Shelter and the Storm
By Katherine Boo
The New Yorker
November 28, 2005
Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, is a hub of oil and fishing industries on the Gulf of Mexico. The hamlets along its waterways rise in elevation and affluence as they increase in distance from the coast. Trailers, aluminum foil in their windows to beat back the sun, give way to communities screened by oak and cypress trees. One of the loveliest neighborhoods is Bayou Black. There are thoroughbreds on lawns there, and an alligator farm. The week’s sole rush hour begins Saturday before dawn, when fathers and sons leave home to fish and hunt. Later that morning, the shell-pink great house of a nineteenth-century sugarcane plantation opens for tours. The gift shop, in what the docents call “the servants’ quarters,” sells books with such titles as “Myths of American Slavery” and “Slaves by Choice.” Hurricane Katrina only grazed this house and its environs, pulling shingles off roofs and whipping the moss from the trees. After the levees of New Orleans broke and poor blacks fled, Bayou Black was only sixty miles down one of the few open highways from the city.
When an emergency shelter in Houma, the parish seat, filled quickly, several members of a Catholic church in Bayou Black asked local officials if they could open the basketball court of their recreation center to refugees. Earlier in the summer, the pressing social issue at the gym had involved the casings of sunflower seeds: a sign at the entrance read “What Goes in Your Mouth You Must Swallow Not Spit Back Out on the Bleachers.” On the evening of September 3rd, though, a gunshot victim, a four-hundred-pound woman, and a man with a broken spine arrived at the gym simultaneously, joining two hundred other evacuees. The only medical expertise on hand belonged to an eighteen-year-old lawn cutter who had once passed a lifeguard course. “He could have told me his back was broken before I moved him,” the teen-ager later complained. A Cajun woman named Roxie Bergeron had put aside her duties as a Catholic youth-group leader to organize the volunteers. “None of us knows what we are doing,” she said. “This is Shelter 101.” Other white residents were more conflicted than Bergeron about giving refuge to former New Orleanians. Shrimpers, boat captains, offshore oil workers, and the personal-injury lawyers attendant on these trades wanted the gym available for themselves and their families, should another hurricane hit.
A thirty-year-old black businessman named Gary Harrell managed the night shift at the shelter. He had a shaved head, Pentecostal leanings, and subscriptions to The Atlantic Monthly and The Economist; he’d grown up down the street. “There are a hundred thousand people in this parish, but we think we’re Magnolia, Mississippi,” he said. “The whole identity and appeal of this place is as a not-New Orleans. So what’s happening now is something that never crossed people’s minds, except in nightmares: that New Orleans would be coming to them.”
Still, the Bayou Black volunteers, like many other Americans, were eager to play a role in what followed the evacuation. Popular sympathy, at least outside Terrebonne Parish, was with the displaced people, now known collectively as victims; and with that concern came the opportunity (“should they choose to take it” was the standard qualifier) to turn tragedy into renewal. Former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward and other segregated neighborhoods of New Orleans might now be supported in their attempts to advance into the cultural and economic mainstream—“to ascend to normalcy,” as Gary Harrell put it. It was a romance of transformation, and for some of the adults unpacking trash bags of possessions on the basketball court this idea of fresh starts had a basis in fact: lost in the flood was evidence of schooling that had stopped at ninth grade, misadventures in the work world, pending appointments in court. Even the children of the Bayou Black gym—among them a dark-skinned thirteen-year-old girl in a donated tie-dyed T-shirt—sensed possibilities in the wake of disaster.
The girl’s name was Jasmine Williams, and she understood that she was unwelcome in Terrebonne Parish. She had been reared by an unstable and uncaring mother, so this feeling was nothing new. Nor was her shelter life much different, emotionally speaking, from the one that she’d left behind: her mother’s boyfriend had just taken seventy-five dollars from her in order, Jasmine suspected, to buy drugs. “Then my mom thrashed all over me for being mad about it,” Jasmine said. But, as Gary Harrell gently insisted, this was a time to look ahead, not to sulk about familiar injustices. And late one night in the second week of September she removed from her mouth a pacifier that she had swiped from an infant-supply drawer and articulated her understanding of the work at hand: “You know that song by Mike Jones? ‘They used to love to dis me, now they run to hug and kiss me—now?’ The rest of the song is pimps and Escalades, but the dis-and-kiss part is what goes through my head since I been coming here. Like maybe before the storm they treated you not so good, said you were stupid or something, but after, it might be—like, if you change from here on out and don’t get put out of school and be working and all, people might be noticing you, knowing your name.”
