"Domed" - The Story of a Grassroots Response to Katrina
By Judith Rosenberg
"I don't want to go to no Astrodome. I been nearly domed to death."
<New Orleans resident who had been living in the Superdome for quite
some time (NY Times, 9/3/05)
The Houston Astrodome filled up. On Friday, September 2, San Antonio,
Dallas, and Austin opened spaces to receive evacuees. First Austin
opened the Berger Center; it generally hosts smaller sports events<high
school basketball, the pow-wow, and such. Then the Berger Center filled
up and Austin opened bigger spaces<the Palmer Auditorium and the
Convention Center. Life had speeded up. Austin was in a frenzy of
volunteer activity. Saturday afternoon the Red Cross put out a radio
call asking volunteers to come to the Convention Center; by midnight
500 people had arrived. The Red Cross only needed 100 so the rest went
home. By 1:00AM things had changed, they needed them all. The
situation was fluid. The crisis continued and spread closer and closer
to where I live my daily rounds.
It wasn't until Friday that all the listserves I'm on, some of them
academic<I'm a graduate student<spontaneously and exclusively filled up
with Katrina-related news, argument and volunteer appeals. Should we
call the people refugees, evacuees, victims, or survivors? Or people
who have fought for their human and civil rights for centuries.
Should we think or should we help<or both?
By Saturday afternoon I was hysterical and hadn't done anything yet
besides list myself as willing to go to the Convention Center and help
people enter their personal information in a database so that family
could find them. Finally a beacon of light turned up in my email<a
message from Priscilla Hale. Virginia Raymond had forwarded it.
"Hey everyone, I have been volunteering at the shelter with the people
displaced by the hurricane. 98% of the people in the shelter are black.
There have been numerous donations. However, there are no black hair
products being donated. If anyone wants to donate, or knows someone
who does, they need combs, brushes, hair oil, and perms etc. The items
can be taken to the Austin Convention Center."
A social worker serving the HIV-positive population through ALLGO (an
Austin organization that serves lesbian, gay, and transgendered people
of color) and a Black woman with a bright and winning attitude,
Priscilla is used to explaining to White people that Blacks are
different from them. She does it cheerfully and firmly. Virginia was
offering to collect donations at her home and schlep them to the
Convention Center. Hair is important. I had my plan of action.
I left the Flight Path Café where I was working on my editing job and
went, not without trepidation, to Fiesta supermarket, which carries an
array of "ethnic" products, preponderantly Hispanic, but actually quite
ecumenical. What kind of combs and brushes are appropriate for black
hair? You mean to tell me that blacks, who have curly hair to begin
with, also perm it? If I had trouble locating the called-for goods, I
planned to ask other store customers for help with this cross-cultural
expedition and thus, in a small way, create community around this need.
When I first entered the store I saw with relief black customers in
produce; but that was the last I saw of them. In the hygiene and
beauty section I found "Ethnic Products" and dug in. I didn't
understand some of the innuendoes and promises on the packages but
forged ahead. Color codes pointed the way: brown writing on a
yellow-gold background or on beige. I mentioned my project to two
store personnel<a stock clerk in the beauty/hygiene section and the
checkout cashier who was curious about my purchase and wanted to know
if I "do hair." Neither young woman expressed any recognition of what
I was talking about or of what the situation was when I spoke of "the
people from New Orleans."
I understood their blank looks and flat affect as denial and a sign of
social malaise. The United Farm Workers in the Valley, near the border
with Mexico, speak of the lack of concern and empathy that some second
generation Mexican-Americans show toward recent immigrants. Some UFW
organizers call these established Mexican-Americans "los ya llegados,"
the already-arrived, and understand that the more marginal these more
rooted immigrants are, the more rigidly they grip new-found stability
and erect isolated, self-protective attitudes that are essentially
narcissisticS and essentially American, in the USA sense.
I delivered my donation to Virginia. She lives near Fiesta and hadn't
shopped yet but planned to that night. Then the two of us would make
the delivery the next morning, Sunday. Virginia is a colleague of mine
in the English PhD program at UT; she also has a JD and has worked as
an immigration lawyer. I know her as a maverick heart and mind, a great
cook, and along with her husband Tom, a parent extraordinaire<three
amazing children plus currently sheltering two extra.
Sunday we went to the Convention Center bearing gifts. We entered a
wide, carpeted foyer. The first thing we heard was shouts of children
playing football. What a glad greeting. They rushed up and down, some
in bare feet, and hurled a blue plastic football with gusto. Most were
boys; some girls played; most were black. It took quite a few cell
phone calls back and forth before we managed to meet up with Priscilla.
