Shower Duty: One Volunteer's Story of Katrina Relief

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Stacy Parker Le Melle Communications Director for the Afghan Women's Writing Project and Author of 'Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House'

A year ago this week, hundreds of thousands of Americans found ways to contribute to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Before I started interviewing survivors, I volunteered at the George E. Brown Convention Center, which then served as a mega-shelter. I found that despite my best intent, I wasn't always value-added as a volunteer. But I always found myself moved that so many strangers cared so compassionately for one another, as evidenced by what I witnessed all around me, especially those hours I had shower duty.

I wrote this piece because at the time, all we saw on television were scenes of horror: on the streets of New Orleans, on the I-10, and of course, inside and outside the Superdome and the Convention Center. Most everyone I knew around the country, and the world, had their hearts ripped out by these scenes. I wanted to act as eyes and ears, to let people on the outside know that at least at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, TX, evacuees were being treated with care and respect--finally. I wanted to show people closer to home that it was OK to come and volunteer, that they shouldn't be scared off thinking that these shelters were hotbeds of criminality and communicable disease.

I think it's important to acknowledge the times when better angels prevail. That despite all that went wrong in the Katrina aftermath, and continues to go wrong , hundreds of thousands of Americans put their lives on hold to stop and care for those in need.

As you'll see, my story isn't noble. Just one person trying to help. To mixed-results.

For more information about The Katrina Experience, an Oral History Project, please visit

As If Jesus Was Their Supervisor

After spending lunchtime serving Chick-fil-A sandwiches at the Astrodome, in a chow line elbow-to-elbow crowded with volunteers, my friend Ronnetta Fagan and I head to the George R. Brown Convention Center. We have two hours to give. Tonight is our writers' group. We're both workshopped tonight, so there's no blowing it off.

We drive to the volunteer parking lot. Full. We park on the street. As we walk to the volunteer entrance, we see on the building's electronic signs: "FEMA closed today." At the Astrodome, a volunteer told Ronnetta that FEMA was having "computer problems." Ronnetta, being the super sharp attorney that she is, wants to know what happened to good old paper applications (this being an emergency and all).

Luckily, FEMA doesn't run this place. I later learn that State Rep. Rick Noriega is the site manager. That in conjunction with the George R. Brown management, local corporate, church, city government and non-profit staff are running the operation. And of course everywhere you look, there are so many volunteers coming straight off the street--just like us.

No doubt about it: the George R. Brown is different from the Astrodome. Smaller, nicer, more human scale. Before, Ronnetta and I marveled at the Astrodome's pure ugliness: a huge unadorned concrete dome that looked like it was designed to warehouse human beings. The GRB is a modern convention center, glossy, as elegant as a big box can be.

We sign in, show ID. The attendant reads the number off my wristband. I enter the number next to my name. Next, a National Guardsman searches my bag. He sees my camera. He says I can keep it. But if I'm caught taking pictures, they'll confiscate.

A female officer wands me down. I tell them they run a tight ship, that it wasn't like this at the Astrodome. The officer says she heard they didn't have enough security there. I nod and wait for Ronnetta.

We walk to where we're pointed, a dim room marked "Volunteers." Inside, a few rows of chairs. A fridge full of water. A table of food. For a moment we're the only ones, until a middle-aged black woman greets us. She keeps orientation short and sweet: "Be respectful to our guests," she says. She varies on this theme a while longer. I apologize, telling her we only have two hours to give. "That's fine," she says. I believe her. This week, Houston is not short on volunteers.

Another volunteer enters: "They need someone for women's showers."

I tense inside. Ronnetta speaks up, accepting. "But there's two of us," I say, secretly hoping that will disqualify us. But she nods. She doesn't mind.

I've always thought of myself as borderline OCD. I'm the first to wipe down a restaurant's chairs and tabletops before sitting. I'm the first to get weirded-out because a place seems dirty, or to tell my husband that a motel room is unacceptable and we must get a new one. As we wait for further instruction, I think about my mom. "You're doing what???" she'd scream. "Well, there's bathrooms here you can come clean if you want!" No one knows better than her what a reluctant cleaner I was growing up...

And of course, this isn't just any cleaning assignment. The specter of the Superdome, no matter how unwelcome, is never far from my mind. I know there will be no comparison. But right now we're sitting here, and my mind drifts. I always wondered how the showers would be managed. Now I get to find out.

The GRB is a long, tall rectangle divided into five wings. Wing A includes medical, showers, laundry, and National Guard staging. Wings B, C, D, are sleeping/living quarters. Wing E is the shopping area and volunteer check-in. When you walk through B-D, the cot/air bed grid covers two-thirds of the floor space. The other third, closest to the doors, is like a busy airport concourse. Service providers staff multi-table booths. I see Continental Airlines, a lost-relatives station, a check-out desk, among others. There's constant foot traffic. Volunteers, evacuees, staff, police, and National Guardsmen go back and forth, back and forth. With ceilings this high, we can all be in constant motion, but we never fill the space.

A boy slides through the crowd on rollerblades. I'd usually consider him a safety hazard, but now I consider him lucky. He can sure cover ground.

I scan the rows of beds. I see people sitting, talking, walking the paths between beds. Most everyone is black. Though I do see two young Hispanic men, and two young women I presume to be Vietnamese. Perhaps it is the acoustics, perhaps it's the numbness, but everyone seems muted.

When we finally get to Wing A, it's not immediately clear where the showers are. But towards the back we see a long structure, created by pipe and drape. Next to it is the laundry facility. Guests can put their laundry in mesh bags, hand it over, and have it returned to them later. We approach the women's showers. The men's showers are a good twenty yards further down. Before the women's showers entrance sits a well-stocked toiletry table. Every volunteer is friendly, eager to offer guests supplies before they ask. Once guests get what they need, they come inside.