Jasmine was curious about Gary Harrell. “Beaucoup smart,” she said, adding hopefully, “A person I can rock with.” Her sense of the community where she now lived came largely from him. “When I was growing up,” Gary liked to say, “they allowed one of us colored kids in every class at Mulberry Elementary.” Returning home after graduating from college, in Birmingham, Alabama, he discovered that his studies in international business and Japanese qualified him only to sell Toyotas. Recently, though, he had started a management-consulting business. Now he hoped to help Jasmine and the other evacuees make their own adjustments and advancements.
Mattress-to-mattress living turns private lives into public theatre, and Jasmine, after settling in, began hovering in corners and doorways to observe her neighbors. She was particularly interested in a middle-aged couple, Carolyn Tompkins and Gus Davis, who, despite long residency in New Orleans East, had what others in the shelter called “country-ass ways.” After a lifetime with a volatile mother, Jasmine is skittish; Carolyn and Gus mesmerized her with their placidity. He is illiterate, with failing eyesight, and had worked as an oysterman before Katrina and its accompanying oil spills. Carolyn has a mellow laugh and, in Jasmine’s estimation, a woeful fashion sense: she wore a faded house dress, pink flip-flops, and a black polyester do-rag every day. The couple’s great interest was their sons, aged one and almost three, whom Carolyn rocked for hours in a donated chair to which someone had affixed stickers that said “Wassup?”
Carolyn had worked in the kitchen of a New Orleans nursing home, and had taken Gus and the toddlers there to weather the storm. In the days that followed, twenty-two elderly patients died after the electric power went out, floodwaters poured in, and medicine washed away. The police and other officials failed to organize a rescue, but eventually the brother of a co-worker arrived from Georgia with a boat and a big red truck. Most of the employees and survivors ended up in Terrebonne Parish. Now Carolyn’s older boy asked anxious questions about dead people, and shook when he was taken to the bathroom. His parents could only guess what he’d seen while they had been moving patients to the top floor and taking bodies downstairs. “The main thing is to be with these little guys,” Carolyn said, handing a stuffed Elmo to her one-year-old. “So if the government and the folks here want to take a bit of our lives out of our hands for a minute, help us get some work and all, we’ll be coming back strong to do the rest.”
Others at the shelter, among them Jasmine’s mother, sought a different kind of aid. Experience had made them skeptical of government notions of opportunity and the longevity of public concern, so they were placing their bets on an immediate redistribution of wealth. Reports on CNN served as tutorials in which they learned that the traumas of cute young children had more cash value than those of adolescents like Jasmine, and that to elicit maximum sympathy from potential donors one should have, or might now invent, a lost pet.
“Trixie—that a dog’s name or a cat’s?” a woman asked Jasmine’s mother as they sat one afternoon on the recreation center’s front porch. “I’m looking for something that fits one of them weenie dogs.” Jasmine’s mother wasn’t sure about pet names, but she agreed that strategy was in order. She said, “The way people helped during the Chinaman thing”—someone proffered the word “tsunami”—“I best be getting a house!”
Also sitting on the porch was a mother of four who was in the throes of heroin withdrawal. She had, in fact, lost a cat she loved. However, the woman’s teen-age daughter, who had left home with only a handbag and three negligee sets, was probably right in saying that its name, Hootchie-Mamma Kitty, was “too ghetto” for middle-class sympathy.
