Report from the Austin Convention Center

So it's not quite the same as a trip to another country, but it is close. During the past week or so, I've spent over 20 hours at the Austin Convention Center, which is housing Hurricane Katrina refugees. I've done various jobs - helping at the computers, staffing the phones, answering questions -- mostly with "I don't know, but I will try to find out," since neither I nor anyone I've met is an expert on the myriad questions that this catastrophe has left its victims with.

There were about 4000 people housed at the Convention Center at first. By today, there were only about 1000, and it seems much quieter as well as emptier. They are trying to move people out of the convention center; cynics have said it's because there's a large conference coming up that the city doesn't want to have to cancel, but it must be at very least equally out of concern for the evacuees. A conference center is no place to live. Every evacuee has a cot, and a little bit of space around it; the personal space of the average family is perhaps a little larger than a queen-sized bed, most of it occupied by cots. There are no walls, no cubicles, no private space at all; there are simply cots next to cots, and so people sleep, eat, and live in such close proximity to each other that it would drive me crazy in less time than they've already been there. There is entertainment - a basketball court, a cafeteria with a stage for bands (today the Neville Brothers played!), a small library area, a TV area, etc. Aside from the lack of privacy, they also live in constant light; for safety and security reasons, we can't ever turn all the lights off, and even at its darkest, the convention center is brightly lit. There is constant noise - vacuums, inflatable mattresses being inflated, kids playing, people walking and talking - a constant buzz. Many of the evacuees haven't had anything close to a decent night's sleep since they were forced to leave their homes by the hurricane. With the stress of this living situation added to the stress of losing basically everything, it's amazing that there haven't been more problems. Yes, there are arguments and kids acting out, but mostly there haven't been major incidents. And thankfully, as best as I can tell, the Austin Police, who are largely responsible for security at the ACC, understand that security problems are often residents acting out because of the intense pressures they are under; I overheard one officer reporting to another that a "stress fight" had broken out between two residents, and that is what most conflicts are - an explosion of the stress that builds up in a situation like this one.

What's incredible is that, in the midst of all this (and most of these people have come here from far worse; many of the folks came here from the New Orleans Superdome, which was truly a nightmare), almost everyone is gracious, appreciative of what help we can offer - even when we can't offer much. I was staffing the help desk on my first night, with next to no training and no idea who was in charge, and so I had to tell a lot of people that I didn't know the answer to their questions. I tried to find out what I could, tried to at least make sure that I could direct them to someone who would be able to answer their questions, but even at my most hopelessly inadequate, these folks who've been through hell and who've waited in so many lines for so much time in the past 14 days that even the Soviet Bloc would pale in comparison - even then, no one got exasperated at hearing "I don't know, I'll try to find out."

Today, two weeks after the storm, I was staffing the phones at the family reunion desk. Most people were calling to leave a message for someone in the shelter, but some people were still calling to see if we could find their relatives. I spoke to two people today who did not know if their relatives were alive or dead - a man looking for his younger brother, and a woman looking for her grandmother. They had tried various shelters, but the proliferation of various databases and internet sites means that there's no centralized log of Katrina survivors, or of the missing or dead, and they had had no news since the storm hit. (Add to this that there are many evacuees who do not have computer skills, and it is an even worse situation. For this reason Austin Free-Net has set up a computer bank in the shelter, and while I volunteered there, I helped set up an e-mail account for a man who had never heard of e-mail. It's wonderful that so many sites and bulletin boards are trying to find people, but in some ways, the amount of sites out there makes it more difficult to find people, not easier.) Amazingly, though, both the brother and the grandmother of my callers were not only alive, but actually in the Austin shelter!! It was an amazing thing, being able to give people who'd been searching for two weeks such good news.

The shelter is being run by the Red Cross and the City of Austin. The evacuees have to negotiate a maze of registrations (with FEMA, with the Red Cross, and with the shelter itself, just for starters) and because there's a high turnover among volunteers, they're often faced with people behind the registration desks or the help desks who know less than they do about what they need. Believe me - I'm not in any way denigrating the volunteers or the Red Cross - we're all trying to do the best that we can, and the Red Cross is positively amazing in being able to pull a functioning shelter - with food, water, bedding, luggage, clothing, and everything - for 4,000 people out of thin air. The Red Cross has been overwhelmed by the number of people volunteering, and Austinites have been donating food, clothing, and many other items to the shelter since the evacuees first got here. It's astonishingly well run given that it is an operation of this magnitude staffed primarily by volunteers with very little training; what we have is (in the words of an APD officer) controlled chaos.

So that's what I've been doing this last while. The evidence of mismanagement, nepotism and gross incompetence at FEMA and the administration's extreme callousness in dealing with this vast tragedy still fills me with rage (I wrote about it, in fury and pain, on my website last week,, which is still better than despair; but it helps a lot to be able to take action, to help those people directly affected by the hurricane and its aftermath, because that anger turns to positive energy, gets directed toward getting help to people who need it, checking database after database to see if someone's mother or sister or son is listed somewhere, listening to people talk when they need to talk, doing whatever needs to be done. It's been pretty amazing down here, and I hope that the community commitment I've seen to helping people rebuild after this disaster stays around for a long time.


15. September 2005



Wherever you are:

Donate money or time to Community Labor United, a New Orleans grassroots organization dedicated to rebuilding the neighborhoods and communities of the city in an equitable and just way.

Donate to the NAACP's Disaster Relief Fund - in addition to providing immediate relief to hurricane survivors, they will "advocate for equitable distribution of money and resources from Federal, state and local government and other relief agencies to those hardest hit by this catastrophe" - which, unfortunately, will probably be quite an issue.

Donate to America's Second Harvest, or volunteer with them.

If you are in Austin:

Volunteer with and/or donate money to the Central Texas Red Cross. (To volunteer and get processed more quickly, download their volunteer application here, fill it out, and bring it to their offices at 2218 Pershing Drive.)

Austin Goodwill is taking donations of "what you would need if you lost everything." If you aren't in Austin, check the Goodwill in your area; they may also be accepting donations for hurricane victims.

Volunteer with or donate money to the Capital Area Food Bank.

The City of Austin has a "How to Help" site that you should check out if you have services or professional assistance to offer, especially if you are a doctor or nurse.


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