Storm Troopers

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

There'll be posttraumatic stress disorders, resurfacing problems with drug addiction and substance abuse, and the still-unknown effects of, as Scott puts it, "spending five days in water where dead bodies were floating by, and people had to go to the bathroom in the water."

"What we don't want to have happen," says Charlene Flaherty, of the homelessness division of the Department of Economic Security, "is for these people to wind up becoming part of our homeless population as these issues come to the surface, and people start to fall out of these temporary situations. That would be like being victimized twice."

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."

In the spiritual care chapel inside the Coliseum, accessed by registering as a volunteer, Darren Watson wanders in quietly among the four volunteer clergy members and asks if anyone there could join him in prayer.

Among a large group of evacuees at the Coliseum, the big, barrel-chested Watson is a genuine hero. The night Katrina hit New Orleans, Watson commandeered a truck and gathered up residents in the low-lying Ninth Ward region, taking them to a middle school on higher ground. Before long, there were 225 people packed into the building, and Watson began making trips to nearby stores to gather food to be cooked in the cafeteria.

Had a news photographer caught him, reporters surely would have called his actions looting. But to the 225 hungry people stranded for three days in the abandoned school, Watson feels he was "a shepherd" doing God's work.

Everyone in Watson's schoolhouse shelter was finally helicoptered to the airport and flown to different cities -- some to Phoenix, others to Houston and Baton Rouge. But more than a week after landing in the Coliseum, Watson still has not been able to locate his own two children. He's tried the computers linked to the Red Cross database. Maybe the new communications center set up by Cox outside in trailer 8 might be able to help him.

Despite the turmoil of still not knowing where his son and daughter are, Watson has already secured a four-bedroom house in Glendale for himself and his fiancée, and a job with Allied Construction. "I start tomorrow," he says. "Praise God!" Wilson's fiancée got a job here, too, and he feels positive about starting over in Arizona. "God is awesome," he says. "I've got more than I need."

Across the parking lot from the Coliseum, just outside the big yellow exhibition hall being used for the job fair, New Orleaners Kenneth Willis and his fiance Lisa Scarborough compare notes on the jobs they've just been hired for. Lisa starts a housekeeping job Monday at one of the Valley's Macayo's; Kenneth has something lined up in construction.

"We didn't know we were coming to Phoenix," says Scarborough. "We landed in Houston first. But it looks like we're going to stay."

Willis thinks his fellow evacuees will bring a resilience and drive to their jobs that will inevitably show them to be valuable assets to Phoenix.

"I think what you'll eventually see is the people who stay will have the right mentality for what you want in this city," he says. "You don't want the lazy people, you don't want the drug addicts or the gangstas. But the ones who stay will definitely help the economy, 'cause they'll remember what the city did to help us."

He and Scarborough get up to make the long walk back to the Coliseum, where the couple is still trying to line up housing, "our next major hurdle."

"You'll be getting the good ones," he says, assuredly.

On Tuesday, September 13, election day for downtown's District 8, Opal Ellis sits outside the voting center set up at Pilgrim Rest church handing out fliers encouraging people to vote for her grandson, Jarrett Maupin. (He lost to incumbent Mike Johnson.)

Ellis, who publicly protested discrimination in Phoenix in the 1940s and pushed for the city's MLK holiday in 1984, is one of the names on Jannah Scott's short list of black community leaders the governor would like to have at the Capitol for this Friday's national day of prayer for the Katrina victims, declared by President Bush.

But so far, Ellis says, she hasn't gotten the call. "I have been up to the Coliseum and I've given my name -- whatever that means to them," she says. "Still haven't got in."

Like her headstrong grandson, Ellis hasn't had the patience to attend meeting after meeting just to get credentialed by Scott's network to become a runner.

"I'm not going to keep going to meetings so I can sign up to get some towels, and get some water for these people," she says. "No, uh-uh. These people need love. These children need to be hugged, and they need to be reassured."

Ellis says she's seen the Red Cross volunteers hug the evacuees on the news, but stresses it's just not quite the same.

"I'm not saying that white people can't show love," she says, laughing. "But there's a difference in the hugs. White people don't hug the same as black folk do."

Without trying to, Ellis ends up striking the perfect metaphor for how the evacuees have been handled by both the white and black sectors of the Valley's population.

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