|HOME TEMPORARY HOME: Two displaced kids play with a firetruck.|
"We are in a very important place," Miller says, grinning wide for the television cameras huddled close and for the PR flaks and philanthropic executives behind them. "This is one of the first apartment complexes to take in these people."
Next to Miller stands Mike Modano, the captain of the Dallas Stars. Modano, unlike the mayor, is beadless. He is dressed in a navy polo shirt and faded blue jeans that flare around the ankles. He’s here, he says, to raise money to furnish the apartments. Finding couches and chairs and coffee tables remains Project Exodus’ biggest challenge, two weeks after Miller, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and Dallas’ Bishop T.D. Jakes launched the program. But so far, Modano says, "we’ve raised $135,000 in 24 hours."
Both Miller and Modano, at least today, are more than fundraisers, however. They’re here to move people in. "I know that there isn’t a city in America doing more than Dallas," Miller says. "I haven’t heard one single complaint from any evacuee here." Moments later, the cameras follow as the mayor and Modano pick up boxes, climb a flight of stairs, and knock on the apartment door of Kim and Terrance Bryant, who spent five days in the Superdome and five more in the Dallas Convention Center.
|For days, thousands called the Convention Center home.|
With that, the mayor and Modano leave. Some cameramen linger, getting B-roll close-ups of the wedding photo the Bryants grabbed before the water sent them fleeing. No one asks about the dead body the Bryants saw upon arriving at the Superdome, or the dog of 13 years they had to leave behind. No one mentions the feces smeared on the Superdome’s walls, or the National Guardsmen who pointed their guns but did not disperse water, or the 14-year-old whom the Bryants say was raped, or the man accused of the act who was beaten by a horde of vigilantes.
|GRATEFUL COUPLE: By October, evacuees Terrance and Kim Bryant, placed in this North Dallas apartment by Project Exodus, had received a check from FEMA and had found a church.|
There are other concerns, too. Officials at Reunion Arena told Terrance he’d have to wait a week before they’d fill his antidepressant prescriptions. "He’s not supposed to wait until he’s out of pills," Kim says. She worked as a supervisor at a New Orleans Times-Picayune temp service, and Dallas’ job fairs and commercial districts are "so far out" from their apartment, she says. No one has told the Bryants which buses to use in Dallas, which roads to take, which church they might want to attend.
A few days later, furniture in place, the Bryants mood darkens. They wonder about Mayor Miller. "Is she up for reelection?" Terrance asks. "I’ve never seen her before, and I probably won’t see her again. But don’t use me as a pawn in your game. Don’t come in here with a box, and the box you’re carrying is empty."
Terrance repeats: "It was an empty box."
IF NOTHING ELSE, KIM AND Terrance Bryant show that housing an evacuee of this fall’s hurricanes means more than providing housing. To this day, there are issues of amenities for the roughly 25,000 evacuees in Dallas—issues of jobs and health care, too.
Overall, Dallas—its government and its people—responded well to Hurricane Katrina. As of press time, Project Exodus has raised more than $2.7 million, placed 1,429 people in apartments, and provided most families with their own mentors to tell them where to find basic needs. North Texas Rescue, the brainchild of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, has raised $375,000 and housed 105 people and has given each family, among other things, a gift card from Wal-Mart, good for as much as $2,000. And Dallas’ medical community persuaded the federal government to expand Medicaid to include all Katrina evacuees. They’ll receive free health care through the end of January. Even the Bryants, contacted again in early October, say life is better. They got a check from FEMA that’ll cover rent for three more months. Terrence’s prescriptions are filled. And they found a church.
|Outside Reunion Arena, a makeshift message board for family members separated during the flood.|
To be sure, Dallas’ response to the hurricane was and is an enormous task, one that has evolved and will continue to do so. Looking back on the days after Katrina struck, yes, some areas, some agencies, were well-prepared. Yet why was it that perhaps the most effective first responders were churches and corporations? Why does one public relations executive, working at Reunion the first weekend of Katrina, call the city’s response "scary"? Why have other officials complained publicly about poor lines of communication, rumors running rampant, no central message emerging, chaos impending?
Gus Whitcomb is a spokesman for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was everywhere after the hurricane. Wal-Mart did everything. Yet Whitcomb says his bosses have assessed Katrina, held before unblinking light everything that happened, and looked for ways to improve what they did.
He says Dallas would be well-served to do the same.
