Today, Hurricane Isaac in Houston, is reminding me of Katrina.
On September 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and sent thousands of evacuees to Houston. By September 1, 2005 the already weary Astrodome was temporary home to 16,000 victims of one of the deadliest hurricane's in US history. Here are my memories of taking the "Magic Quilt" to the Astrodome to work as a volunteer. I had no camera then, so I grabbed a few images from the internet. I still have vivid pictures in my head.
Heading to the Dome
On September 13, 2005, I loaded the Magic Quilt, a parachute cloth, some puppets, bubbles and art materials into my car. I felt an odd rush of nerves as I steered towards the Houston Astrodome where evacuees from Hurricane Katrina had been housed for almost 2 weeks.
I wasn’t sure what kind of volunteers were needed, but I knew I was pretty good at distracting children. Families can get irritable on a one week vacation, so I could only imagine what kind of relief parents and kids might need after being tragically removed from their homes, only to be cooped up in an already sad looking stadium.
In a building outside Reliant Park, I went through a drawn out screening, before I was given a Red Cross volunteer band. Instead of waiting for my assignment, I joined a line that was already going through security.
Sneaking Out on My Own
I figured I’d find my way to the Astrodome and decide for myself where I could best be used. But a woman in a Red Cross vest spotted me as I entered and handed me a pair of rubber gloves. She asked me to assist the folks on the first aisle.
I took that vague assignment and wandered down the cot lined aisle, only offering assistance to those who made eye contact. I felt like my plastic gloves distanced me from these people. I wasn’t picking up trash or giving exams...why did I need to wear them?
In one hour I met some interesting people and heard a few sad stories. I even watched a small group gather around Kanye West who had come to offer support to victims in the Shelter. I had only heard of him recently when I'd seen his face on TIME.
But after a while I began to feel like I was intruding more than helping. So I walked to the trash bin and removed my gloves. I headed back to my car and returned through security with my Quilt and other supplies. I searched the sea of cots, covered in army blankets and looked for an open space. There were a few clearings in the jammed space, where cots had been removed. (A sign that a family was given temporary housing and had moved out) I found a big enough spot and spread the quilt on the concrete. I laid out some drawing paper and puppets and began to blow up a beach ball. In no time at all, nearby children began to move towards the quilt..
Kids on the Quilt
I assured the moms that the children were welcome and soon the blue border of the quilt was filled with small bodies, staring at my giraffe puppet name Pickles. A few began to join in with a couple silly songs and before long the kids were at home… in fact louder and giddier than I had expected. Time for the parachute cloth to harness that energy.
I spread out the colorful nylon circle and the kids put all their attention into waving the cloth in frantic ripples…creating a mountain…spinning around like a carousel…blasting our faces with parachute wind! Our spot in the middle of the Dome was all energy, color, laughter and squeals!
So many giggling and grinning faces watched the cloth fill and deflate. These children had every reason to be grumpy, sad, fussy or angry, but each face was totally distracted by the parachute. The events of the last few days surely changed these children, but at this moment they seemed only to feel the wind of the waving cloth and the giddy sting of their arm muscles at work!
As the material lifted I stared at the colors just like the children, but when the parachute deflated, the surrounding cots distracted me. I saw weary adults sitting on drab colored cots. I saw the waiting and the worry. Occasionally I saw an adult’s face light up to see a child react. And there were some smiles of appreciation. But unlike the children, their smiles faded quickly. Only the children had the ability to truly enjoy the moment.
Wanting to Ask...
We finally put the parachute away and moved onto quieter activities on the Quilt. For the next 45 minutes the quilt became a tiny oasis in the hollowed space of the dome. I no longer felt distracted by the gloom of the surrounding cots. I was totally mesmerized by the children around me, coloring with crayons and jabbering as they fiddled with puppets and small toys.
Five-year-old Tony bounced and wiggled and chattered while he scribbled on paper. Eleven-year-old Tia picked up a toy microphone to serenade us. Two-year-old George rolled around the quilt with the beach ball.
I wanted to know about these children who gave so few hints. Did any of these children experience the horror of the New Orleans Superdome? Were any of these children carried down flooded streets? Tony’s scribbles had no pictures of escape and Tia’s song lyrics were more comical rap, than blues. Tia suddenly pretended to be a reporter and she interviewed me about my green eyes and wanted to know where I lived. I wanted to take the toy mic and ask her questions…but I didn’t.
Eventually most of the children drifted back to their families. Tony left his scribbled paper. George’s mother carried him off kicking and crying with a smelly diaper. Tia borrowed my funny white gloves with button fingers and went off to perform a finger dance for friends.
I finished picking up the toys and was ready to fold the quilt, when Tony suddenly dashed back to the quilt and landed in a heap beside me.
"We’re leaving now.” He whined. I looked down to see fat tears rolling down his cheeks. I asked, "You mean you’re leaving the astrodome? Your family is leaving?” He nodded yes and leaned into me, with a big hug. I asked if he wasn't happy about that news. “No.” He frowned. “I want to stay here."
Symbolic Plaid Bags
I saw Tony’s family of five walking towards us, with the same large plaid bags everyone used for their belongings. Tony caught up to his parents as they walked towards the exit. Their serious expressions seemed to reflect the endless questions of their future.
Housing? Jobs? Schools? But Tony’s sad expression seemed to reflect the sadness of what he was leaving behind... his new friends, the donated Ben and Jerry’s ice cream he’d been eating that morning, the toys and the soft quilt.
A Tiny Gift
The quilt was folded and the puppets were packed. I glanced around before leaving and noticed George asleep on his cot. He must have worn himself out over the diaper battle. I held up the beach ball and whispered to his mother. “You can keep this for George if you want.” She smiled and nodded.
A Little Guilt
I headed out of the Astrodome feeling guilty. Guilty, that I wore an orange volunteer band, which meant I was going home. Guilty, that I wasn’t taking a family with me to share our rooms and food and cars. And guilty, that I’d spent the day laughing and playing with the youngest and most resilient of the evacuees, when I thought I’d come to “work”.
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.