the last section.  

Evacuees choose from hundreds of air mattresses, cots, and pillows covered with sheets, throws, and blankets of different colors and patterns, including prints, plaids, and cartoon characters like Winnie the Pooh.  Evacuees either occupy or leave their belongings in many of the spaces.  Unoccupied beds are identified by two unopened bottles of water and black and white photocopy"Surviving Psychological Trauma," a pamphlet published in 2005 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

On the wall behind the beds, stand green latrines with white labeling and tables to charge cell phones.  Additional outlets are attached to the huge blue steel pillars that support the weight of the Center. 

To the left, volunteers man tables labeled"PREVENTION."  A few paces further, others register evacuees as they enter.  As directed, Greeters welcome them with Texas-sized smiles.  Thereafter, ushers show them the facilities, staying with them until they are comfortable.

9:02 PM:  We are queuing up for a brief orientation on ushering. After a few minutes, my husband and I are assigned to Robert and Jason, both single African American men in their twenties and friends. 

A lanky 6'2" with a long, narrow face, Robert is dressed in baggy black jeans with a black belt anchoring them to his long thin torso, hidden under a billowy white T-shirt.  His movements are slow and fluid.

Jason, a lean 5' 4", has a round friendly face and expressive eyes. He wears a large black T-shirt over black jeans.  As he rises from the registration table, he announces right away that he wants to find his kids whom he has heard are here.   He tosses a heavy plastic garbage bag of belongings over his right shoulder as he pins a box containing his personal air mattress between his torso and folded left arm. 

"Let's find you a place first," I suggest in as kind a voice I can muster.  Meanwhile, Robert mumbles,"Man, look at this.  They got us sectioned off like prisoners."  Two teenage boys, one sporting an Afro, are throwing a football as we move forward.

The more we progress the more Jason and Robert share their experiences and express their desires.  Details trickle randomly but guardedly from their lips.

Jason reveals that they are from uptown New Orleans.  Robert wants to know where to charge his cell phone and how he can rent a car for a drive to family in Dallas without a credit card.  Jason wants to shower and find his kids. 

When asked if they have just been evacuated, Jason answers,"We were rescuing people.  We stayed to help the old people in our neighborhood get out.  Didn't NOBODY show up, man.  We couldn't just leave those people there." 

Robert agrees and adds,"I haven't been able to bathe in six days, man.  I was ALL WET."  Avoiding eye contact, he shakes his head from side to side and lowers it in frustration. 

A few steps ahead, Jason spots friends from home who tell him they have seen his kids.  He approaches them and leaves some of his belongings with them to lighten his load before shopping. 

Robert mumbles as he pans the huge facility,"I'm keeping all of my stuff with me.  I don't know none of these people." As he walks ahead, Jason assures us Robert is just temporarily angry and will cool down after while. 

We eventually reach the store, where volunteers acquaint us with the layout.  My husband helps Jason find underwear"in unopened packages" because he"ain't wearing nobody's used underwear."  He then helps Robert find black baggy jeans and a white T-shirt.  Meanwhile, I go to find plastic bags for their selections.  Jason accepts my find; Robert does not. 

As they are engaged in their brief shopping spree, an attractive twenty-something evacuee catches Jason's eye.  Forgetting his original purpose, he stops in his tracks to trace her curvaceous silhouette.  For a few seconds, a quiet storm of a different kind sweeps him off his feet.  He asks flirtatiously out of her earshot,"Is there a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g I can help you find?" His eyes dim as she fades into the distance.  Thereafter, he resumes his search. 

Their brief shopping spree now ended, Robert asks if evacuees can use the red phones on the tables to our left.  The answer is yes.  Whether or not they can call long distance, designated volunteers will try to find out. 

I point out the escalators to the third floor, where volunteers are serving hot meals.  Having almost completed the huge square in clockwise fashion, my husband accompanies the young men to the registration table just before we reach their prized destination.

Once Jason spots the placard marked"MEN'S SHOWERS," he thanks us with a smile; Robert mumbles the same continuing to avoid eye contact.  The two men amble to manned tables, where volunteers offer them fresh towels. 

9:50 PM:  Finally, both can release waves of fatigue and frustration into gentler waters.  Equipped with the heroic resilience and generosity of their ancestors, may they migrate to better times and prosperous places.  God bless Robert and Jason.  God bless America. 
Related Links

  • HNN's Katrina Coverage

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    D L Hughes, Jr - 9/5/2005

    Great article Dr. Kossie