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Annie Harnett, Volunteer Katrina Shelter Journal

Day 1 (Sept.5): After days of watching the horror in New Orleans unfold, after finding myself, at 10:30 a.m. on a beautiful sunny day, on my knees on my kitchen floor sobbing over and over again, God have Mercy, God have Mercy, God have Mercy, I wake up feeling clear about what to do. I dress my three-year-old son and myself and drive downtown to the Austin Convention Center turned shelter. As we approach the doors a reporter from KVUE asks why we are there. I tell her I am from Bay St. Louis Mississippi, that my hometown has been devastated by Katrina, that my mother's home is completely gone--nothing left but a slab and a yellow bathtub. I tell her that since I can't get there I have come here to help. She tells me that she, too, is from Mississippi. We commiserate. She asks if she can interview my son, Thomas, and I. Because, she says, he is so cute. He is, as all three-year-olds are, extremely cute. He is also holding a plush unicorn that we intend to give away at the shelter. Yes, I can see why she wants to talk to us.

She approaches with her microphone and cameraman. She asks again why we are here. I say again what I've already told her. I add that I am horrified, sad, angry, disgusted (here my voice gets thick and weird) by what happened in New Orleans. I say something about these people being my neighbors. She likes that. Yes, she says, these are our neighbors. She asks Thomas if he knows why he is there. No, he says.

Expecting to be turned away I tell the cop at the door where I am from and that I want to volunteer. He points me toward a desk where the Red Cross is signing up volunteers. The outer ring of the convention center is a mix of people wandering aimlessly and people rushing purposefully. Of black and white (normally so segregated here in Austin). I see a disproportionate number of people in wheelchairs. Thomas and I give the woman at the Red Cross desk our names, she gives us wristbands, like we're going to see a show. We are told to wait in one of the meeting rooms.

Inside the meeting room, volunteers fill out name tags, drink coffee, knit, chat, and wait to be told where to go, how to help. Again, a mix of people: retirees, teenagers, black and white and Hispanic. After a while a short beige guy with a Red Cross badge comes in and asks for five volunteers to register people. My hand shoots up. He tells me and four others to wait in one corner. He then asks for volunteers to clean tables in the dining area. Another set of people is chosen.

"Follow me." He leads us onto the convention center floor, now a sea of cots. I am happy to see all the various quilts and blankets, all different colors and patterns, dragged out of people's closets and off their beds. It is good to see people's donations being put to use like this. But the people I glimpse lying atop those blankets, as on life rafts, look as if they've been adrift for days. Their eyes are screwed tightly shut to achieve some kind of privacy. Others stare dully. I avert my eyes; I realize I am looking into people's bedrooms.

We then cross a loading dock where evacuees mill around smoking cigarettes. I notice again the high proportion of people in wheelchairs. Were they in wheelchairs before Katrina? Most are black. There is one young white woman in a pink bathrobe sitting in a wheelchair and puffing on a cigarette. The cops, standing in pairs, are also white. We pass through the loading dock area and into the dining area. Tables and chairs, a cafeteria line, hot food, bottles of water and juice on ice. Granola bars. I realize that somehow I have lost sight of the man who lead the volunteer registrars. I am now with the volunteer table cleaners. That is fine with me. I waitressed myself through graduate school. This, I can do. I borrow some wet wipes from a city employee and start clearing away people's dishes and wiping down tables. Another volunteer hands me a pair of gloves. Thomas wants one because he thinks they are Spiderman gloves. I give him one, and a wipe and he wipes tables, too.

He is taking this all in stride, like he does it every day- huge building full of chaos and despair, people who are very clearly not doing so well. No problem. He wipes tables. Then he sees that a little boy at one of the tables has a huge, automated robot toy. He sidles up. Within minutes, no seconds, they are playing. Good. This leaves me free to work. To talk to people.

Two women sit at a table, one middle-aged, the other very old in a wheelchair piled high with blankets. I ask how they are, if they need anything. I learn that they are mother and daughter, that they waited on a freeway overpass for three days before being rescued. I learn that the older woman is ninety-three. She sits with her eyes closed, sunk into herself, swaddled in blankets. She can't get warm, her daughter explains. No, they don't need anything, the daughter says, then starts coughing convulsively. Well, maybe a bottle of water, but she can get it herself, she says. I get it for her. These people, I figure, can stand to be waited on a little.

