Erin Kidwell – The Volunteer

Erin KidwellErin Kidwell, 27, is an actor and director from Friendswood, TX. She was interviewed December 28th, 2005, on a bench outside the Menil Collection in Houston, TX. When we met, she was fresh from a yoga class, in yoga sweats, and carrying her lunch: a bowl of soup.

“Hello! He’s talking to you!”

I don’t watch the news. I didn’t hear about Katrina until it was a really big deal. To be honest, I thought the same thing everybody else did: oh, wow, a hurricane that big, well that’s gonna really suck to live through. I mean, I had never seen a hurricane like that before. I had no reason to believe that it would be devastating.

I kept tabs on it. Maybe once a day or so. I’d check on-line news and see what was going on. Once it became evident that everybody was in a lot of trouble, the TV stayed on in my house. We have three TVs. They were all on news channels.

I’ve had a very sheltered life. I don’t know anything about poverty. I don’t know anything about not having options. So, I really thought that the state of Louisiana was going to take care of the situation. I thought that they would get everyone out that couldn’t get out.
I wasn’t working very much during that time. My parents have a lot of concern for other people, so whenever there’s a disaster, they’re glued to the set. We weren’t sleeping very much. We were watching the news constantly.

The Superdome really bothered me. Everyone went there seeking help. They were under the impression that they were going to get it, and there was nothing there. I thought, helicopters will come, the national government–somebody’s got to do something, you know? There are governmental institutions in place to take care of this situation. After a few days, it became apparent that nobody was doing anything. That became distressing.

I didn’t have any money to donate to the Red Cross. I have an uncle who works for the Red Cross, so I started catching him when I could. But he was pretty busy.

They decided to bring people to the Astrodome. My plan was to wait until the volunteer wave calmed down and then go out there. I figured there were tons of volunteers headed out towards the Astrodome.

The night they started bringing in buses, my friend Regina and I had bought some frozen pizza and beer. We sat around watching the news. The reporters said they needed medical help: nurses, people with experience. I don’t have any experience to speak of. But there was one doctor in particular who said, whoever you are, if you’re watching this please, we need help. We need help now.

I sat there listening to him for about a minute before something clicked in my brain. It was like hello! He’s talking to you! You’re watching this and they need help. I was like, oh my god, I have to go down there. I woke my friend up, and I was like, I’m going down to the Astrodome. Do you want to come with me? She said yeah. We called her boyfriend. He has a lot of military experience and would probably do very well in some situations that other people might find disturbing. He said he wanted to go.

At the Astrodome

We got there about 3:00am. There were quite a few volunteers there. They were having trouble organizing the volunteers. Understandably so. It wasn’t clear who was in charge. Of anything. There were people who had official looking badges on, who were just looking very bewildered.

They kept us upstairs in the place where they usually have all the food at the conventions. I don’t remember which building that is in the Astrodome-Reliant Center complex. Every so often they’d come in and someone would say, OK, this is the job I need you for, and I need 5 men and 6 women, or whatever, and preferably African-American.

They needed volunteers to check people in on the bus. They told us that it was going to be real messy, and might smell bad, because they’d been on the bus for so long. That there were old people and young people. They were just preparing us for the worst. I kept trying to volunteer for that job, because I was confidant in my ability to be able to handle that kind of situation, but it was unlikely they were going to take a white woman. They were trying to stick with African-Americans. Or minorities in general. When that wasn’t possible, then they would go with white men first, so I didn’t have much of a chance to do that.

I think “they” were Red Cross. You know, to be honest with you, I’m not sure. I know the Red Cross wasn’t in charge of the Astrodome. Someone else said they were Red Cross. They had nametags on. But they didn’t have anything saying who they were. Someone else said that they were from a church. For all I know, they were volunteers who showed up and just started organizing people. I had no idea who there were. I know that they’d been there for a long time. They were really tired.

Whoever they were, they kept everyone calm. They were not panicked. They talked easily in front of everyone. They did a good job picking people out, getting things done quickly.

Some of the volunteers got angry. They’d been there for a while and they hadn’t been used yet. They started saying that they don’t know what they’re doing. I thought that was weird, you know, from a volunteer’s perspective. You’re there to help. Not to instigate.

I got picked. They didn’t tell us what we were doing. They said OK, follow me, try to stay in a straight line. Of course we get outside the building and the first that happens is it turns into a big crowd. Me and a couple of people were like, hey guys, you know, we were asked to stay in a straight line. Everybody’s like, yeah, whatever. It was kind of funny. It reminded me of high school. But really, they asked us to stay in straight lines because there were crowds everywhere. It was really easy to get lost. If our group was just another crowd, then how are they going to know which volunteers are with us? There were no nametags. There were wristbands, but that was it. We lost a few people along the way. I don’t know where they ended up. There were a couple of instances where somebody came over to the group unbeknownst to whoever was leading us and said, “I need two people to do this!” And took people away.

