by Melanie Ormand
It is noon, Labor Day weekend, 2005, Day Three of relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
I step onto the sidewalk that surrounds Houston’s Astrodome.
Around me swirls a crowded sea of faces, 20-thousand-plus moving as a rippling wave in the early September heat.
Everything in me — bones, muscles, joints, nerves — aches, wrung out from too many non-stop hours operating in full-bore crisis mode. I crave sleep. Anywhere.
At least I’m finally doing work that matters.
For the past 42 hours, I have co-managed communications for Harris County’s Katrina response efforts. We are Ground Zero for disseminating all information — internal and external — about evacuees, responders, agencies, media, and the general public.
A few hours ago I crafted a media statement, requesting volunteers at the Astrodome. More than 1-thousand Houstonians showed up, all eager to help, ready to make a difference.
I maneuver shoulder to shoulder through the crowd, looking for my car. My exhausted brain chants, Go home. Get sleep.
Then I spot him.
The elderly white man sits on the front seat of a mud-spattered golf cart. Strands of wispy white hair cling to deep creases lining his forehead. Leathery skin sags in exhaustion from his eyes, mouth, and jaw. His eyes reflect an oddly pale blue, clouded by age and experience. A button-down gray shirt drapes open to his sternum, revealing a bony, sunburned chest. Legs thin as toothpicks hold up a pair of khaki pants stained with large brown splotches. From toes to ankles, his feet are swaddled in long sheets of clear plastic, now tinged with glistening streaks of pink and red. Thick green bands tie off the makeshift boots.
Next to him sits a sheriff’s deputy, his left hand lolling across the wheel. He cradles the sidearm on his right hip and scans the crowd. Catching my glance, he looks at his passenger and rolls his eyes.
Something inside me snaps. I trot to the golf cart. I reach toward the old man, grabbing his hands.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I squeeze his hands gently, tears welling in my eyes. Get a grip, I think, Cry later.
The old man begins to talk through cracked lips.
“We knew this was going to happen, the rains and the floods,” the words rush from his mouth. His eyes grow young and clear, bearing into mine. “I thought we was going to die.”
Without thinking, I begin to stroke the backs of his dry hands, desperate to connect, to comfort him as a person, not just an evacuee.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, “Please hear me: you’re safe now, here with us in Houston.”
I take a breath, ignoring the stench. It’s urine and feces combined with too many days of unwashed sweat and hurricane grime.
He gestures to the back of the golf cart, “I’m worried about her. She’s not well but the sheriff says he can get help for my wife.”
An elderly woman sits alone, leaning forward, in the back-facing seat. Her head lolls atop her neck. She avoids contact with the hot vinyl seatback. Gray hair peeks through a grandmotherly plastic scarf. She, too, wears boots of wrapped plastic, wet and shiny blood red.
“I didn’t think I could protect her. The water got higher and higher all night,” the nightmare tumbles out of him and his eyes look far away. “I held on to her, tight as I could, then got her on the roof. I don’t know how. Nobody came. I thought we’re going to die right here. The two of us, alone, on our roof.”
Tears toll down his cheeks. I blink hard, twice, desperate to keep my face dry, telling myself, Cry your tears later. I rub his hands again. He goes silent.
“May I hug you?”
My impulsive request marks a direct violation of my entire professional training and experience.
He smiles and holds out both arms.
“We’ll get you the help you need,” I move into his embrace.
“Oh, honey,” he chuckles into my shoulder, “we’ve gone as far as we can go.”
The deputy coughs once, “Gotta go, lady.”
I squeeze the old man’s shoulders. The golf cart jerks forward. I blow the old man a kiss and he waves good-bye.
His wife offers one last glance, her head bobbing to the rhythm of the cart’s wheels. More than 250-thousand evacuees triaged through Houston’s Astrodome in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.
I hugged many of them but remember only one — an elderly man I nicknamed Boots. His plastic-wrapped feet — bloodied in America’s “Land of Plenty” — haunt me still. He lost so much. He belonged somewhere other than a golf cart seven hours from home.
A decade after the Labor Day I met him, I obsess over Boots:
Could I have survived what he did?
Did he find those he loved?
Where’s home now?
Answers elude me but I still carry Boots’ greatest lesson: good intentions and hard work matter less than a single human connection.
Today, the irony of timing stuns: precisely ten years later, on another continent, crisis responders struggle with an exploding humanitarian crisis. The European situation is different only in degrees from Houston’s post-Katrina challenge in 2005. I pray responders working with the Syrian, Iraqi, and other migrants will remember this one truth: they are not dealing with evacuees, or refugees. Every one of these people crossing their borders is a human being.