Though she was expertly oriented to her role, she was doing less well
with north-east-south-west. We became disoriented too, losing
Priscilla briefly, when we entered the huge convention-hall/living
space; afterwards finding our car was a problem. Disorientation is
contagious. There were lots of elderly and many people in wheel
chairs. One such woman couldn't find her bed, which was equivalent at
the moment to home. "Yes," one organizer said, "everything looks the
same." It is a huge space; donated cots, over three thousand of them,
along with bedding filled it in ranks and files. Some people had
little piles of additional belongings. One cordoned area stored "lost
luggage." Virginia said it was like refugee centers she had visited as
a lawyer; I thought it resembled a homeless shelter where I once
volunteered: home is a bed; no privacy; vital human connections are
lost; the condition breeds despair and anger. At least the few people
we spoke to though were not there alone.
Priscilla in the lead, we searched for the place designated for hygiene
and beauty supplies. It had moved and moved again. Many people told
us where it used to be. Someone said it had been relocated close to
the showers. We loved the reasonableness of this idea. Priscilla then
knew where to take us<out the back, on to the loading-docks of the
Convention Center, down a few stairs. There, outdoors under a
sunshade, chairs were set in rows. Men were showering between 9 and 11
and were waiting on line on the chairs. Women would start showering at
11:00<in fifteen minutes. A bus was parked a few hundred feet away,
engine running, spewing exhaust. I plunked down my load of shopping
bags and went to ask the bus driver to turn it off. When I got back I
got to see Priscilla in action with her message of cultural difference.
The problem seemed to me that volunteers tasked with organizing the
shower area were distraught or in some mental space where they could
not listen or respond well in tandem with others as they did their jobs
and tried to operate in a situation where they were not suffering
directly but still had to deal with chaos. If I may add my two cents
further, it seems that (White) Americans don't come together easily and
collaborate in the performance of concrete tasks in a situation that
requires us to spontaneously take responsibility and at the same time
perform as a team. People lack overview skills. People don't listen
to each other or make eye contact. People think they are acting alone.
Individualism is dangerous. We act as if we live in an authoritarian
society<we do<and don't know how to adapt to a new situation. We are
particularly vulnerable in a crisis. Perhaps White men under pressure
have a particularly hard time listening to a Black woman.
Nevertheless, Priscilla persevered, cheerfully and firmly. Finally she
supervised the complete reorganization of the supplies table. We gave
prominent display to supplies for black hair, including special Black
men's shaving products. We learned that certain kinds of hair oils and
crèmes should be protected from direct sun and we fretted to provide
Most significantly we had to counter the order from on high that all
supplies be re-bagged into individual portions. It simply could not be
done with these home-size tubes and jars of creams and jellies and
lotions. The people of Louisiana now living in the Austin Convention
Center were now, like it or not, and though yearning for the safety of
another kind of physical space, living communally and they would have
to share. For all we know, the people of Austin are going to have to
learn to share. Who knows what lies ahead? Do we have reason to think
that we will always be unaffected?
So one man explained to us that his girlfriend was guarding their stuff
while he looked for beauty supplies. She was frantic because her hair
was like "this" (he gestured to indicate sticking out) and she was
about to meet his parents for the first time. Could we give him some
product? "Sure," we said. "But there is a lot more in that bottle
than what one person needs, so when she's done, ask her to share it
with others." A woman asked for a jar of hair oil. She told us that
she had five little girls to take care of. Could she have the jar?
"Sure," we said. "But share it. When you're done, pass it on." I
touched her shoulder and made eye contact and tried to assure her that
we were forthcoming and that she didn't have to struggle with us as if
we were a bureaucracy.
Later I observed to Virginia that it was sad that people felt they had
to justify their needs. Virginia saw it another way. She said,
"People need to tell their stories."
First Sequel: Monday, 9/4/05
So then on Sunday at church an APD officer volunteered to collect Black
hair products and take them to the Convention center where security and
bureaucracy were growing and choking off more spontaneous responses.
Two licensed beauticians, Kim and Barbara, heard the officer and
invited friends of Black hair to meet them at Sally's Beauty Supplies,
near Fiesta, and use their professional discounts to stock up with
supplies. The network was a-tingle, culture was diverse and pumping out
Meanwhile, also on Sunday, Priscilla, working from inside, and her
partner Ana, on the outside, set up "Shug's Beauty Shop" by the table
out in back of the Convention Center, next to the showers. Ana's email
release: "There will be a salon set up by licensed hair folks tomorrow
(on the second floor). And, Priscilla called to saySthe people are
dancing to ZydecoS
Yesh Gvul (There is a limit).
My email release said: praise be; people have power; they are succoring
PS Shug is a character from Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, an
outsider and a prostitute, who through love sparks the ability of
Celie, an abused and scorned character, to love others and to love
herself. Shug lives!