There were people everywhere. We were stepping over people. Everybody was really tired. There were a few people on their feet, mostly men, kind of wandering around. The women and children were mostly sitting on the grass. There were people getting off buses. People with dogs, and children. Everyone looked very bewildered. Everyone was very tired. The person leading us kept emphasizing that we stay together. It was kind of weird, because you’d see people that needed help. If you left the group to go help someone pick up the stuff that they just dropped, there’s a good chance that you were never going to see that group again. We didn’t know where he was taking us. We tried to stay together.

We were not allowed in the Astrodome. They stopped taking volunteers. It was like Don’t Go There! It was this big forbidden zone. People were stationed in front of the doors to keep people out. I remember kind of peaking inside and seeing people everywhere. Like from all the way up, and all the way down to the bottom. And all the way around. People kind of leaking out the sides of the doors and stuff, you know, and just sitting on the ground. All those people.

There were people vomiting into their hands. There were naked babies, that kind of thing. There was an old man with this really, really old dog. It was sweet. He was this really old man, and he had this really old terrier mix clutched up under his arm. The dog had cataracts, and it was just going along for the ride. This is my buddy! You know? He couldn’t be left behind.

When we got there, we figured out pretty quick that we were at the medical building. Every once in a while, someone came in and said, I need 2 people. All the volunteers shoved towards the front. It was really very strange how chaotic it was. There was one girl in my group who had worked on a cruise ship. They teach you crowd management on cruise ships. She stepped up. She stayed at the front of the door and managed our volunteer group. Which was interesting to me, because I figured that was probably how the people that were organizing us started out, too.

They pulled us in two by two, sometimes four by four. I ended up in the medical records room. This was also the patient waiting room. There was a guy there who had been there for like 48 hours. He was my age. Everyone was real pleasant. All the patients who came through were pleasant. They were tired, but they knew we were trying to help them.

In this room, people came in and someone helped them fill out this form. They’d pass it off to someone who entered the information into a computer. They passed it off to us, and we filed it alphabetically. Whenever the doctor was going to see someone, they came to us. We’d find the file. It was organized. It was probably 4:00am. There weren’t a whole lot of people there. They were really shortstaffed, as far as medical staff goes, but, the organization of it was going pretty well.

My friend felt sick. I had to take her home. We left around 6:00am.

I went back about 7:00am. They didn’t check me or anything; I had a volunteer bracelet on, so they were just like, come on in. I went back to that area.

In that one hour, everything fell apart. Nothing was organized. The doctors and nurses were all digging through the files. There were files laying on top of files. Where’s this file? And where’s so in so’s file? There was a 19-year old boy who had been there since well before I had gotten there. He had on a pair of old cloth pants and they were tied with a rope. He had a lot of bad abdominal pain. He still hadn’t been seen because nobody could find his file. Nobody would like fill out a new one for him. There were doctor’s writing prescriptions before they were actually seeing patients. We’d get a patient who would come to us with a prescription and would tell us the pharmacy said I need a file to go with this, and they didn’t have a file, because the doctor wrote them a prescription for whatever they said they needed. That was difficult.

The doctors were real testy. That didn’t help. Everyone needed something right away. My friend’s boyfriend ended up checking people into the medical building. He ended up in a better place, because it was just him. He filled out forms for people.

I tried to reorganize everything. There were two other people there who were not medical staff, who were just volunteers. No one told them what they were supposed to be doing. I got them together and said, hey, let’s try to organize these boxes and the files.

The number of files was growing, and growing, and growing. We kept trying to reorganize the boxes. A doctor or a nurse would come along and dig for their own file. We would put our hands over them and be like, please ask us for the file, because it’s really important that you don’t confuse all of these; there are 10 people in line behind you and if they all do the same thing, you know… But they were in such big hurries, because everyone was so, you know, all the patients were in dire need of attention.

How did it smell? It smelled like bodies. Like sweat and piss and shit. And vomit. There were a lot of homeless people in there, too. I don’t know what the far-reaching effects of it were, but I think it was positive that all these homeless people got medical attention. There were a lot of them. I mean, I’m assuming they were homeless. They didn’t have just a week’s worth of dirt on them.

It smelled like anti-bacterial gel. I hate the smell. But there were people going around and squirting everyone’s hands pretty frequently. When the food got there, the food smelled got all mixed in with it too. Barbecue. I think Cisco catered it. Brisket and mashed potatoes. The smell of food was making me sick, so I didn’t go by the table.

