Storm Troopers

Black people calling Phoenix the promised land? The Katrina evacuees in the Valley haven't been getting out enough

Elton Bush loves Arizona.

He's not too fond of his ironic namesake, the president, for taking his time mobilizing the guard while Elton and his wife waited for a helicopter on the interstate for three days. He's also not too happy with the mayor of New Orleans, for not having done enough to prevent his city from getting into that much of a mess in the first place.

"We were sitting on the bridge for three nights, man. Sleeping on concrete, no cover. They give us water, but as far as food, we didn't have nothing to eat for three days."

Red Cross volunteer Mary Angulo-Cordova hugs Katrina evacuee Inez Lonzo.
Peter Scanlon
Red Cross volunteer Mary Angulo-Cordova hugs Katrina evacuee Inez Lonzo.
Jannah Scott (right) at the Arizona Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the State Capitol: "We need to keep an eye on what's happening with the folks."
Peter Scanlon
Jannah Scott (right) at the Arizona Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the State Capitol: "We need to keep an eye on what's happening with the folks."

But Elton Bush loves Arizona. It's the dominant feeling around 1826 West McDowell Road, the address of the Arizona Veterans' Memorial Coliseum and the temporary address, still, for approximately 76 (as of Sunday evening) displaced Hurricane Katrina evacuees, mostly from New Orleans.

The first two days, one state official says, the original population of 550 seemed "amazingly quiet." On the cots spread out around the Phoenix Suns' old stomping grounds and sitting along the long cafeteria tables set up in the busy outer ring of the arena, volunteers say most of the people just sat around in shock.

The first emotion to show was gratitude. The first common character trait: resilience.

Jannah Scott, the freshly appointed policy adviser to Governor Janet Napolitano on faith and community initiatives and the woman in charge of a team of spiritual care providers at the Coliseum, told a gathering of local religious leaders at a nearby church six days after their arrival: "Our people from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are some of the most resilient people that we will ever meet." She marveled, "Some of them had to push bodies aside to get through the water. And yet they can still find joy. They're smiling. Telling us, 'Thank you.'"

Like most of the evacuees, Elton Bush doesn't blame God, even though His name is listed on his insurance forms, after a checked box and the words "act of."

"Most of them don't blame God for what happened," says Warren Robertson, a minister and volunteer on Scott's team who's been working in the spiritual care chapel, set up in a small room inside the Coliseum between the makeshift pharmacy and the Post-it-filled message board.

"As a matter of fact, most of them feel God brought them here. With a lot of these people," says Robertson, who was born and raised in New Orleans and now lives in the Valley, "you're looking at maybe fourth-generation welfare. But there's no way to escape. It's like the people that had no car to get out of the hurricane. They get locked in, they think there's nothing any better for them. A lot of them say that: 'I was in a situation that I'd have never left. And it's just washed me out to a promised land.'"

A promised land? Phoenix?

It's a brand-new curiosity: black people who don't think Phoenix sucks.

Forget Ev Mecham and the pickaninnies. Forget that Public Enemy song.

Bishop Alexis Thomas, the youthful, charismatic leader of the Pilgrim Rest church at 14th Street and Jefferson, a center for much of the black community here, was so excited after seeing all the positive energy at the Coliseum, he told the hundreds attending his Sunday service, "All that bad stuff people ever said about Phoenix? It's all turning around now! All that Martin Luther King holiday stuff? It's gone!"

But the Katrina evacuees still at the Coliseum haven't been getting around much yet. When the black volunteers, like Homer Washington, who's lived here all his life, hear the new people talking about how wonderful all the people of Arizona are, he has to bite his tongue.

"You almost don't want to tell them," he says, smiling.

Ready or not, just six days after their arrival, a little bit of the unseen Arizona comes to the Coliseum.

On the south end of the parking lot, behind a chain-link fence and a sign reading "No Loaded Guns Inside," a sizable segment of the Valley's population that the evacuees haven't yet seen begins gathering for the "Crossroads of the West Gun Show," kicking off its weekend run as scheduled.

Inside the sprawling, corrugated-steel exhibition hall, the almost exclusively white crowd mills around the booths clutching rifles, clips and mags and picking up bumper stickers proclaiming "100% Redneck" and "Bubba University." At a far end of the hall, a pair of young men with closely shaved heads snicker while pointing at a tee shirt for sale depicting a cartoon image of three Klansmen surrounded by the words "The Original Boys in the Hood." One dares the other to buy it and wear it over to the Coliseum.

Out by the entrance, a man seeking signers for a petition to put NRA supporter John Greene on the gubernatorial ballot says he's been hearing comments all morning about the city's new residents taking refuge just across the parking lot.

"I heard some people say, 'Thank God, they've got armed cops around that place!'" he says, trying not to smile.

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