The Dallas Convention Center has been a strange but comforting replacement neighborhood for those whose real 'hoods were drowned by Katrina. Here, the miserable and the hopeful, thrown together by common circumstance, have been trying to sort out their futures.
The sorting has taken place in a gigantic parking garage-turned-shelter run by the American Red Cross. Many of the evacuees who have been living under bright fluorescent ceiling lights, their belongings stacked on cots and air mattresses, have never faced so many life choices so fast. Do I stay in the Dallas area or leave? If I take this apartment, will I be able to afford it in five months? If I take a job in the suburbs, how difficult will it be to get to work and back?
"It's like we-the-people versus an unknown," explains Melvin Hewitt, a Service Employees International Union rep from the Gentilly area of New Orleans.
The enemy is now the unfamiliar, the struggle one of the mind. Some evacuees are restless and desperate to construct new lives, and others are still processing the tragedy -- five days on an overpass, three days on a roof, alligators in the water, bodies floating by. They need a much longer respite from worry so they can heal.
Peggy Lodge, who was folding donated clothes one late afternoon, separating summer from winter garments, said she wouldn't mind staying at the convention center for a year. "See, I got flashbacks now," said Lodge, a janitor on disability.
She was rescued by helicopter from the balcony of her mid-city New Orleans home, and now the sounds of a whirring chopper spook her. A helicopter sighting outside the convention center the other day spurred her to run back inside. "I can't deal with helicopters no more," she said, her voice cracking, her mama sitting nearby. "They came too late for us, they came too late."
Texas officials estimate their state has absorbed more than 200,000 Gulf Coast hurricane survivors, the majority of whom have scattered to apartments and hotels, churches and private homes. But approximately 20,000 remain in convention centers and sports arenas, the last resort for those who had nowhere else to turn or haven't yet decided where they belong.
In Dallas, however, time is running out for shelter residents. A coalition of city, church and business leaders is working furiously to implement an ambitious plan to place all of the convention center's inhabitants in housing by Sunday, to be celebrated by a Mardi Gras-style festival downtown. As of Thursday, the convention center's shelter population had dwindled to 200, from 1,500 a week earlier. Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the nation's most prominent ministers and a key organizer of the effort, is calling it "Project Exodus."
The plan was hatched last week over a dinner at the home of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller. Among the guests were Jakes and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Under the plan, shelter residents would be provided two months' free rent -- including utilities -- in an apartment or single-family home. They would be relocated close to public transportation and be given a package of basic household items -- pots and dishes, linens and towels. A host family would be assigned to ease their transition. 7-Eleven is selling Mardi Gras beads for a buck to raise money for the relocation. Kroger, the grocery chain, has agreed to donate gift cards.
But many shelter residents aren't so eager to go, as Project Exodus volunteers are discovering. The volunteers, in their hot-pink T-shirts, set up a table at the shelter but encountered some trepidation: Where exactly is Duncanville? What's it like in Pleasant Grove? Thus, some evacuees are simply being transferred to another shelter down the street. In fact, the shelter population at Reunion Arena, the city's indefinite way station, has doubled in two days -- from 300 to 600.
"They coming up with everything trying to get us out quick," said Debra Johnson of Uptown New Orleans who is traveling with two children, a husband, a sister-in-law and three nieces. "I don't know nothing about Dallas." Even though she's uneasy, she's willing to give Project Exodus a shot. "I feel like we came here from the Superdome, we've recuperated and it's time to move on," she said. "If I can survive the Superdome, I can survive anything."
What distinguishes the denizens of the shelter from other evacuees is they set up a community of their own in a building. There were hair-braiding sessions and card games, and one man even organized an outdoor barbecue. Informal leaders emerged to challenge the elected ones. When Nagin showed up at the shelter last week, it was union rep Hewitt who asked him some tough questions.
It's a surreal little world, though, living in a space roped off by yellow police tape, the living quarters marked by numbers on pillars, the pillars serving as de facto addresses, as in: I'm staying up at pole 82. Come check me out. Showers were taken outside, by schedule, in a hazmat decontamination tent. A line the length of two city blocks sometimes formed for a grilled-chicken dinner.
A social structure formed around six big-screen television sets. One TV was reserved for news, another for cartoons and other children's programming. The shelter's teenagers and twentysomethings commandeered another set -- must keep current with their pop culture, meaning must see the new videos of Kanye West and Omarion.
Gilbert King, a teacher's aide from St. Bernard Parish who was frustrated with the programming choices, tried unsuccessfully for several days to get a cable line run to a TV that was donated to him. "A lot of these people want to watch all this foolishness," complained King, who wanted to watch more public affairs programs. Nonstop movies were shown on a couple of the other televisions. The other day a bootlegged DVD copy of the recently released "Hustle & Flow" surfaced, to the screaming delight of evacuees.