EXPECT 25,000 PEOPLE. STARTING TOMORROW. This was the message delivered Thursday morning, September 1, in a conference room on the second floor of Reunion Arena. Twenty-five thousand? By tomorrow? No one in the room spoke. Not the cops present, not the firefighters, the personnel from the Emergency Medical Service, the Red Cross, the Office of Emergency Management, the doctors from Parkland Hospital, nor the various other public health officials who led the meeting. No one.
In the three days before this gathering, these men and women had grown confident in their ability, maybe even cocky. Katrina hit that Monday, and the sickest in New Orleans were immediately flown to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. There, these same cops, firefighters, and doctors had cared for, diagnosed, and placed 435 patients in recreational centers. But now, Thursday morning—25,000? Had a civilian medical community ever dealt with this many people on this short a notice?
|LENDING A HAND: Volunteers sort through stacks of local donations, including clothing.|
Fowler placed the note before Buhner. Buhner studied it. Then nodded. He would later call it "apropos."
Expect 25,000 people. Starting tomorrow. Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm looked around the City Hall conference room, looked at all the staffers looking back at her or at the far wall, and thought to herself, What are we going to do with all these people? No one spoke. Fifteen hundred she could deal with. Two thousand maybe. But 25,000? "It was like, whoa," Suhm says today.
She’s the one charged with the city’s emergency response. Not the mayor. Not the police chief. Mary Suhm. But good luck finding a manual for dealing with 25,000 displaced people. So Suhm worked from the gut in those moments after the silence. Barked out orders as fast as they came to her. Her staffers listened. No one complained. No one dared to. There is, after all, a plaque sitting on her desk. It reads: "No Whining!"
|A volunteer lends a hand with an infirm evacuee.|
Lott anticipated that the people who found shelter—and later, terror—in the Superdome might one day find their way to Dallas. So in the days after Katrina hit, she worked the phones, asking landlords how many Section 8 and public housing units they had available. Then, Thursday, with 25,000 for sure on their way, she called a few more, HUD protocol be damned. "You know," she says today, "what really happens, if you work in government for any amount of time, you can spend more time thinking about the rules than the people. I wasn’t even thinking about the rules."
Friday afternoon, the first bus hit Dallas. The people onboard were sick. They were weak. Some sustained broken bones during their escape from floodwaters. Some had feet cut by broken glass that littered the path to the Superdome. Some were pregnant. All of them smelled. They were directed to the Convention Center, where Fowler and his response team had decided on a 50,000-square-foot plot to treat the evacuees. A 40-bed emergency room awaited them. At any time, at least 12 doctors and 12 nurses ran from patient to patient. By day’s end, medical staff had treated 109 people. It was wild that Friday, but it was not chaotic.
Dr. John Carlo, chief epidemiologist with the county’s health department, made a list before the evacuees’ arrival—from memory—of everything a hospital would need. Then one of Fowler’s people called Walgreen’s, asking for supplies. Walgreen’s backed up a giant U-Haul to a convention center door—the supplies donated.
Wal-Mart, it should be noted, tried to donate supplies
of its own to the Convention Center, but days went by before the city
allowed it to unload anything. The company was stymied by the city’s
middlemen; Walgreen’s, dealing directly with organizers on the
ground—in this case, doctors—had immediate results.
|ALL HANDS ON DECK: Mayor Laura Miller launched Project Exodus with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Bishop T.D. Jakes.||County Commissioner John Wiley Price went with Wal-Mart to the Convention Center and Reunion Arena to distribute supplies.|
|Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm was the official charged with the city’s emergency response.||Dr. Ray Fowler of UTSW ran medical operations at the Convention Center.|
Denton County Judge Mary Horn, in on numerous conference calls among local and state officials those first days, says, "You had a mayor who wasn’t in touch with a county judge." But Miller says she and Keliher were in contact. Miller’s concern was the number Dallas itself could absorb. "The whole first 10 days, we had a lot of conference calls, with hundreds of people," she says. "And I kept saying, ’Listen, you’ve got to spread the net here. I mean, fine, send them to Dallas, but that means ... you’ve got to spread them out. You can’t just have them all come to the City of Dallas.’"
There was more miscommunication. Keliher wanted to relocate people throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, too. That’s why she called Horn Friday afternoon and said, "We’re looking for you to take hundreds, if not thousands, of evacuees." Horn said she’d do what she could, but the Red Cross phoned moments later, saying, "Do not set up a relief center in Denton. We cannot help you." Turns out, all of Denton County’s Red Cross people were assisting the Red Cross people in Dallas. "We didn’t have so much as a cot or anything," Horn says. Worse, Denton’s Medical Reserve Corps—an MRC being a post-9/11 invention where medical personnel volunteer their time for a crisis situation—were in Fort Worth, treating the 4,000 evacuees bused there. (Horn says some members of Tarrant County’s MRC team failed to show.)
