HOUSTON, Texas?I think it first hit me when Shanelle stepped into the 93-degree heat outside the Astro Inn holding Erick in her arms.
Erick was barely a week old. He was born on a Friday?the Friday before Hurricane Katrina drove his mother and so many others from their homes in New Orleans.
The Friday before, the family spent a day in terrible traffic and then slept two nights in their car by the side of the road. They couldn't find any cheap motel rooms.
A sign not too far from us proclaimed the Astro Inn's nightly rate in chipped plastic: $30.77.
Shanelle is 20 years old. Erick is her third child. She smiles down at him. His eyes are closed in an innocent sleep.
Everything Shanelle ever owned drowned in 15 feet of water miles away. Everything is gone. Everything is ugly. But here was her new baby boy. And he is beautiful.
It hit me then that there is no way anyone could do this situation justice. A whole city laid to waste, thousands of people displaced. Hurricane Katrina was just so big.
A few days later I asked a New Orleans woman to tell me her story.
"It's like everybody's story," she said as she sighed and looked around. "All them people has a story too."
She's right. Them people were all around us, walking among 2,000 inflatable mattresses at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where evacuees are doing what they can to put their lives back together and I am trying to do what I can to tell people sleeping on real mattresses tonight something about what that's like.
In moments like this it seems impossible.
"Excuse me, sir, my name's Mónica Guzmán, and I'm a reporter with The Houston Chronicle. I'm working on a story about the evacuees living here in the shelter. Do you have a few minutes?"
He could be on his way to the Red Cross table, or to check if a brother, or daughter, or wife has finally contacted him. Or outside, to stand in a two-hour line in the horrendous sun to register for FEMA. Maybe he's thinking of what he's going to say once he gets to the front. Maybe it's, "I don't know what to do. I've lost everything."
Sometimes they smile at me. Sometimes they don't. In either case, I swear I can see my perfect professional courtesy hang limp in the air between us.
I came to Houston two days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I was supposed to start at the Chronicle as a cops reporter a week later. But when 250,000 people poured into the city looking for help, I was called in early during one of the most hectic weeks the Chronicle newsroom has seen in years.
Pretty soon, I was spending more hours at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center, the second largest shelter housing Katrina's victims, than I had spent at my apartment.
The inflatable beds at the shelter were arranged into neat rows, coded with the names of colors. One man told me he lived "on Red Street" and laughed, pointing to his mattress, covered in donated blankets that didn't match. That mattress and the plastic bags of supplies around it were all the property he could depend on.
It's hard to say what it's like to be in a place like this, doing a job like this. When you're waiting for a source and you exhale and look around, it really hits you. But you're not always thinking of the bigger picture. There are distractions.
Deadlines, for one.
Rules and regulations, for another. The media can't just roam free, I was told, over and over again. Don't go anywhere until you go to the PR office in room 302C and get an escort. And make sure you sign in and out. Where's your press badge?
Oh, right. That. Thing is, I was still just getting used to being called "the media." The third day I came in one PR official called me the "runaway reporter" and was a little wary to let me go to the bathroom by myself. Given time, I behaved.
And let's not forget the celebrities. Bill Cosby, the Florida Marlins, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. They and others came and had their much-photographed moments.
Bill Cosby was a surprise for everybody. I heard his voice booming on the PA system and rushed downstairs to see. A man who saw him said it was great that he was there, "but I just spent nine days underwater." Then he told me he was still looking for his wife, and would I please write her name down? He gave me its spelling, and my heart broke. I had written down so many of those names, and there was only a slim chance any of them would make it in the paper.
Sometimes it's the little kids, the ones too young to understand, who make me and everybody else forget and smile. When everyone trudges, they race. They spin and laugh and sometimes misbehave. They take things in stride, because somebody else is there to do the worrying for them. Though that's not true for all of them.
A large message board covers a part of a wall on the first floor:
"Has anyone seen Christopher?" and "Shaniqua, baby, we're looking for you."
Every day, you hear about tearful reunions. Heartfelt donations. People leaving the shelter to go somewhere real, somewhere private.
But so many tears are still shed in the darkest sadness. I see some people sitting on their mattresses, alone, staring at the floor. I want to know what they're thinking. I want to tell their stories. And when I ask for them, I want them to smile, even if just for a second.
Sunday, September 7, I thought I had seen enough to go back to the newsroom and type up 15 inches on Houston hotel-bound evacuees by the 6:00 p.m. deadline. But then I knocked on room 220 and there was Shannelle with Erick, and inside, two other children, one running around in a diaper still wet from a dip in the outdoor pool. There was a story about hope and loss. Something important. I said goodbye and wished her luck.
Her part of my story was cut before it went to print some days later.
I know there's no way to knock on all the doors. There are thousands. It would take forever. But as the country struggles to make sense of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, I hope we get to enough of them. And I hope that when they open, we pay attention to what's inside.
Mónica Guzmán '05 was Senior Editor of the Orient during the 2004-2005 academic year. She is currently working for Hearst Newspapers and is assigned to The Houston Chronicle where she is a staff reporter.