IF YOU’RE ONE of the thousands of people who will attend a basketball game this year in the Cajundome, the 13,500-seat event center in Lafayette, Louisiana, you might find it hard to envision the place as it was exactly ten years ago. Because in August 2005, the Cajundome was not the Cajundome—it was a megashelter, a minicity full of people who had fled Hurricane Katrina and had nowhere else to go. Instead of cheering fans, the place was ringed by National Guardsmen.
Imagine you’re one of the hundreds of volunteers who spent their days in this city after Katrina. Maybe you are, like I was, a trash collector.
Imagine you push what looks and feels like a miniature dumpster on wheels through the building’s cool air. During thirteen-hour shifts, you roll past row upon row of green cots positioned just so. Evacuees make homes, like hundreds of bees in a hive, as best they can on and around these six-by-four-foot cots. Most individuals are fairly tidy, but families are easy to spot: their belongings spill over and fill up the spaces between cots, as if to create one solid surface that, if the water were to reach this far, would allow the group to rise up and float away together.
Every day begins in the Cajundome lobby, a town square sectioned off in the areas where services are provided and things get done. If you were an evacuee you’d pick up your blanket bundle and toiletries right here. Over there is the communications center, the makeshift kiosk where you could make a phone call or leave a note on the message board so any of the three thousand or more other residents can read it. Maybe one of them has seen your cousin. Maybe one of them is your cousin.
But you’re a trash collector. Push your little dumpster across a shiny floor like a shopper on the hunt for what others leave behind. Food wrappers, messy blankets, single shoes, underwear, informational pamphlets, FEMA applications for small business loans, broken cots, broken cots, broken cots. Meals—hundreds of them—come three times a day in foam containers that stack well but crack easily, making the messiest trash.
People seem to be neater on the floor of the main arena, which would normally be the domain of oversized basketball players. Or sometimes the floor would be covered with ice for hockey games. But the arena is not big enough, so cots also line the hallways that wrap around the building on the first and second floors, and fill up the exhibit halls in other buildings (which, maybe because of their carpeted floors, you will come to think of as the suburbs). Because much of the main building echoes the oval shape of the arena, you’re often walking in a semi-circle, moving slightly right or slightly left as you go forward.
Roll into the service elevator that takes you to the upper floors, to quieter and cozier neighborhoods. Coveted spots include the cul de sacs at the end of the halls, and the areas closest or farthest away from the bathrooms, depending on people’s priorities. You notice one spot has been untouched since the day before and you pause to make a judgment call: clean it up, or wait one more day for the occupant to return?
Given the large number of people here, the place seems oddly quiet. Then again, many people sleep their days away. Everywhere the monotonous hum of fluorescent lights fills the background until you hear something interesting. Sometimes music plays thinly from a cell phone or small radio as you pass by, and you can make out the tune if you get close enough. Sometimes you hear a scream, and turn to see someone collapsing in tears by the telephone. You come to know this means that somebody didn’t make it through the floods.
Watch seasons change inside this city, overlapping cycles that mark the passing time and link this little world to the larger one beyond. When FEMA checks come in, a springlike buzz fills the air and new sights pop up on the landscape. Now you roll past people watching handheld DVD players, and see brightly painted acrylic nails and colorful braids appearing like overnight blooms. Most others are packing to leave. As water recedes from city streets a hundred miles away, so, too, is the shelter drained of evacuees. That is, until Hurricane Rita approaches, and the people return. Still, you think the worst is over, the lesson learned. You trust that this has been the final rallying call, that this minicity will return forever to the business of basketball and corporate conventions. But you will see, years later, that you were probably wrong.
Listen to Jennifer Oladipo discuss her experience as a Red Cross volunteer here.