For more than a week now, the Holiday Inn on Virginia Avenue near the airport has been a refuge for hundreds of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.
The lucky ones arrived carrying suitcases; others not as fortunate came with little more than the clothes on their back. They are a disparate bunch, a gumbo of races and backgrounds that emerged, in some cases literally, from the water and wind and havoc that Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast.
Volunteers at the Holiday Inn have taken to calling operations at the hotel "The Parallel Universe." The label is fitting. The order that has evolved from the chaos is due, in almost every respect, not to the government but to efforts put forth by Atlantans, who saw a need and stepped in to fill it. It is grassroots activism at its most basic --and, perhaps for that very reason, its most effective.
Restaurant owners are trucking in meals for free. College students are answering phones and lending sympathetic ears to tales of the government's woeful bureaucracy. Doctors and psychologists are taking time off from their practices to crack backs, examine wounds and counsel evacuees.
Last week, CL sat down with a handful of New Orleans residents who only now are beginning to grasp the scope of what they've lost. Veronica Dendinger hails from the middle-class Gentilly neighborhood. Robert Moffett is from the east side, one of the hardest hit areas of the city. And Bill Champagne lives off St. Charles Avenue, one of the few areas of the city relatively untouched by the water damage. Their stories are in their own words, and were edited for length and clarity.
VERONICA DENDINGER, 67
I live on the 2400 block of Verbena Street. That's been my house for over 40 years. I live alone. My husband passed a few years ago.
My neighbors had said they'd come get me and take me to the Superdome on Sunday, the day before the hurricane. Well, I waited and waited. I said to myself I'd better go get my dogs some water and get 'em some food in their bowls. I have five dogs -- Chuckie, Princess, Pepper, Lucky and Cocoa.
Six o'clock comes. I got the news on. Bob Breck with the weather, Channel 8. He says, "Katrina is gonna be a 5 Category. She's comin' down the mouth of the river. Whoever can get out better get out now, 'cause God help 'em, they won't get out again."
So I dialed 911. She tells me to dial the police department. I call them. They say they can't help me. I called 911 again. She gave me four ambulance numbers. I dialed all four. Nobody can help me. I called Channel 6, Channel 8, the mayor's office. Finally I called the district police station. I asked for a supervisor. I says, "Sir, I've got to get out of my house. Everybody's left me." He says, "Well, I don't think we can come get you." I said, "If you don't get someone over to my goddamned house and pick me up and bring me to the Dome, I've got a big mirror and a lipstick in my hand, and I'm gonna write, 'When you open this door and find me dead, it's the fault of the New Orleans Police Department.' "
He says, "Oh my God, don't do that." He says, "Go wait outside your front door."
My dogs thought I was goin' outside and comin' back in. They were probably lookin' for me to come back. But I didn't.
Oh, the Dome was hell, darlin'. Part of the roof opened and the rain came down on us. The air conditioners burnt. You could hear the wind. You could see the thunder and lightning flashing on the field. They brought us water and this Army food. I lived on peanut butter crackers.
Then the toilets got stopped up. We were walkin' ankle-deep in urine and feces. The stench! I ruined three dresses in those bathrooms. But as bad as it was, I heard the inside of the convention center was worse.
They moved me to a training facility near the Dome on a golf cart. I have a heart condition and diabetes. I had my bag of medicine and my wheelchair. They brought me to the New Orleans airport on Friday on a helicopter. There were hundreds of people. They had stretchers on the floor. They had people on the conveyor belts. They had people sittin' on the escalators. But the bathrooms were great.
The next morning, I wake up and my wheelchair's gone. Then they put me in another helicopter to fly me to Atlanta. We were on stretchers. I had people above me and below me. You ever see a side of beef hangin' in a refrigerator? That's how I felt. The air conditioning was dripping on me.
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