Katrina sends group on 500-mile odyssey
HOUSTON -- They're out there.
The shooters, the choppers, the looters, the lines, the foul water and the bodies. Especially the bodies.
"But we're in here," says Victor Fruge.
Others -- hundreds of thousands of them -- had also escaped from New Orleans. But few could match the extraordinary, even miraculous odyssey of Fruge and his comrades -- 16 mentally ill men and recovering addicts, cast out of their group home, Abstract House, by the storm.
For a week the men stuck together through Hurricane Katrina and its rising waters, following a survival instinct like a candle in the dark and gamely caring for each other as they traveled unsupervised for nearly 500 miles. They arrived at dawn in Houston, a sprawling and unfamiliar city among the thousands of hurricane refugees who have made the exodus to Texas, but without a friend in sight.
Along the way they ate and slept in at least four different shelters and caught rides on four different means of transport, always clutching the psychotropic medications that keep their imaginary devils at arm's length while the real world around them sunk into a deeper hell.
"You don't see that a lot in this business," says Dr. Sara Allison, a psychiatrist who treated the men during their first night in the Astrodome and has been checking on them daily since then. "But there were a lot of things in this [emergency] that you don't see a lot of."
Hollywood screenwriters might be tempted to pitch this remarkable journey as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" meets "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." But these guys don't quite fit the stereotype.
They are not inmates. While they might be delusional, largely toothless and at times hilarious, they are not really rebellious. Wearing scraps of donated clothing, the men range in age from 30 to 70. Several are quiet -- Leonard, for one, didn't speak for 12 days after the storm.
For these men who are schizophrenic, bipolar, severely depressed, obsessive-compulsive and shellshocked from war -- often simultaneously -- Hurricane Katrina and its agonizing aftermath have forced them to function as a family, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
"We look out for each other," says Raymond Jean Pierre, who everybody agrees is the oldest.
"We stick together," says Patrick Pitchford, whose tattoos crawl down both arms like psychedelic shirt sleeves. "If one person had to go to the bathroom, we all go'd to the bathroom."
"We haven't killed each other," says Ray Brown.
Their illnesses aren't unique. Far from it.
Emergency officials say 4,300 people have sought mental health counseling and 14 people have been hospitalized for psychiatric needs. Some 40 recovering heroin addicts have enrolled in methadone clinics.
The mental health systems of Houston and Harris County already were stretched to serve more than 125,000 patients; getting an appointment can take three months. Psychiatric beds in hospitals have been cut by more than 50 percent in recent years. Texas ranks 48th in per capita spending on mental health.
For now, the men are living in a group home in southwest Houston. If it's not the Ritz, it's warm, clean and safe. There's a regular schedule of 12-step meetings. It's down the road from a bowling alley and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But it's not New Orleans. About the only thing that reminds them of their bawdy, zany hometown is a Chinese woman with maroon hair slumped at the next table.
Over and over, she sings the Tennessee Waltz.
"I was dancin' with my darlin'...."
They kill time in a haze of prescriptions and tobacco smoke. In important ways Katrina has changed everything for the 16 men from Abstract House.
In other ways, almost nothing.
Ray Brown: "There's no TV in our rooms. And this morning somebody hid the coffee."
Mike Campos: "Nobody hid the coffee. It was downstairs. Everybody knows that."
Victor Fruge: "We had breakfast. And we smoked."
Their odyssey began with the rest of New Orleans' poor. They knew the hurricane was coming, but had no cars in which to make their escape and no place to go anyway.
On Sunday morning, the Abstract House caretakers hustled a total of 16 residents -- and Mike Campos, a former resident who was visiting for the weekend -- into vans headed for the Superdome, about a mile away. The caretakers drove a few of their neediest residents to Baton Rouge, about 80 miles away.
Abstract's director, Barrie Byrnes, explains over a poor cell phone connection that she was following instructions from city officials. She describes Abstract House as "a big, dysfunctional family that is more fun than a barrel of monkeys."
"When this storm got in the Gulf, we started calling and calling," she said. "But they never was able to effectuate any kind of evacuation plan. We were told the dome would be for special needs."