I used the bathroom the first time and it was all fine and dandy. It was a little dirty, but nothing big. Nobody was cleaning the bathrooms. When I went in the second time, the toilets, all of them, were plugged up to overflowing. Some of them were covered in trashbags, overflowing to the floor. Like, don’t use this toilet. And the others, you basically had to just go in a toilet that was filling up.

There was a mom who kept calling out her son’s name, while he was in the stall, and he was like, yeah, OK, I’m here. There were instances where this was reversed, there was a kid who was like, Mom, Mom, are you still there?

Some people didn’t have shoes on. They tried to wash themselves off in the stalls, using the sink water. No one knew what to do, because we didn’t know if there were even any supplies. We kept trying to find a way to clean the bathrooms. We didn’t have any buckets or anything. Eventually, I’m sure they got cleaned. But I don’t know what everyone was doing. I imagine eventually just going outside.

I was there till afternoon. I was about to leave and this old woman came up to me. She had a prescription in her hand. I walked her over to try and find her file. There was no file. I walked her back to the front to get her a new one. A social worker was there and she was like, what are you doing?! And I was like, I’m trying to help this woman get her file, so that she can get her medicine. And she was like, you need to go to the file room! I told her, I’ve been there for 12 hours. There’s no file there. She’s like, this isn’t procedure. This isn’t how we do it. And I was just like, well, what’s the procedure? I kept asking people, whose in charge here? No one knew. I kept asking all these doctors and nurses: Who are you answering to? Whose in charge? They were like, I don’t know, I don’t know. I had never been a volunteer before. I didn’t know that that was pretty normal in an emergency situation. Eventually I just had to leave because I didn’t feel like I had the skills that were necessary to help in that department, in the thick of everything.

The Astrodome was busting at the seams. There was all that stuff on the news about shootings in the Astrodome. Nobody knew what to believe. People in the Astrodome were hearing that and getting freaked out. But everyone was supportive. If people saw your wristband, they’d be like, hey right on! And these were the evacuees, you know. They would ask you if you knew where something was, and thank you for being there, that kind of thing. That was cool.

I tried to go back one other time. It was still really disorganized. After that, I stayed home. I think I slept for like two days. It was a really exhausting experience for me. I have a lot of admiration for my friend’s boyfriend, who was unfazed by the whole thing. He was really helpful to everyone, and it didn’t really seem to take that much out of him.

Telling the Story

I had never really been in a crisis situation before, not like that. I was really affected by it. I tried to tell a couple of people about it, but it wasn’t really enough.

The discrepancy between what I saw at the Astrodome and what I heard on the news really bothered me. I didn’t feel like the news stations concentrated on what the real story was. I realize in hindsight that they were trying to keep everyone positive. I mean, you can’t broadcast what was actually going on there. That disturbed me. I thought people needed to know that these people were in dire straits. That we were being warned to stay out of the Astrodome, just because everyone was so desperate, you know? Everyone was really sick.

One of the times I tried to leave, there was a reporter for FOX News set up in the data entry room of the medical building. This was like a reporter who supposedly has a reputation for “hard-hitting reporting.” And she was set up in the data-entry room, which was like not anywhere near where any of the sick people were. Interviewing volunteers. I was disgusted with that. There were definitely places they weren’t letting media go.

I understand to some extent; you want to protect peoples’ privacy. Those people have been through a lot; you don’t want cameras in their faces. But I was disturbed. No matter what you saw on the news, all you knew was that there were people there. You didn’t really know what was going on.

I needed to write something. I needed to have a witness to all of this for my own personal reasons. So I wrote an email, and sent it out.

I got mixed responses. I got a couple of people who thanked me for my honesty. My friend Andrew sent it to a friend of his, who has an online magazine, and it got published. But I got a lot of negative responses as well. People said that’s not the way that it was. That when they were there, it was very organized. I said send your own letter out that tells everybody how great it was. It was not great for me. I’m not going to pretend like it was. It was not a horrible experience; it was a very trying experience. It was really awful to see people in that much trouble and to know that they had had to go to another state in order to receive help. That really pissed me off.

I felt like I understood the need for being positive about it, but I didn’t feel like I needed to sugarcoat. I did sugarcoat. I didn’t talk about what happened to my friend’s boyfriend, how this woman was like, can you help me, please, [her hands cupped in front of her face] and he’s like, sure! What do you need? And she brought her hands down and she had vomited into them. And didn’t know what to do with it. It’s like, nobody’s going to talk about that shit because it’s disgusting. People don’t want to hear about it. I felt like part of the problem was that people don’t want to hear about it.

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