At another table, a family of seven. Children ranging in age from three months to fourteen. Could I find them some vitamins, for the children? asks the mother. All they've been eating is junk. She has an accent. I ask where they are from. New Orleans, she says. One of the kids pipes up. Nigeria, she says. I tell them I'll look for vitamins. I walk over to the supply center, which is at one end of the dining area. Shelves and shelves full of donated items. I ask the volunteer working there if, by chance, they have any children's vitamins. I don't expect that they will, but the volunteer comes back with a huge bottle of Flintstones. I tell him these people have five children and he pours a generous quantity of vitamins into a baggy. The Nigerian mother, who had been terse and unsmiling before, beams when I bring the vitamins. I say how hard it must have been, getting through the storm and out of New Orleans with five children. Yes, she says, smiling sadly. Yes.

The next people I meet are young, good-looking. I clean the table; we get to talking. They were at the Superdome, they say. They mention the dead bodies, a fifteen year-old girl who killed herself after being gang raped, how they saw her leap from the second floor. They say somebody got hold of one of the men who raped her and slit his throat. They say they won't go back to New Orleans. I realize I don't know where Thomas is. I scan the room and see him walking, hand in hand, with the boy he was playing with earlier, the boy with the robot.

The boy's mother sees me looking. She tells me her son is helping Thomas find me. I wave and they start toward us. The woman and I talk about little boys and robots. She tells me I can get the robot at Wal-mart. That it was her son's sixth birthday a few days ago and he got the robot for his birthday. I ask how he's doing. She says he's been sick since he got here. She says she is angry. She says she would "bomb that bitch Bush" if she could. Yes, I say, you have good reason to be angry. I feel like I've just made the understatement of the year.

Thomas tells me he is ready to go. I look at my watch. We have been here two hours, a long time for a three-year-old. I thank the boy with the robot for helping Thomas look for me; I thank his mother. Impulsively, I hug her.

Driving home, Thomas sucks on his bottle. Does God love me? he asks. Yes, I say. Does God love everybody? Yes, I say. Thomas is quiet for a minute and then he starts to scream, enraged, throwing himself against the straps of his car seat and hitting his little fists against the air. No, he screams, God doesn't love everybody; God doesn't love me; God sends hurricanes; God doesn't love anybody!

This goes on for maybe five minutes. His face is red and swollen, streaked with tears. Afterwards he falls back in his car seat, exhausted, and sucks his bottle. God does love everyone, I say, even though it doesn't seem like it sometimes. I sound unconvincing, even to myself. We drive home.

A woman from the Red Cross calls the next day. Can I volunteer for an eight-hour shift? I tell her I can volunteer for five hours on Thursday and Friday, while my son is at preschool. She says OK; they are desperate for volunteers. She tells me where to park.

Day 4 (Sept. 19):

I haven't been to the shelter for almost a week. On the Thursday and Friday of the previous week I had been registering people for Red Cross assistance. I had been asking about the status of all family members, filling out forms using abbreviations like xx for killed, xx for hospitalized, xx for missing. I have heard on the news that the shelter's population is down from 4,000 to less than 500.

On the sidewalk out front I see a few evacuees milling around, some sitting in ragged, overstuffed recliners, as if on someone's front porch. There is a small puddle of vomit, an abandoned Fisher Price playhouse. I say a prayer, the St. Francis Prayer: Lord, make me a channel of Your peace....

Inside the shelter, most of the social service booths are gone. It is quiet, almost deserted compared to the week before. The corner where the Red Cross registration tables were is now empty. A police officer directs me to a small conference room where five volunteers are still working. I recognize three of them from the week before; they are middle-aged, tired-looking.

The shelter is closing in four days, they tell me. The focus now is on getting everyone into an apartment. Evacuees bring in forms filled out by potential landlords, the Red Cross contacts the landlords to verify the information, then, if everything is in order, issues a disbursement for the first month's rent. The city is picking up the next six months' rent. How are people finding apartments? I want to know. There are social workers to help them, I am told. But, the other volunteers say, the people who are still here, about 400 of them, are the ones who have the most difficulty functioning. The oldest, the sickest, the least able to fend for themselves. I soon see that this is true.

I sit next to a man named Jose, a retired teacher, one of the volunteers I remember from before. He is to teach me how to fill out the new forms. The first people who come to our table are two middle-aged men and a little girl, a toddler. Jose begins to fill out their paperwork. I try to pay attention but am distracted by the child. She is fussy, straining against the straps of her stroller. One of the men pushes a bottle filled with bright red juice into her hands. She throws it down. She begins to cry. I ask if I can take her out of the stroller, play with her. One of the men, her father I assume, nods tiredly. I unstrap her, learn that her name is Diane, that she is two.