The men initially were excited to be on their own, but grew increasingly agitated. Stress and disruption are as threatening to psychotics as the winds that peeled the Superdome's roof like an orange. Once inside, they barricaded themselves behind privacy curtains and packing crates.
Some paced. Others mumbled and tugged at their hair. The darkened stadium grew unbearably hot. It echoed with wailing and gunshots as predators rampaged and the stinking floodwaters rose. Nobody came.
The Abstract's newest resident, a guy named Donald, bolted.
Ray: "He walked into the storm. He's probably dead."
Victor: "He had no place to go except maybe Johnnie White's."
Patrick: "I heard Johnny White's didn't close a'tall," eliciting applause for the infamous Bourbon Street saloon.
So they were 16. Victor doled out the next round of medications.
Haldol, Seroquel, Depakote, Zoloft, Cogentin, Xanax, Paxil, Cibalith. And about a dozen more.
"I'm in charge of the medications because of my street knowledge," he explains, "That, and my mother was trained to be a nurse. Some of these guys need their pills four times a day."
Ray: "You did it all. You did it all."
Vic: "Get up and take a walk. I'm talking."
Ray: "Shut up. Shut up."
On Wednesday, they made a break for the adjacent New Orleans Arena after hearing conditions were better. They weren't. People there were tying plastic bags on their feet to slosh through pools of urine.
On Thursday, they edged their way outside. A National Guard truck chugged them through the filthy floodwaters and onto the cloverleaf where Interstate 10 meets the Causeway. They joined a crowd that stretched forever on the concrete highway ramp and waited for hours in the sun.
People dropped beside them, while the helicopters disgorged more of the dazed and dirty. Victor distributed the 9 p.m. meds early.
When the first evacuation buses arrived, the men were caught in the desperate pushing and shoving. Unlike the characters in "Cuckoo's Nest," they sought authority figures for protection. Victor: "I showed a soldier my red wristband."
Ray: "Yeah, you did it. The whole thing."
Mike: "I talked to Ken Curley. He's a state trooper."
Ray: "Fine, Fine, Fine."
The bus headed northwest toward Baton Rouge, and the men thought they would be reunited with Miss Byrnes. Instead, it veered 270 miles to Fort Polk, a large Army base in west Louisiana. They waited for two hours outside the locked gates until soldiers turned the bus away.
To ease the tension, Ray Brown broke out the last stash of crackers, jalapeno cheese and hard candies. They sneaked to the back of the bus and smoked in the toilet.
By now it was nearly midnight. Rolled southwest through the dark piney woods, the men began to grow afraid again.
"I want to go back to the Abstract"
"When are we going home?"
"Get your hands off me."
Richard rocked faster in his seat. James started getting paranoid. Bruce, who has lived at the Abstract for 20 years, was hearing voices.
Ray: "That's nothing. He also thinks he's a pregnant woman."
Mike: "And that he has wires coming out his mouth. I just reach over and make like I'm pluckin' them."
Victor: "They needed more meds. But we was low."
After another 200 miles, the bus pulled up to the Astrodome. The men showered for the first time in six days and ate. They circled their cots again, then looked for help.
"Vic came up to us at the medical triage center and said there were 16 mental patients in a group," recalls psychiatrist Allison. "We asked him if he was their caretaker. He said, 'No, I'm one of the patients!"'
Doctors donned backpacks filled with first aid gear and medications and fanned out in "sweeper units."
"When we found them they were very anxious," said Dr. George Santos, executive medical director of West Oaks Hospital. "We needed to get them stabilized."
"One of the guys ran off in the 'dome and we had to go find him. Another guy was a vet having a post-traumatic episode. He said wading in water up to his chest and seeing floating bodies gave him Vietnam flashbacks."
Three of the men -- Bruce, Richard and James -- were hospitalized. The others were re-medicated and spent Saturday night in another group home. On Sunday, Allison relocated them to Liberty Island, a group home in southwest Houston. It operates in a converted hotel.
Liberty's 209 beds already were full. The center's imposing director, Aretha Johnson, set up temporary beds onto the floor of the gymnasium while she rushed to finish renovating eight rooms that had been taken out of service. The men will share them.