In an affluent society, a deficit of things can swiftly be remedied. Within a week, surplus food was rotting in Louisiana shelters; bags of secondhand clothing filled back rooms and hallways, then spilled outdoors, much of it never to be unpacked. It was easy to forget that, before Katrina, even in the worst recesses of the Melpomene or Calliope projects of New Orleans, people had clothes on their backs, and no one starved, and almost every family had a television. What they often lacked were passable educations, regular medical care, jobs with benefits, or firsthand knowledge of how most other Americans live—New Orleans’s low-income population being one of the least mobile and most isolated in the country. This poverty of opportunity was harder to redress and, at least at first, impolitic to discuss.
One evening, on a television in the gym, President Bush articulated his version of the romance of transformation, in which suffering made victims stronger, and compassion bridged divides of race and class. “In the journey ahead you’re not alone,” he told the displaced, promising an influx of public and private aid to help them and their communities “not just to survive, but to thrive.” Outside the shelter, where federal aid had not materialized, Gary Harrell’s romanticism was being tested. Throwing up his arms, he said, “I don’t have a clue what to do about Pookie!” Pookie, Jasmine’s cousin, was a disturbed seven-year-old boy whose grandmother operated on the theory “A baby’s old enough to sock you, he’s old enough to be socked back.” He had crept past the recreation center’s outdoor swimming pool (unavailable to the “out-of-town guests”) and had set off for the road that linked Bayou Black to the rest of the parish. Meanwhile, police officers arrived at the gym; they were returning a middle-aged woman who had pulled a knife on her daughter for “opening her legs when she’s not fixed.”
In the gym office, Jasmine dialed a series of phone numbers of male acquaintances, her pacifier clenched like a cigarette at the side of her mouth. Though she was a little afraid of growing up—not just the sex thing, but the distinct possibility of competitive reprisals from her mother—she often felt odd, unlovely, in the shelter. Someone outside it, she hoped, might tell her otherwise. “Do you remember me?” she asked these men again and again.
As Bush’s speech concluded, with a call for armies of compassion, a telephone rang next to Jasmine. The caller was a Midwestern businessman with the sort of offer that the volunteers had prayed for: a big house on a farm an hour north of Wichita which some of Bayou Black’s evacuees were welcome to use. Gary grabbed a legal pad to write down the details. Many of the adults were eager to work, and the volunteers had been finding jobs for them on pipelines, in laundries, and at a waste-treatment company. But the new workers had nowhere to live. Although local churches had raised enough money to cover security deposits and a month’s rent, FEMA representatives and oil-platform repairmen had taken almost every available room in the parish.
While Gary talked with the Midwestern businessman, Carolyn wandered in to get a towel for the shower. Soon she was perched behind Gary. “A farm?” she asked. “I’ll milk ’em, I’ll rake up after ’em, I’ll even cut ’em up if need be—if it’s a private place to stay.” Carolyn and Gus had lived in an apartment just off Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East—a strip of pawnshops and motels where junkies sold sex for the price of a catfish platter. Yet the couple had made a stable home there, and it had been lost in the levee break. Now Gus had taken a grass-cutting job. It didn’t pay as well as his oystering had, but, after a week and a half at the shelter, he was worried less about the money than about his sons. “They’re changing here—too much distraction and too many thug babies,” he said. “These kids starting to walk the walk and talk the talk, and still in diapers.” He wanted to get them out fast.
Gary’s telephone voice had grown strained, and he’d dropped his legal pad on the table. “Well, sir, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for your offer,” he told the businessman, “but we have to do this right for our people. And we certainly don’t want to be sending them into indentured servitude!” There were apparently opportunists outside the gym, too. Carolyn went, dejected, to the shower.
By the middle of September, the evacuees had realized that federal aid was not imminent, and that the help they needed to re-start their lives might come more quickly from local residents. Qualifying for such donations required conforming to the Terrebonne definition of “deserving poor.” To be deserving, one had to be willing to work, of course, but there were other expectations: to attend church on Sunday; to wear the donated clothes that exposed the least flesh; to be quiet when laughing and talking among themselves, and loud and clear when expressing their gratitude. “Everyone’s got their mask on now,” Gary Harrell’s mother, who was tutoring the shelter children, said. Some evacuees saw a liability in what had been their lives’ great expenditure—glittering gold-capped teeth—and began to cover their mouths when they smiled.