She is a tiny thing, a bundle of restless energy. Her arms reach out and I pick her up, talk to her, walk her around the room. She wriggles and wants to be put down. As soon as I set her down, she is off, tearing around, grabbing papers off tables. I find a discarded plastic ball and we play throw the ball, chase the ball. Every few minutes she reaches toward me with her thin little arms, wanting to be held. I hold her for a few minutes and then she wants down again. After about fifteen minutes of this her father has filled out his forms and they are ready to move on. I hand Diane over to him and she screams and reaches for me as he straps her into the stroller. I wonder how he contains her, this little ball of energy and discontent. I wonder where her mother is. I watch them leave.
I am sitting next to Jose again, trying to learn how to do what he is doing, when I notice a woman at a nearby table, slumped in her chair, clearly despondent. I sit next to her and ask her how she is, if I can get her anything. The volunteer who is filling out her paperwork explains that she is diabetic, that her blood sugar is off, that she probably needs something to eat. Her name is Verdell.

I ask Verdell if I can run to the cafeteria and get her something. No, she says, they don't have nothin'; over there I can eat. The volunteer, Jane, suggests something with protein, eggs, sausage. Verdell shakes her head. I ain't eating no powdered eggs or pigs in a blanket. That stuff like cardboard. And I ain't eating no doritos neither. Every morning, says Verdell, they try to feed her doritos. Burritos, explains the volunteer. Just get me some red beans and rice, says Verdell. I can't eat nothing they have over in that cafeteria. Jane tells me that Verdell probably needs to see a nurse. She's feeling dizzy. I head off to find a wheelchair and a nurse.

The first aid center is not where it was the week before. I wander through the cavernous interior of the building, searching. I ask a city employee where the First Aid Center is. She has no idea. They keep moving it, she says. Eventually I find it. A fleet of wheelchairs sits empty. I take one and go back to get Verdell.

Verdell sits in the wheelchair but she won't let me take her to the First Aid Center. She won't go 'till she gets her apartment. But there is some problem. Her paperwork is not in order. She needs a form from the city. I wheel her over to the desk where the city employees are supposedly helping people find apartments. No, they tell me, she has to have her Red Cross form filled out first. I wheel her back to the Red Cross table. I tell Jane, the Red Cross volunteer, that the city won't help Verdell until she gets her Red Cross form. Jane tells me that she needs the paperwork from the city before she can fill out the Red Cross form. Nobody knows what to do. By this time, Verdell is completely slumped over in the wheelchair, her head in her hands. I see a big blonde take-charge Red Cross woman I remember from last week walking by; I grab her and tell her that Verdell keeps getting sent back and forth. That nobody will help her. The big blond woman tells me to lower my voice. I hadn't realized I was shouting. She says she will take care of it and marches over to talk to the city employees. Within minutes, she has straightened everything out. Verdell finally has some place to go, an apartment. I wonder how in the hell she is going to take care of herself once she gets there.
Verdell tells me she is now willing to go the First Aid Center. I wheel her over to the "Insulin Clinic," where the nurse playfully scolds Verdell for not eating and checks her insulin level. The nurse tells me she will take it from here. Reluctantly, I tell Verdell goodbye. I wish her well.

Walking back I see an elderly white guy with a beard like a retired sea captain. He shuffles along, looks completely lost. The front of his sweat pants is soiled with urine. I ask him if I can help. No, he says. Don't need any help. Thank you, darling.
When I get back to the Red Cross room I realize that it is already time for me to go. I never learned how to fill out the forms. I tell Jose it was nice to meet him. I tell the other volunteers goodbye.
On the way out of the Convention Center I see little Diane running pell-mell across the carpeted floor. She sees me and reaches out. I pick her up. I see her father at the city housing table. I hold Diane and speak to her in a low voice, with words that are not my own, that come from somewhere else. Diane, I say, your mother loves you. Diane is completely still for the first time, her whole body listening. Wherever she is, your mother loves you and she will always love you, I say. I hug Diane and put her down. She races to her father and climbs on his lap. She smiles at me. I wave and turn to go, realizing that what I have just said is wildly presumptuous, I have no idea who or where her mother is, but I know in my heart that it is true. Wherever she is, Diane's mother loves her. At this moment it is the only thing that I am certain of. I walk out of the shelter and go to pick up my little boy.

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