So, as Horn looked for space for evacuees, she got word that Miller was on TV blasting Denton for not taking a bus. None of the nuance of Denton’s situation had reached Miller. She heard only that Denton refused to help. (Denton that day ended up taking 100 people.)
Meanwhile, back at Reunion Arena, away from the misunderstanding, working on her own and walking between the cots, was Ann Lott of the Dallas Housing Authority. She held in her hands computer print-outs from New Orleans. The print-outs showed the names of every person who received Section 8 or public housing assistance. "Did you get assistance," Lott asked evacuee after evacuee. If the answer was yes, Lott asked for a name. If the name appeared on her print-out, Lott said, "Get your stuff." Because of the initiative she’d shown, because of the landlords she’d called, and because of the landlords’ generosity—working without signed contracts and all—Lott had hundreds of units available for evacuees Friday afternoon. Some went straight from a bus to one of Lott’s vans to an apartment.
Soon, she needed more vehicles. Lucky for her, Prestonwood Baptist, the 24,000-member church in Plano, called. She’d known the church executives for 12 years, worked with them on inner-city projects. They asked Lott what she needed now. "I don’t even know where to start," Lott said. "First of all, they’re coming in, they don’t have anything to eat, they don’t have any clothes. I’m putting them in apartments, and they’re sleeping on the floors. I’m out of transportation—can you provide me with transportation?"
And with that, the church released its volunteers.
Part of Prestonwood’s success lies in its small-group Bible fellowships, small gatherings of people who study and pray together. Each group has mission coordinators, prayer coordinators. In other words, each group is quite organized. That afternoon, car after pickup truck after SUV drove to the Dallas Housing Authority. Prestonwood members brought furniture, food, and clothes—the clothes laundered, pressed, and folded. The Prestonwood members didn’t just shuttle evacuees to their new homes. They became their mentors to the greater Dallas area.
|ORGANIZED CHAOS: Doling out water—to both evacuees and volunteers—was a high priority.|
What’s more, one week before the city announced its plan to place people into housing, two weeks before the county did likewise, Ann Lott and Prestonwood Baptist put 400 people into furnished apartments. But the funny thing—and even Lott has to giggle at it—is this: "We don’t provide emergency housing."
ON ANY GIVEN DAY, PARKLAND MEMORIAL Hospital sees about 300 patients. The Saturday after Katrina, the Convention Center saw 1,124. The medical team there had 30 people for each eight-hour shift, roughly half the working total for any hospital in Dallas. "I mean, it was amazing," Fowler says. "And it only happened because great people from all medical systems came in."
The mood among evacuees lifted. Those arriving just that day were able to strip off soiled clothing and change into something, anything clean. Mayor Miller brought Alex, her 15-year-old daughter, on Saturday to the Convention Center. They walked together into a women’s bathroom and saw women of all ages, naked, from one wall to the other, washing themselves from the bathroom sinks. Miller won’t soon forget the scene, but the evacuees she spoke to "were grateful to be here," she says.
After Labor Day, Disaster Medical Assistance Team arrived. There was nothing for it to do. The medical community had everything covered. "DMAT was like, ’This is better than we could ever do,’" says the Health Department’s Carlo. "Because by this time, we had a working hospital with specialists. We had chiropractors. AA meetings on the convention floor. We delivered a baby. Treated wounds. Had IV drips. Some really crazy stuff. An amazing thing to watch."
The response was fluid because medical personnel were well-trained. In fact, two weeks prior to Katrina, the Centers for Disease Control and the Texas Department of Health staged a bio-terrorism attack in Dallas. Agencies county-wide were deployed. Antibiotics were administered. "We passed with flying colors," County Commissioner John Wiley Price says.
If only city government, he says, had dealt as efficiently with Wal-Mart in response to Katrina. Beginning Thursday night, Wal-Mart execs called various city officials, telling them the company had truckloads of supplies ready for drop-off at Reunion and the Convention Center. The city told them to wait. Friday, same deal. The city didn’t want a crazed rush among the evacuees for supplies. This was the official line. Saturday afternoon, Wal-Mart, still waiting, called Price, wanting to know what he could do. That morning the county had opened the Decker Detention Center on North Stemmons Freeway for evacuees. Within an hour of the talks, Price says, Wal-Mart was there, distributing supplies for roughly 600 people. A crazed rush did not occur.