Gary believed that, as Terrebonne residents got to know Carolyn, Gus, and the rest of the evacuees, they’d see a common ground, or at least a situation that served their own interest. “Their energy and eagerness to work are going to help us compete economically,” he said. Terrebonne community leaders also sensed that Katrina’s destruction had created an economic opportunity. The parish president and his aides were trying to persuade displaced New Orleans businesses to relocate in the parish.
The officials had had enough of the displaced people, however. Two weeks after the arrival of the first evacuees, the Houma Courier ran a one-sentence story: “The Terrebonne Consolidated Government announced this morning that local shelters are full and are no longer able to accept evacuees.” The assertion was false; the shelters had space for at least a thousand more people. But it reflected the sensibility of a community in which the word “comfortable” had become a term of art. “We don’t want people to get too comfortable here,” the director of the major shelter in Houma liked to say. Local unease increased when one of its residents was charged with intent to distribute prescription pills—despite the fact that, before Katrina, Houma’s own drug dealers sold crack, methamphetamine, and the steroids ubiquitous in a community that took high-school football to heart. Terrebonne’s predicament was an intensified version of a classic American dilemma: the belief that ghettoizing a disadvantaged population is morally wrong, joined to the conviction that the disadvantaged population might be a lot happier in the next county. At a public meeting after the drug bust, a city official said, to general approval, “We don’t want to be the people who turned away the refugees, but we don’t want a Superdome situation.”
The recreation center looked out on the bayou, which most of the evacuees avoided—there were alligators there. So it was considered daring when Carolyn and Gus began taking their toddlers to the water’s edge each afternoon, when the light made everything around them glimmer gold and red. “I want their eyes to be steady full of something beautiful,” Carolyn said, “enough beautiful to push the ugly things they’ve seen out of their brains.”
One afternoon, Jasmine went to the bayou, too. It was the most beautiful place she’d ever been. Like many neglected children, she’d grown used to her lot in life, and barely paid attention when her mother asked the volunteers, “You got kids? I been trying to get rid of mine for some time.” Jasmine had an eleven-year-old brother, and neither of them expected their mother to do “regular stuff,” like helping with homework. Their mother said, “My kids don’t even ask me anymore—my nerves is bad, so they gets beat up after one problem. Other thing they know is when I put that forty dollars’ worth of food on the counter every month and they eat it too fast, they be going hungry until next month comes around.”
One kind of poverty is that of the imagination—the inability to envision a future truly different from the present. Jasmine had long judged people based on whether or not they gave her food and clothing, but, as she watched Carolyn and Gus and other families, she found herself mulling different gauges of worth. She’d been working lately on a definition of love. “Maybe it’s that, like, you honor somebody and they honor you back,” she said carefully. “If you do for them without being all, like, See, I did this for you, now you best do something for me—like, you just do it for the kind of your heart.”
Jasmine had seen her father only once since she was five. She knew that he had been in prison for selling drugs and attempted murder, and that he now put siding on houses. He was six feet two, had a place in suburban Minneapolis, and had sponsored the three best days of her life: “It was February and he was in a car, and he came by his cousin’s house. I was playing in the parking lot then, so I caught a look of him. I knew right away—I said, ‘That my daddy,’ but because I’d grown big he didn’t know me. But then he did know, and he took me eating at Manhattan’s in New Orleans and bowling and to a movie, then he took me by my other cousin’s, then we ate doughnuts, then he brought me to Avondale, too.” Jasmine’s furious dialing now had direction: she would ask her father to take her in.
In August, before the levees broke, the Associated Press began a story on New Orleans violence by citing a study: “Last year, university researchers conducted an experiment in which police fired seven hundred blank rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood in a single afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire.” Afterward, the experiment was mentioned in newspapers, magazines, and on television to illustrate the morally deadening effects of the inner city. The report, like that of Terrebonne’s “full” shelters, was incorrect, yet it agreed with the thinking of policymakers as Katrina stories grew less frequent on cable TV: though New Orleans could be rebuilt, its former inhabitants might be beyond saving.
