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Making a so-called life in a retired stadium

Emotions run high as the thousands of inhabitants of the old, retired Houston Astrodome stitch together makeshift lives.
Political personalities visit refugees from hurricane - Houston
Thousands of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims settle in at a makeshift shelter set up in the Astrodome in Houston on Monday. Jim Macmillan / Philadelphia Daily News - KRT vi
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some lessons learned by the new inhabitants of the Astrodome:

  • It is pointless to wait for the stark, stadium lights to go out at lights out. (Or, for that matter, to expect one’s neighbors to cease sobbing, giggling, gabbing or wailing during the wee hours.)
  • It is not a good idea to allow children to wander out of sight for even a moment — unless four hours of continuous searching is in your plans.
  • It is not recommended to leave cots unguarded. (They tend to disappear.)
  • Likewise, it is inadvisable to leave one’s clothes on the wall peg outside the showers. Torres Smith, 42, did, and “they stole ’em,” he says. “All of my clothes. I had to walk out on the stadium floor with a towel around my waist, go to the table where they were giving out free clothes and get me some new ones.”

Smith is — well, was — a machine operator at a New Orleans seafood plant. Now he sleeps maybe two hours a day, from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., eats, showers, catches snippets of news on a TV in one of the concourses, minds his four kids with his wife, reclines on his cot, reads the Bible, or wanders his new home, trading numb stares with other aimless people.

Of course, to many who lived the horror of the Superdome in New Orleans last week, this old baseball stadium feels like the Taj Mahal.

It has lukewarm showers; 85 toilets that actually flush; hot grits, pancakes in the morning, Cajun dinners served on plastic foam trays at night; an operating air conditioner; complimentary socks, Twinkies, baby formula, flip-flops, tampons, toothpaste, Bermudas (with the big, stylish pockets), and Tom Wolfe and James Lee Burke paperbacks.

Most important, perhaps, it has a contingent of 500 uniformed, Texas lawmen who stroll the concourses, ramps and stands in white Stetsons, to make sure people behave.

Air of unease
But the Astrodome is also pervaded by a troubling air of unease — a sense of people turned inside out, of a shock too large to quite analyze.

Many folks here have lost contact with loved ones, and they worry if this will be permanent. They feel adrift, detached, anxious. What they did to deserve this, how long they’ll stay, where they go — they’ve got plenty of time now to mull these questions.

Too much time, some say.

A Red Cross volunteer put Smith’s name on a list for free and subsidized housing and a new job. Otherwise, he says, it’s always the same routine.

“I got to get back to work. I’ll do anything: cut grass, wash window, wax floors. When all you see is people lying around ... I don’t want to be here any more than two, three months.”

Selika Thomas, who landed here two days earlier, is getting out — in three hours. Her husband bought tickets on the 6:15 p.m. Greyhound to Atlanta, where they have family.

“I’m depressed,” she murmurs.

“People stealing your clothes when you’re sleeping, men peeking into the women’s showers, people walking around, day and night, like zombies, afraid to sleep.”

Her 2½-year-old, Erroll, in a deep slumber on his cot, and Jabria, 9, who is munching on some Lay’s chips, are discontented. “I’ve tried to explain that we don’t have a home anymore. Jabria sort of understands, but Erroll, he doesn’t get it yet.”

Thomas, 30, was a chef at the Marriott in New Orleans. Will she do the same in Atlanta? “I don’t know.” Will she return to New Orleans? “We are Christian and we believe that God has a better plan for our lives. Right now, I’m just praying to feel normal again.”

Traces of normalcy
Here and there are scattered traces of normalcy: red phones on the second tier for free, national calling, offered by SBC; baby dolls, stuffed animals, toy cars, crayons and coloring books, all donated by Wal-Mart; a children’s arts and crafts area, courtesy of Keisha White, 32, a Houston paralegal.

She and four friends raised money from their neighbors and bought chalk, face masks, paint, watercolors, crayons, paper plates, posterboard, friendship bracelets and wire-and-stick hand puppets. As a result, there are now hopscotch boards on the Astrodome’s ramps, still-drying renditions of blue, rose and yellow cottages hanging from a clothes line, and giggling youngsters with birds and American flags and rainbows painted on their foreheads.

But there are also constant reminders of what is missing.

An electronic scoreboard, which once flashed baseball and football scores, announces: “Parks Family Looking for Juanita Coleman.” Glassy eyed adults roaming among the cots, seeking news of a loved one by holding up placards that read, “Stacker,” “Dorsey,” “Honore.”

At the message center at the east end of the Astrodome, on two, 15-by-8-foot walls, refugees and people who have driven from Kansas, Las Vegas, Portland, Atlanta, New Jersey to search for lost family members post anguished appeals in a multicolored, multilayered collage.
The scraps of cardboard, cigarette cartons and post-its, in writings of crayon, marker, pencil, carry messages like:

“TYRONE YOUNG we are looking for you. We are in Texas. Call 281-591-1203.”

“CAMRON ... Dad’s Looking ... 504-202-3729.”

“Alice Robinson ... Glenda is here so look for me ... Dansa Robinson.”

Searching and wishing
Emotions tend to run high at the Message Center — some good, some not so good.

Dwayne Blackman, 44, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, is hugging his sister-in-law, Kiwana Johnson, and his mother, Viola. His six-day search has just ended with a tearful embrace.

“This is our start,” Johnson says.

“Yes, ma’am,” he chokes.

Later, Kristen McWeen, 22, and her cousin, Nieche Martin, saw each other for the first time since floodwaters in New Orleans pulled them apart in New Orleans six days earlier.

From a distance of 20 feet, they locked eyes, blinked, hollered, ran to one another, and threw themselves into each other arms, screaming, “JUST HOLD ME! HOLD ME! HOLD ME!”

For many, though, such joy is still a wish away.

Kathleen La France, 40, holding up a cardboard sign that reads, “Lil’ Arnold and Big Arnold” stops in front of the message board. She’s been up for three days, she says, searching the Astrodome and the Reliant Center, across the road, for her 14-year-old son and husband.

“I’m so out of it — I’m just walking and walking and walking. I don’t eat. I can’t sleep. Nobody’s telling me nothing. But I ain’t giving up.”