New Orleans native Charles Stewart sat on the steps of the D.C. Armory this past weekend, smoking a cigarette, wearing a crisp white Redskins jersey and expressing his thanks for being taken in by the District.
“Since I got to D.C., I got the Holy Spirit inside of me. It makes you care about people,” Stewart said. “It’s a natural high, and it feels so good. It’s like a disease and everybody feels good around me.”
Stewart, a 50-year-old retired Louisiana parkway employee, said he was taken to D.C. by “the will of God” in a helicopter days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown. He said he was initially mistaken for a looter by the National Guard in New Orleans until he explained he was holding his belongings and waiting to be rescued. He has been staying at the Armory, the D.C. National Guard’s headquarters next to RFK Stadium in Southeast Washington, for about two weeks.
“I waded through the rain and the water to get to my house, and it was alright. But there was no water, no electricity and the mosquitoes were real bad,” he said. “When they picked me up, I thought we were going to Houston, but the Lord brought me here.”
Anthony Davidowitz, logistics coordinate for the American Red Cross of the National Capital Area, said a lot of the victims staying in the Armory believe they were meant to live in D.C. Others, however, said that they plan to return to their hometowns.
“A lot of people have said that this is the hand of God – he wants us to move here,” Davidowitz said. “Others said that they have families in New Orleans and plan to go back. The Red Cross provides assistance in any way we can.”
Stewart, along with the 170 other Katrina victims being sheltered at the Armory, is receiving all of his necessities from the American Red Cross of the National Capital Area and through donations from local vendors and agencies. Victims staying at the Armory are provided with three meals and snacks throughout the day, cots to sleep on and a debit card through Chevy Chase bank for expenses depending on an evaluation of their needs.
Inside the Armory, stations are set up by local vendors providing medical exams, Social Security aid, free telephone services, mental health evaluations and entertainment. The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation has set up an area where victims can play video games, and has also organized trips for those staying in the Armory to visit D.C.-area sights such as the National Cathedral, the Capitol building and the monuments.
The Red Cross is also working to ensure that those staying at the Armory may not have to go back to the Gulf Coast. To help victims get settled permanently in D.C., sponsors are hosting job fairs and resume-writing classes, and even providing victims with a year of free housing within the city.
Billy Allen, another New Orleans native at the Armory, said this impromptu trip to D.C. was the first time he left his hometown in the 49 years of his life. He’s already been set up with an apartment in Southwest D.C.
“I’ll probably start my new life here,” he said. “Everything in New Orleans is just underwater. I ain’t planning on going back there until they got everything worked out.”
Allen said that he had just finished building his own house in New Orleans before Katrina destroyed it. He was also taken to D.C. by helicopter after he refused to evacuate before the storm hit.
Allen said he couldn’t understand why people would want to return to New Orleans so soon after the disaster. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced last week that parts of the city would reopen over the next week and a half, allowing more than one-third of the city’s half-million inhabitants to return to their homes.
Federal officials have cited health concerns in the New Orleans area that might make Nagin’s plan problematic.
“They don’t know what it’s like down there,” Allen said. “It might be so (expletive) hot that you can’t even stay there.” He plans on staying in D.C. for at least a year under his free housing agreement.
“I lost everything,” he added. “I almost lost my life. It wasn’t a site to see. You wouldn’t want to see that site. I ain’t never been through anything like that before.”
Allen added, however, that since his arrival in D.C., he has had no complaints about his stay and said the Red Cross and other volunteers are “doing a remarkable job helping us out.”
Stewart, who said he has not been provided with D.C. housing yet, said he cannot wait to leave the Armory and live on his own. While he admitted he has become close with several other evacuees, he said a majority of the people in the Armory should have been screened first before they were allowed to live with other people.
“They’ve got a whole lot of crazy people in here,” he said. “One time I was going to the bathroom, and this man was naked, showing all of his private parts, and he should know better. But you don’t want to tell him that because what if he’s really crazy?”
Craig Peel, a 76-year-old man who was basking outside the Armory in his brand new motorized wheelchair provided by an agency in the District, said he has not decided whether he will return to New Orleans once he is allowed back.
“I had to leave my dog back there, and I’m trying to track him down,” Peel said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I don’t get my dog back I will go back to New Orleans to look for her. Otherwise I’ll stay here.”
Peel, taking pictures out of his wallet of his Lhasa apso in her raincoat and Santa Claus outfit, said he considers his dog Sassy to be his only family still alive. He said a private investigator is working on tracking Sassy down and sending her to D.C. There have been “no results as of yet.”
There are about 4,000 Gulf Coast evacuees staying in the D.C. metro area, with a little less than 200 staying at the Armory, said Cameron Ballantyne, spokesman for the National Capital Area Red Cross. The Armory has 403 cots available and can take in more victims.
“I love these people,” Stewart said, referring to a D.C. volunteer and the volunteer’s husband, who let him keep the remainder of a pack of cigarettes. “I like the love here. How can I go back to New Orleans?”