Historically, considerations of poverty range between extremes: sentimentality and sensationalism, structural causes and individual volition. In this case, the moment of attention to structural causes passed quickly. On September 15th, the President spoke of aggressive action against “deep, persistent poverty” with “roots in a history of racial discrimination.” Two weeks later, members of the Republican Party were using the deficiencies of the evacuees as evidence that contemporary anti-poverty approaches were ineffectual. Congressional debate did not then turn to more hopeful approaches; it centered instead on how many billions of dollars to cut from Medicaid and other social programs in order to offset the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. The politicians perhaps understood their constituencies: a public that desires to help the poor without paying a price, or even particular attention.
One day, a family in the Bayou Black gym got a real opportunity to transform their lives. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, some Catholics had been thinking about how to direct their charitable instincts, and a housewife there called a nun in Terrebonne in search of a large family. Within a matter of days, the largest family at the gym—a middle-aged laundress from the Ninth Ward, a seventeen-year-old girl who spent her shelter days writing in her journal (“My story is basically ghetto, ghetto, ghetto,” she said), and seven others—had got a furnished five-bedroom house, rent-free, for two years, down the street from the home of Kalamazoo’s former mayor. They also got a minivan; a line on good jobs; medical and dental care; and parochial-school tuition for the seventeen-year-old and three younger children—“but only if the family is inclined that way,” the Kalamazoo housewife said, noting that the local public schools were excellent, too. This turn of events raised expectations throughout the shelter, though nothing like it happened again.
The children in the gym with whom Jasmine felt most kinship were the unaccountably cheerful teen-age sons of the woman who was withdrawing from heroin. The boys, whose names were Christopher and Crishad Riley, dated their mother’s addiction to the night, five years before, when their father, having finished his shift in the kitchen at Applebee’s, was robbed, shot, and killed by a fifteen-year-old girl. “After that, Katrina is nothing,” their mother said. She was forthcoming about the misery in which she’d let her children live—“like Christopher finding me passed out for five hours, my drawers off and the handkerchief still tied on my arm.” But the state’s shrinking child-protection system hadn’t intervened to help the Riley kids, and the public schools had contributed further to their misfortunes. Three-quarters of the students in the New Orleans school system were impoverished, and, by Louisiana’s own standards, most of them were getting an “academically unacceptable” education—intellectual losses, endemic to inner cities, that don’t engage the nonurban imagination in the way that crime stories do. Christopher, a high-school junior who hoped to attend Florida State, could recall reading only one book. “I liked it,” he said. “It was about a king that was unhappy and he did everything to be happy and he never found a way to be happy.” This achievement put him well ahead of fourteen-year-old Crishad, who considered himself more of a soldier than a scholar—“though my padres be dead, God bless they graves.” Crishad, an eighth grader, could not read a word.
Jasmine had been in special education at one of the Ninth Ward’s worst middle schools, a placement that pained her and mystified a retired teacher who now volunteered at the Bayou Black gym. Jasmine, too, had managed to finish a book. “I forgot its name,” she said, “but it was about this boy, and his daddy taught him to grow up, like, do you follow the passion or the pay?” Now Jasmine and her friends were putting on white and khaki uniforms and attending school in Terrebonne Parish. By national standards, these institutions were mediocre; for the new students, they were astonishing. “Still can’t read yet,” Crishad reported excitedly in the third week of September. “But I think I might be coming along.” The question, though, was how many new students would be staying. When another storm began to move toward Louisiana, the parish president ordered the gym cleared by the following week.
In the final days, residents who were about to be evicted unearthed a box of T-shirts imprinted with the words “Leadership Breakthrough Mastery.” The residents wore them when they prayed for one of the thousands of trailers that the federal government was sending to Louisiana. However, Terrebonne officials, like the leaders of other Louisiana communities, had decided not to make space for those trailers. Even some of Bayou Black’s staunch volunteers were reconsidering their hospitable impulses. One night, while the evacuees slept, Gary Harrell mentioned to the daughter of a sugarcane farmer his fear of a Disneyfied reconstruction of New Orleans, with no place for poor blacks to live. “Sounds great,” the farmer’s daughter replied with unexpected heat. “We can all go to New Orleans, and leave this parish to them.”