The entrance is a pin-backed curtain. Once past, there's a long row of curtain-created rooms. The rayon colors themselves--blue, purple, and red--have a softness to them, as if they came from a nice playroom. There are several of these rooms. Inside are the showers. We meet our orientators: two gracious women who've been there since 7:00am. One is middle-aged, white, from Houston's Second Baptist church. She wears a yellow "Operation Compassion" t-shirt. The other is older, white, from Ohio (and a Baptist church back home) here in Houston to care for her ailing daughter-in-law. They've spent the entire day cleaning shower stalls, doing so after each use. Now they show us the ropes.

Most curtain-created rooms hold two showers. Some "family" rooms hold four. The showers gleam. Mounted atop low wooden platforms, the white shower stalls look like Home Depot displays. Carpet covers each room floor. Along each curtain stands a table for belongings. I marvel at how clean and orderly and new everything looks.

We go back to the central area, with its big garbage bin, and big plastic bag for used towels. They show us the supply table. Several spray bottles of bleach solution, cleanser, Comet, scrub brushes, paper towels, and shower caps. They show us the handicapped showers. Now they show us how to clean.

1. Take the foot towel and wipe down the shower.

2. Spray down the whole stall with bleach solution.

3. Spray shower curtain.

4. Rub shower curtain together (like this) so the solution gets around.

5. Put the curtain over the rod. This shows the shower is clean and ready.

6. Get a new foot towel, place half over wooden step.

They show us each step with such care and purpose, one would think this is the most important job in the building.

Now, we wait. It's 4:00pm. This is not prime shower time. The showers are open from 6:00am to 11:00pm. Each wing has its own designated times. Overnight, a crew repairs broken shower heads, unclogs drains, replaces the wet carpets.

Two women leave a shower area. Ronnetta and I go to work. We pin back the curtains.

"Wait till I tell Kai," I say, "I barely clean at home." Ronnetta smiles. "I was thinking about Damien too," she says. To my relief, the shower is not visibly dirty. I spray spray spray and off comes the nozzle, sending bleach solution everywhere, dripping down my arm. I wipe down. I spray the curtain, then rub it together. Time to flip it. Bleach solution lands on my head. My first shower is cleaned, but I'm sure that my hair is quickly discoloring.

A child used the next shower I clean, and there's a bit of dirt. I use paper towel, work harder. I flip the curtain. More droplets. Later we joke about our highlights.

Someone left her glasses. Ronnetta takes them to lost and found. I stand and wait with the woman from Ohio, my hands gummy in the plastic gloves. I learn about her daughter-in-law's dialysis, about complications the doctor didn't foresee.

A young black woman enters with four young children and a baby in a stroller. They enter the family shower. Soon, squirrelly children run from between the curtains. A boy rolls from under the curtains, right under our supply table. We tell him nicely, then firmly, that he must go back inside, that this is no place to play. My partner goes to the curtain and gently tells the mother she must keep her children inside. I hear the mother scold the children, but her voice sounds tired. The children stay put.

Somehow, the hall acoustics add to the privacy. I barely hear the showers. I can't really make out conversations. Perhaps the sound floats straight up. There is no steam. Also, for all the shampoos, soaps, and bleach solution, I don't smell much of anything. The woman from Ohio asks me: "Do you think these are really all her kids?" I shrug. Maybe not. Maybe so. "I keep hearing 'Mama, Mama," she says. "Imagine to be here and having to take care of all these kids. I wouldn't want that at all."

Ronnetta returns. No one staffs the "Lost and Found" desk right now.

Two Asian women, one middle-aged, one younger, take a shower area. A few minutes later, three teenaged black girls take the adjacent. The mother and four children depart. Ronnetta and I enter. We stop short. It's not that it's so much dirty, as it is disordered. I take the last stall. I think a child played in this one: there's a bit of tracked-in dirt. I wipe. I spray. I flip. "It's in my eye," I say. A droplet. A small one. But in it went. "It doesn't hurt," I say. "You should rinse it out anyway," says Ronnetta.

After apologizing to the other women for ineptitude, I go back into the main area and grab a can of Deja Blue water from the many stacks. I come back. Over the big garbage bin, I try to rinse my eye. It sort of works. I know what my black eyeliner looks like after I shower: gray shading smeared beneath the eyes. I can only imagine how scary I look now.

While I'm on the disabled list, Ronnetta cleans the other three showers. New recruits come. One of the Second Baptist women "in charge" (there's no real hierarchy, just whose been there longer and knows what to do) shows them the ropes. They all have yellow "Operation Compassion" t-shirts. We talk. One young woman is a 7th grade math teacher at Bellaire's Pershing Middle School. I tell her I taught creative writing at Condit Elementary. We talk about writing and teaching. She claims she can't use the left side of her brain.

The younger of the Asian women leaves the shower. She approaches us. She says the girls next door said: "Are they speaking Chinese?" Then they peeked through the curtain divide. We apologize to her. I conjure my schoolteacher self and walk over to the curtain. "Are there any problems?" I ask. "No, there's no problem," a girl answers. "No problems with the curtains? On the inside? Are you sure?" I ask. "No problems," she says. I go back to the group. "What did you say?" one volunteer asks. I tell them.

I check the time. It's close to five. Close enough.

We leave behind a remarkable team of women. They cleaned showers with such urgency you would think Jesus was their supervisor. I'm sure for most of them he was.

To read oral histories of Katrina survivors, and those who came to their aid, please visit