"It’s typical bureaucracy," Price says of Wal-Mart’s
wait. "And I basically was embarrassed by it." So Sunday, he went with
Wal-Mart to Reunion and the Convention Center. The company had five
tractor trailers filled with supplies, but the distribution point the
city had approved was in a parking lot far, far away from either
Reunion or the Convention Center—so far, in fact, that a police officer
asked Whitcomb, the Wal-Mart spokesman, why the trucks weren’t closer.
Whitcomb said this was the space the city had granted Wal-Mart. That’s
ridiculous, the officer said. "We’ll put you where you need to be," he
said. The officer said he was retiring in 85 days and didn’t care what
the city might do to him. "We ended up right down by the Convention
Center," Whitcomb says.
|TAKING CHARGE: Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher spearheaded the efforts of Dallas, Denton, Collin, and Tarrant counties.||PRESCIENT: Dallas Housing Authority CEO Ann Lott’s plan became the national model for all housing authorities.|
When asked about the wait, about the approved space in a parking lot, City Manager Suhm says after the buses rolled in, "you’re worried about the most basic of needs. ... You get them off the bus, give them a snack, figure out where the buses are going. These are the things that we were concerned about.
"When Wal-Mart came in, they were wonderful," she adds. "I’m sorry they thought it took too long."
And what about the city’s fear, about disorder among evacuees once Wal-Mart’s distribution began? Please, Whitcomb says. "Couldn’t be more orderly." At one point that Sunday, an old man approached Whitcomb. The man had lost his glasses days ago. He needed help. "I haven’t been able to see since this whole thing started," the man said. Whitcomb found the man the pair he needed.
Whitcomb was on the verge of tears when the man tried them on.
PSYCHOLOGIST ABRAHAM MASLOW, WHO died in 1970, had a theory of mankind’s checklist. He called it the "hierarchy of needs," and its premise is that one progresses in life from the most basic of needs to the most transcendent. Each baser need must be met before moving on to the next.
The most basic of needs are food and water. Throughout the first weekend of Katrina, Dallas provided evacuees with these.
The next is shelter. There, too, Dallas provided. Mayor Miller’s Project Exodus and the county’s North Texas Rescue paid evacuees’ rent for two and three months. Now, at the prodding of city officials, FEMA has stepped in. If an evacuee registers with the agency, he receives $2,358. This pays for three months of rent. The payment plan is offered to evacuees for up to 18 months, provided the money is spent on rent and rent alone.
The next need is safety, followed by love. In other words, health care. In one sense, here again Dallas has provided: thanks in large part to Ray Fowler and other doctors in Dallas, Medicaid has been expanded to include all Katrina evacuees through January. But in another very real sense, there is much that needs to be done, specifically in regards to the post-traumatic stress disorder all evacuees may face.
The impetus of PTSD is not hard to spot. It’s the relentless crying Mayor Miller’s daughter sees, days after a Katrina evacuee settles into her new apartment. It’s an evacuated child’s drawing, shown to Dallas therapist Madeline McClure, where Spider Man, Superman, and Batman are surrounded by water. It’s an older child telling a psychologist about her fear of using bathrooms in Texas. In the Superdome, bathrooms were where rapes happened. "These are just the worst stories I’ve ever heard. Period," says Alan LaGrone, who oversaw mental health services at the Convention Center. "And it wasn’t just the worst stories. It was the number of stories. It did not stop."
PTSD can take months to surface. Left untreated, the person can relive the traumatic event to the point where it impairs her life—and, potentially, the lives of others. If therapists treat people weeks after a traumatic event, the likelihood of full-blown PTSD is greatly reduced. But counseling for PTSD doesn’t work as quickly as a shot or an intravenous drip. It takes months on the couch. It’s important to remember that, LaGrone says. It’s important, too, to consider that good mental health will yield a long-term lower crime rate, LaGrone says. So it may be time to ask where the funding for it will surface once the evacuees’ Medicaid plan expires in February.
At this point, no one knows. But it probably won’t come from the state. Texas last year ranked 47th in per capita spending for mental health care, according to the Mental Health Association in Texas. "The mental health side of this worries me more than any other portion of our response," Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher says.
She says Dallas must find an answer. Because Keliher hears the same thing Mayor Miller hears, which is the same thing evacuees Kim and Terrance Bryant hear, which is, in some ways, a tribute to Dallas’ response: people from New Orleans ain’t going back.