Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Day Fifty-Eight: Lest I Forget (part II)

**** Part 2 in my attempt to remember all I can about my post-hurricane Katrina experience my second week in Houston

I stood in a long line of volunteers headed upstairs at the Reliant Center, which is the big showroom-type convention center building that came with the new football stadium ten or so years ago. (It was before I got here, I don't know exactly when) To this day, post-Katrina is the only time I've ever actually been inside either Reliant-named structures. They were ushering us to a large area upstairs in groups of two-hundred or so for a very brief training-type lecture. Then they'd count off a certain number of people or ask for volunteers to do a specific job, or for people who had a specific skill set, and send us on our way. I went with a small group who headed back downstairs to the main showroom to one of the food tables. We were distributing sandwiches, chips, and drinks to anybody who wanted them. There were tables lined up all the way down the wall, probably fifteen or twenty in all, and they all had pretty much the same thing to offer. The area was set up for a massive rush of people, but that wasn't happening just then. In fact, there was scarcely anyone in the room except for the volunteers. I saw rows and rows of cots lined up all across the showroom floor--easily two thousand beds in all--and a few of them were occupied, but they were mostly empty. On top of that, it really wasn't meal time anyway, so there weren't too many people coming up for food, but there was, at the very least, a steady trickle of folks, mostly younger adults or else mothers with children, coming to take snacks.

The table I was stationed at had three other workers. They were all a good deal older than I was, probably in their forties, and it seemed like they all knew each other (or else had been working enough hours together now that they knew each other a lot better than I knew any of them, or they me). Basically, we didn't spend any time trying to get to know each other. I just sat around and waited for us to run low on something so I could run and get us some more. Again, there weren't enough people, and we were at the end of the line, so that really didn't happen either. Instead, I had plenty of time to sit there and listen to everything that was going on.

The room was pretty quiet for the most part. There was a loudspeaker that was constantly paging people. "Mr. Trey Goodson, please report to the Family Rescue Booth. Mr. Trey Goodson, please report to the Family Rescue Booth." (I made that name up, by the way) Five seconds later, a page for someone else. Then, ten seconds of silence before another page. So many people searching for lost loved ones. I don't know what the criteria for sending a page was; I'd imagine if everyone who was looking for someone got to page them, then they'd never get through the line. I do know they had a check-in center, so maybe they only tried calling folks they knew were in the complex somewhere. Either way, there was a very steady streams of names called. It was kidna eerie. I remember thinking it would be an interesting backdrop for a play. Now I'm not so sure. Then again, it's probably already been done.

Because it was Sunday morning, they brought in three holy men to deliver spiritual messages over the intercom. Which was thoughtful of them. I mean, one of the speakers was a Rabbi (holy day = Saturday) and one was a Muslim (holy day = Friday night-Saturday afternoon), but I understand what they were going for. The first speaker was the Protestant preacher. I remember his words ringing particularly hollow, at least to my ears. I'm sure the three men were told to keep things pretty generic so as not to offend anybody with their own individual deities and to keep any talk of a higher power to a nice, ambiguous "God," but still. "You are going to be okay, because we know that you are a people of great faith! We know that you believe in God! We know that you are trusting in Him now!" That was pretty much the best he had. We got more of the same from the Muslim. More of the, "Hey, God loves you, so don't worry." And I don't want to knock these guys too much; I know they were handed limitations, and it's entirely possible that their words brought incredible comfort to some folks who were in dire need of it. And really, I could see them being flustered at the gravity of the assignment. I wouldn't want to have to think of what to say to three massive buildings' worth of displaced families, many of whom don't know if their loved ones are still alive or not. I guarantee I wouldn't have done any better.

The Rabbi, however. His name was David (I don't remember the last name, and I postulated that there are a lot of rabbis out there named David). He was fantastic. I wish I would have written down everything he said. Now I've forgotten most of it, but I remember being moved. I do remember two tidbits, which I will paraphrase here. The first: "They say that you are refugees of Hurricane Katrina, but I do not see it that way. You are, each and every one of you, survivors. You have made it here together, and you will make it, you will rebuild your lives, because you are not only refugees, you are survivors." The second: "You may be asking yourself, 'Where was God in this tragedy?' He was in the bus driver who volunteered his time and his business to bring passengers from New Orleans to Houston, unloaded, and then turned right around to bring another group. God was in the first hand that reached out to help you off the bus. He is in the hands that offer you food and drink. He is in the policemen, the Red Cross volunteers, everyone who has left their home behind to encourage you, to nurture you, and to tell you that you will survive this tragedy." Something along those lines. On that day, in those circumstances, it was good stuff.