It was left to Roxie Bergeron, Gary’s counterpart on the day shift, to find homes for all the shelter families. “Three thousand dollars a month?” she said into the phone, sounding incredulous. She called again. “Goodness, I know you have a business to run there, but these children—of course I haven’t known them for long but they’re extremely well mannered, and if you could waive that extra fee?” By the end of the week, she’d found homes in Terrebonne for seven families. The rest would be moving away. Carolyn and Gus’s best offer had come from the American Red Cross: fourteen to twenty-eight days in an extended-stay motel on the industrial outskirts of Rochester, Minnesota.
For Carolyn and Gus, the President’s promise to help the evacuees now translated into something specific—a six-hundred-and-twenty-one-dollar voucher for rent. This was welcome, though not perhaps the stuff of transformation. Gus gamely taught his elder son to say “snowmobile,” but the idea of moving to a cold, remote area where they had no friends, work, or transportation left him sleepless. Late one night, he paced the porch of the recreation center, holding the younger boy in his arms. “Carolyn and me, we worked and made do on nothing before,” he said, “and I expect we can do it again. It’s just these boys,” he added almost inaudibly. “These are my dreams.” Carolyn, for her part, began repeating an idea she’d picked up from the volunteers. “The more help you get in life,” she said, “the less successful you’ll be.”
Just before the shelter closed, Jasmine went into the gym office and asked to use a computer. Her father had agreed to take her in, and the next morning an elderly white couple was going to drive her and Carolyn’s family to Minnesota. Jasmine didn’t know if Minnesota was north or south of Bayou Black, just as she didn’t exactly know when to use words like “thank you” or “goodbye.” But she thought that she could learn. A lawyer who had volunteered at the shelter drew up custody papers, which her mother, who was returning to her apartment, readily signed. Before Jasmine left, though, she wanted to draw up a paper of her own.
First, she typed into the computer a fact she thought might impress her mother: that the Mall of America was way bigger than anything that New Orleans had to offer. And then, forehead furrowed, she pecked out what she called her “last commemoration”:
I have a mother and a lil brother that’s down here in Bayou Black Gym and that’s why I am writing this to dedicate to them that I will always have them in mimory and I will try to keep in touch with them the best way that I can. But I also hope in pray that they never forget about me. I would want my lilbrother to always knoww that I will always be his big sister, and I will want my mother to know I was her baby girl.
Then, using the largest font she could find, she typed the word “love.” A few minutes later, she watched as her mother peered into the computer screen, mouth tight, and then looked over the screen to a box of walkie-talkies behind the computer. “Oh, I’ve been wanting one of these,” Jasmine’s mother said, pulling one out and examining it intently. “Might be fixing to take it,” she said, as she walked out the door.
By mid-November, Carolyn had taken a job in the cafeteria of the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, while Gus had embarked on an effort to learn to read. From time to time, they wondered how Jasmine was faring in her part of Minnesota. “Hard on that child, her mother sinning her that way,” Carolyn said. “But she’s a good little girl, mainly, and time can bring a person up, I seen it happen. I don’t know. She might grow straight in the end.”
“I don’t know,” Jasmine’s father said one day after a meeting with Jasmine’s teachers. “She’s been living with them ways for fourteen years, and all she knows is a place where dudes gets killed every day and the teachers don’t care and the worst racism is just daily life. So she comes to school up here, and she likes it, but people don’t understand her because she speaks so backward, and she thinks she has to fight everyone for the littlest things. I try to explain to her what I had to learn myself, that it ain’t like that here. It’s safe and I’m watching her back and not going to fight her, either—when she gets into it at school, I put her cell phone in the drawer. But it’s going to take a while for her to get it, you know, that America’s not all hard and mean as what she thinks.”
Copyright: 2005 The New Yorker