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Give Us Your Huddled Masses

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, 25,000 evacuees poured into Dallas. There were moments of incompetence but also flashes of civic brilliance. Here’s an inside look at what happened after the buses rolled in.
By D Magazine |

HOME TEMPORARY HOME: Two displaced kids play with a firetruck.

Laura
Miller’s wearing her Mardi Gras beads again. Gold and green, drooping
below her bust line, in ugly contrast to the beige suit she’s chosen
for this sweaty September afternoon, the beads are the embodiment of
Project Exodus, the mayor’s plan to get evacuees of Hurricane Katrina
out of shelters and into apartments—apartments like the one behind her
now, the McCallum Crossing complex in far north Dallas.

“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.

The
Bryants are startled to see two well-dressed white people huffing in
boxes with television cameras trailing them. In fact, the Bryants have
no idea who Modano is. They haven’t watched much hockey. “All we know
is the Cowboys,” says Terrance, a somber-faced 39-year-old with a
propensity to quote Bible verses. As for Miller, one of her aides came
yesterday to tell Kim the mayor would visit. But Kim thought the aide
meant Miller would visit the complex, not the Bryants’ apartment. Now,
with the cameras on her and Miller asking if the Bryants have heard any
complaints among the evacuees, Kim puts on a brave smile and says,
“What could you complain about? I’ve cried because I’ve never known
such generosity.”

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.

The Bryants are
grateful people. Grateful to be alive, to have furniture and an
apartment. “But the main thing about the apartment is this,” Terrance
says. “What are you going to do after the two months? Are we going to
be homeless?” When told FEMA is to pick up the tab, he says sharply,
“We haven’t heard anything from FEMA.”

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.”

Wait. What?

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.

But
problems do persist. Some say Exodus’ mentor program has fallen short
of its promises. No one knows where funding will come from after
February 1. Dallas psychologists say it takes months for post-traumatic
stress disorder to manifest itself; months more to treat. Then there
are the reports of pharmacies refusing to fill some evacuees’
prescriptions, of evacuees not receiving financial assistance—concerns
about people, with nowhere to go, returning to Reunion Arena.

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.

Dr.
David Buhner, medical director of the Dallas County health department,
sat next to Dr. Ray Fowler, deputy medical director of Dallas
Metropolitan BioTel, the ambulance response system for Dallas and the
13 surrounding cities. Fowler, amid the silence, took out a purple
Post-It notepad. Fowler, whose father owned a theater during his youth,
wrote down a line from Patton: “I’ve always wanted to lead men in a desperate manner when an outcome is unknown.”

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.

Expect
25,000 people. Starting tomorrow. Ann Lott got the news and went back
to her phone to call up a few more landlords. Lott’s the president and
CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority. In a situation such as this, her
instructions are to wait to hear from the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development before responding. But HUD wasn’t calling that
day, and she didn’t want to wait.

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.

Which
brings us to the communication factor, or lack of it, at City Hall,
where the response Friday was not as seamless as at the Convention
Center. For example, Mayor Miller told state officials the region could
take no more than 15,000. The city had overestimated the number
the Convention Center and Reunion could hold. It wasn’t 12,500; it was
more like 7,500. But Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher,
orchestrating North Texas’ relief effort, said the region could take
more, perhaps as many as originally planned. So the buses continued
their trek to Dallas.

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.

Later
that weekend, Lott called HUD’s field director in Fort Worth. She
wanted the department to know what she was doing. HUD, at that point,
still hadn’t issued any initiative. Soon after the call, Lott’s plan, a
simple plan, really—putting public housing tenants from New Orleans
into public housing here—reached Washington, D.C. Rather than reprimand
her, headquarters said all local housing authorities responding to Katrina should follow Lott’s lead. The Dallas Housing Authority became the national model.

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.

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