Storm Troopers

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

He stops talking as Elton Bush and his wife make their way across the hot parking lot on the way back from the nearby Circle K, nervously eyeing the contingent of rifle-toting Bubbas glaring back at them from just inside the chain-link fence.

Welcome to Arizona.


At the Capitol, evacuee Inez Lonzo thanks the people of Arizona for their kindness. "You almost don't want to tell them," says a black volunteer from Phoenix.
Peter Scanlon
At the Capitol, evacuee Inez Lonzo thanks the people of Arizona for their kindness. "You almost don't want to tell them," says a black volunteer from Phoenix.
The love buzz around the fairgrounds is already starting to fade. "People are already getting bills delivered to the Coliseum," says spiritual care provider Rita Story.
Peter Scanlon
The love buzz around the fairgrounds is already starting to fade. "People are already getting bills delivered to the Coliseum," says spiritual care provider Rita Story.

The first few days after the roughly 550 evacuees from the Gulf Coast arrived in Phoenix on Sunday, September 4, the Coliseum was harder for the average person to get into than a Diddy after-party.

All around the west entrance to the cavernous 40-year-old arena, dozens of busy people wearing laminated ID tags hustled between the doors and a long row of trailers as if stocking the backstage area for an all-star awards show.

Authorities began turning down citizen volunteers after the list mushroomed to 1,300 in just two days, but even that didn't stop locals from flocking to the scene to get a glimpse of our personal hurricane victims. Well-meaning families in SUVs stocked with new clothing, toys and underwear grumbled when stopped at the south entrance to the state fairgrounds by signs telling them to take their donations to the Salvation Army headquarters at 27th Street and Van Buren.

For a while, some turned-away compassion junkies took to stopping for a Thirst Buster at the nearby Circle K at 15th Avenue and McDowell Road, angling for a handshake from one of the evacuees walking into the convenience store to buy a can of beer -- the one amenity prohibited anywhere near the Coliseum.

This national love fest was even better than the one following 9/11. Most of those hit by the hijacked jets in the World Trade Center died instantly in the rubble of that attack, leaving a stunned nation to mourn sainted ghosts and warm surviving family members with cards and gifts sent from afar.

The majority of the people hit by Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, lived. And went on tour.

At first, there was a certain rock-star buzz about having more than 500 of the world newsmakers in our own backyard -- a hotter ticket than "American Idols Live."

At the Macayo's restaurants around the Valley, which hired half a dozen cooks, cleaners and waiters at the job fair held on the fairgrounds the first Thursday and Friday, employment supervisor Bob Neckes said fame even followed his newest workers to their job sites.

"Customers want to take pictures with them," Neckes was still saying by their third day on the job. "For the first day, I think it was kind of flattering for them. But now it's almost like they're being harassed. They're being treated like professional athletes."

All too soon, however, their star appearance at the Coliseum begins to look like a limited engagement. Within days it's confirmed that the Arizona State Fair, traditionally held in mid-October, would go on as scheduled, requiring all the evacuees to be placed into other living arrangements by the end of September.

What initially sounded like an inhumane deadline quickly begins to look meetable. By the Friday following the evacuees' arrival, more than 200 people have been placed in some sort of housing and are gone from the Coliseum. In an astounding show of efficiency, the Department of Economic Security and local businesses manage to cut through spools of red tape to find 86 of the evacuees immediate, start-Monday-morning jobs at the job fair.

The way the Governor's Office spins it through the media, our newest residents -- about half of them professing plans to stay here indefinitely -- are finding homes, jobs and happy new beginnings in Phoenix. There's a clear feeling that our good work is nearly done.

On local talk radio, some of the callers are already looking toward Hurricane Ophelia, and wondering if the people along the Carolina coast will be our next evacuees.

"I'm already getting callers saying, 'Enough Katrina,'" says David Leibowitz, the mid-morning man at Newsradio 620 KTAR. "They're saying, 'I've done enough, I've made my donation. Now let's move on.'"

But Leibowitz says he's also been getting calls indicating more than just the usual compassion deficit that typically follows weeks of large-scale do-gooder efforts. Calls that kind of point to another reason much of the city may be getting tired of dropping their coins in the Katrina Fund jars at the drive-through windows.

In the days immediately following the evacuations, a lot of people phoned in outraged over the media's inaccurate use of the word "refugees" when referring to the hurricane victims.

"These are not people from another country," went the jingoistic outcry fueling the initial outpouring of generosity and support. "These are some of our own."

But as the pictures of the displaced hurricane victims begin unfolding in the news media, it soon becomes apparent that the evacuees living in the Coliseum -- primarily black, and primarily poor -- are not so much like "our own" predominantly white, middle-class population after all. News reports of looting on the flooded streets of New Orleans and unpoliced drug use and sexual assault at the city's hellish Superdome only serve to reinforce all the dreaded racial stereotypes.

"We've had an enormous amount of people come out of the woodwork who are savvy enough to talk in code, about the 'socioeconomic situation' brought on by welcoming the people from New Orleans," Leibowitz says. "But then we've had a lot of people who flat-out say we're welcoming criminals. You kind of feel like you kicked over a rock, and out comes bigotry."

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