She advanced them $100 apiece. She ordered air conditioners, televisions and bedding for their rooms -- purchases that would've been made later this year. Registering the men, finding them clothes, scheduling their medications and coaching them through the refugee benefits process has required many hours of staff overtime.
And that's not counting the new roof and refurbishments her 20-year-old facility needs.
In New Orleans, the men paid their Abstract House caretakers $400 a month. Liberty Island will cost at least $600 a month, in part because it is a more structured environment. It's unclear whether FEMA or another government agency will subsidize their stay, in addition to the men's disability benefits.
"I have $12 left in my budget," Johnson sighs, smiling down at a young man wobbling on the stumps of his amputated legs toward the vending machines. She fumbles in her waist pack for the cell phone that always seems to be ringing, and a crowd of residents engulfs her.
"Miss Aretha, all I need is a bandanna. Do you know what a bandanna is?" pleads Abstract resident Douglass Heidelberg.
"Miss Aretha, Robert said he was going to steal my stuff. That's wrong!" cries a young man who wears thick eyeglasses and bites his nails.
"My friend stole my sweetheart from me...." the Chinese woman sings.
The Social Security Administration office is only a 10-minute van ride from Liberty Island, but it takes all morning to organize the Abstract 16 for the trip. They are greeted by twin lines of Louisiana refugees that coil around the corridor like a weird new DNA strand.
Victor cruises. A lanky black man with a neatly trimmed beard, he could pass for a campus professor in his leather driving cap. That is, if you ignore the rest of his attire: a tattered baseball jersey and denim shorts pulled over red sweat pants in the 98-degree heat.
"Hey, Sugar, you from New Orleans, too?" he greets a woman in a halter-top, draping his arm around her shoulder and playing with her hair.
"You're the third man I've met in this line," she giggles.
"I hope you ain't been givin' your number to all of them," he says, carefully recording her cell phone number on his benefits paperwork.
It takes hours, but they leave the SSA with replacement checks or direct deposits to new accounts that Miss Aretha has opened for them.
All, that is, except for Marc Tanzini. The 9-digit number he recites to the claims officer doesn't open his file in the computer. Several of his Abstract brethren lean their heads into the cubicle and reach for her phone and her pens. She looks as if she wants to throw herself out the window.
Clerk: "Can you tell me your birthday?"
Marc: "De-December 25. (Pause)... 1979.
Clerk: "How old are you?"
Marc: "I'm 19, about 19."
Vic: There's more than one way to skin a barbed wire fence.
With money in their pockets, the Abstract 16 walk down the shoulder of Boone Road every day to buy fast food and cigarettes. It won't be long before temptation finds them. Some say they may look for a bottle. Others have been known to smoke a rock of crack cocaine.
Despite New Orleans' decadent reputation, the warm sense of belonging they felt at the Abstract compelled the men to stay clean. For the most part.
Liberty Island's rules may be stricter, but some of the men begin lapsing. Uncontrollable laughter is one sign. Arguments escalate. Miss Aretha is on the phone with the psychiatrists arranging treatment options.
"They made it," said psychiatrist Santos. "They managed the situation without overreacting. It's not reasonable to expect them to be symptom-free now."
What's next for the Abstract 16? It's the same question dogging more than 1 million Gulf Coast residents now scattered from Utah to Cape Cod in the greatest American diaspora since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or even the Civil War.
Will they return to languid, delicious, sexy New Orleans, where life on a good day feels like you're high? What will it be like then? Some of the men think they know.
Ray: "Coming down off crack is like the worst depression. The worst."
Victor: "I'm no crack addict. I'm a heroin addict."
Mike: "God made crack addicts so heroin addicts would have someone to make fun of."
Will they even stay together? The idea that Hurricane Katrina could break up this misfit family long after the winds died and the floodwaters recede ignites fear in the men's eyes.
Old Raymond likes it here. Gerald thinks he might want an apartment. Douglass is wearing his bandanna as a belt.
Liberty Island's door is open. Nobody could stop them.
Victor: "How long we been gone?"
Mike: "Seems like a month."
Ray: "If somebody can't take their own medications, you can't let them go."
Patrick: "I got family in Texas. They know I'm alive. That's good enough."
The Chinese woman starts singing again. "I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz. Now I know just how much I have lost..."