They had everything they needed in this 200,000-square-foot parking garage -- from grief counselors to computers with Internet access. Just no privacy. Public address announcements were constant, as if you were living in an airport terminal. Police officers, Texas National Guardsmen, Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, medics, clergy and an army of volunteers all invaded the evacuees' limited space.
And don't forget the stars. Colin Powell came and so did Jamie Foxx, who served food in the chow line. Mary Hart of "Entertainment Tonight" arrived with a truckload of kiddie surprises from Toys R Us.
Separate from the shelter is a FEMA-run disaster recovery center housed in another hall of the convention center. This is where evacuees come to do serious business. FEMA gives them a checklist with 21 services and agencies to access -- from setting up a post office box to getting free bus passes, from obtaining food stamps to applying for a low-interest federal loan.
National Travel Systems will arrange for a one-way plane or bus ticket to anywhere. The Internal Revenue Service hands out information about how to amend your 2004 tax return to claim hurricane losses and possibly get a refund.
These large shelters were never intended to be long-term solutions, merely a bridge. But in Dallas, at least, the bridge is about to shut down, forcing some instant decisions by people who are still contending with the awfulness of the past three weeks.
This internal struggle -- What to do? How to feel? Where to go? When to leave? -- was on display the other afternoon in a wandering conversation outside the men's bathroom of the shelter. The two Tyrones -- acquaintances in New Orleans, cot mates in the shelter -- took a squat in a couple of folding chairs.
They had been through the same experience but are of different minds about it.
Tyrone Horton, 39, a forklift driver back home, is focused on finding a job but is proceeding methodically. He has a work prospect in the suburban city of Irving, but he wonders how difficult it will be to get back and forth. He pulls from his pocket a business card from an AmeriSuites representative who offered a free two-week hotel stay.
It was a tempting offer, he admits, a chance to kick back in a real bed with a color television and a private shower. But then what? Without a car, Horton is hesitant to act too fast, feeling like he needs more knowledge of the city first. And yet he recognizes that he needs to get settled somewhere, for his own sanity. "Personally, I just want to get employed. I don't want an idle mind. Sometimes if you don't keep busy, that ain't too good."
The other Tyrone, Tyrone Jenkins, is in a different state -- dispirited, broken. He just sits while Horton is talking, stripping the label off a plastic bottle of Ozark water and then crushing it in his hands. Jenkins, 31, was a construction worker in New Orleans. "I lost a $15,000 car. I lost over $9,000 worth of clothes. I lost $20,000 cash. Now, I ain't got nothing." Jenkins pauses. "I want my car back. I want my clothes back. And I want my cash back."
Jenkins has a mouth full of gold teeth and no smile. He bears a slight resemblance to Mike Tyson. He is wearing Rocawear jeans and a blue-and-gold Rocawear hat, slightly tilted. Most of the clothes he lost in the storm were Rocawear, the hip-hop fashion line associated with rap powerhouses Jay Z and Damon Dash, and that's at the heart of how bummed he is.
But losing $20,000 in cash? That's the most curious of his losses. Jenkins explains that he doesn't believe in banks and had his cash stashed in a big brown grocery bag, hidden in his 2002 Buick LeSabre. Horton listens to Jenkins's story, his eyes conveying the look of utter disbelief. Twenty grand in a brown paper bag? Jenkins goes on: He has a brother on drugs and had to hide his money; otherwise it would've been stolen.
Horton interjects with a dose of common sense. "To say, 'I lost $20,000 and I want it back,' FEMA ain't giving you that back just because you from New Orleans and a victim of the hurricane."
Jenkins is too morose to respond. He has been wearing the same clothes for a week, and when it's suggested that free clothing from the Salvation Army is available, he just scoffs. "How I look walking around in some clothes from the '70s, looking like a hobo?"
Horton, an imposing dude clad in ordinary khaki shorts and a black pullover, has had enough of Jenkins's whining.
"Man, you fault everything," he chides. "Nothing come good from negativity. If you don't have patience, you going to end up at the Dallas County jail -- with no patience."
No response, so Horton tries humor.
"You'll be all right, brother, once you get those Rocawears back. You'll be like Superman."
But Jenkins clearly isn't in a playful mood.
"All jokes aside," Horton says, "we be thankful people. You got people who didn't make it, bro. People in the water. C'mon, man, it's bigger than that."
Jenkins concedes Horton has a point. But that's all he'll say. He just keeps crushing that Ozark water bottle.