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After the Flood

An evacuee rests among donated clothes at Reunion Arena.
Steve Satterwhite

For Judge Margaret Keliher and other volunteers, theres little calm after the storm

The calm surprises, even overwhelms. You expect, when the elevator doors slide open, to be greeted by chaos--the sight of dozens of people scurrying about, poring over plans, shouting into cell phones, begging for help. You expect to see the alphabet soup of forces bracing for the onslaught of evacuees heading from New Orleans to Dallas, representatives from the TOHS (Texas Office of Homeland Security), GDEM (Governor's Department of Emergency Management), FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) and on and on. But they are not here, on the second floor of the old School Book Depository, which houses the offices of the Dallas County Commissioners. Barely anyone is here at all, and those who do remain at 2 p.m. Friday are counting the seconds till their three-day holiday.

Until as late as Thursday afternoon, Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher and her tiny staff likewise believed theirs would be a peaceful weekend. At 2:15 p.m., the judge was discussing county employee benefits when her executive secretary interrupted with the message that Governor Rick Perry was coming to town in 45 minutes so he could see the first wave of evacuees coming to Dallas from New Orleans.

For an hour Keliher and Perry toured the floor of Reunion Arena, which had been lined with hundreds of cots for the sick, the displaced and the desperate. With camera crews in tow, the governor shook hands with some of the folks; it made for good TV as he welcomed them to Texas and as they thanked him and blessed the fine people of his great state for feeding and sheltering them. Then the cameras left, and Perry pulled Keliher aside. He told her only that this was but the beginning, and he needed to know what Dallas, the city and county, could handle.

Keliher returned to her office at 4:15 p.m. and rounded up the four county commissioners, wanting to know what they thought the county could deal with. A few minutes later, she had her answer: Jack Colley, the state coordinator for the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, called Keliher and told her to expect between 20,000 and 25,000 evacuees. Keliher kept to herself what she was thinking: Twenty-five thousand people is a whole lot of people to find housing and food for, especially when those 25,000 people have absolutely nothing.

To Colley she said only, "I'll deal with it. We'll handle it."

And for the next three days, that's all she does--deal with it, handle it, without complaint. Her counterparts in Dallas' city government will not be able to say the same. Though the city would end up providing the two largest shelters--Reunion Arena, which held some 1,000 people, and the Dallas Convention Center, an asylum for about 6,000--Mayor Laura Miller, City Manager Mary Suhm and Dallas Chief of Police David Kunkle grouse in print and on television throughout the weekend about how Dallas is being expected to absorb too many too quickly. Theirs becomes a message of impending disaster.

Miller demands to know why Dallas, along with Houston and San Antonio, has been ordered to take in 25,000 when other cities had to deal with far fewer. Suhm frets about the cost of housing and treating thousands of poor, homeless people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Kunkle warns of angry people floating in from a vicious city.

If Keliher feels as they do, she keeps such thoughts to herself. Over the course of the next four days she never tells her counterparts at the city that Dallas County is closed to people in need--even when, on Friday afternoon, Suhm reduces the number the city could handle from 12,500 to about 7,500 at the convention center and Reunion Arena. Not once does she demand help from the federal government, which would not show up till Monday. Nor does she ever tell state officials, We've done our part, enough already.

Instead, she works the phones like a telemarketer on commission. From Thursday evening till Friday afternoon, she is on her cell with mayors and county judges from across the region trying to gauge how many people they could take, no matter how small the number. On Thursday afternoon, she tells the county commissioners--John Wiley Price, Kenneth Mayfield, Maureen Dickey and Mike Cantrell--to talk to city officials in their districts and find out what their capacities are. Then she goes to City Hall to meet with Suhm and Miller, who insist the city will take no more than half of the 25,000.

Come Friday, Keliher finds out the city has overestimated the number of people it can--or will--take at the convention center. Dressed in a short-sleeved black knit shirt bearing the yellow county seal, a pair of faded Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, the judge calls a meeting with county officials, including Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Allen Clemson, the commissioners court administrator, suggests moving prisoners out of the Decker Detention Center on Stemmons Freeway and into the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building. After all, Clemson says, "Decker used to be a hotel," referring to its long-gone days as the Cabana Motor Hotel, where the Beatles stayed in September 1964 and where Raquel Welch once worked as a cocktail waitress.

 

"Now," Clemson says, standing in Keliher's brick-walled office, "how can we make it a little less jailish?"

At 3 p.m. Friday, Keliher learns that 60 buses, carrying about 40 people each, are en route to Dallas. They are being stopped in Mesquite, at the old Big Town Mall, where folks are being cleaned and stripped of their weapons and alcohol. Keliher says she has commitments from Tarrant County to take 4,000 evacuees and from Collin County to take 2,000 more. Over the phone Keliher tells Judge Ron Harris, her Collin County counterpart, "You've really stepped up here."

Her phone does not stop ringing. The head of the Sheriff's Reserve calls, informing the judge they have been activated and are ready when necessary. She tells him to be at the convention center at 8 p.m. Then Jeff Fagan, the director at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, calls to offer space--perhaps an empty terminal or hangar, whatever he can spare. She thanks him and says she will let him know.

Keliher and Clemson, desperate for any free space, walk across the street to check out the old Dallas County Jail, which once housed Jack Ruby and has been closed for several years. It's in rough shape, but workable. "It's better than being homeless," Keliher tells Clemson, who assures her jail inmates can come over immediately and clean the place up.

"Maybe we can keep families in bigger cells, sort them that way," Keliher says. "I'm not saying this is the best way to live..."

"But this is a difficult, unusual time," Clemson says.

When she returns to the office, just after 4 p.m., Suhm calls with the news that some buses are going to Corpus Christi, which is just as well, since Reunion Arena is full and the convention center is not yet open. Five buses have also just left Mesquite and are headed for Tarrant County.

"That's good," Keliher says, relieved for the moment. She wants to go to Reunion Arena, where she is overwhelmed by the lines of buses in the parking lot and masses of people huddled out front.

"Gosh, can you imagine getting off that bus with nothing and having nothing?" she says, to no one in particular. "I can't imagine it."

"At least they have air-conditioning," says Bob Johnston, one of Keliher's executive assistants, who is driving.

"At least they're safe," Keliher says.

In the parking lot, Keliher runs into Ann Lott, executive director of the Dallas Housing Authority, who tells the judge she's already found housing for 40 people. Keliher smiles, gives Lott a hug and makes her way toward the arena. Outside, she sees a small child, no older than 4 and without a shirt, baking in the sun. She reaches down, puts her hand on his head and tells him, "Hey, guy." He smiles back, but only for a moment.

Keliher walks around to check out the tent staffed by Parkland Hospital doctors and nurses; she wants to make sure her people are doing their part. She turns to enter the arena, and inside she finds Red Cross volunteers, Dallas cops and troops from the Texas State Guard and asks how it's going; they tell her all's well. She's overwhelmed by the sight of so many with so little sleeping on cots on the arena floor, and she is equally impressed with the volunteers doling out water, snacks and other essentials. She stands for a moment and stares at the bulletin board thick with sheets of paper, each covered with the scrawls of family members looking for lost kin.

Of the scene here, and later at the convention center and the Decker Detention Center, she will say, "It's heartwarming and heart-wrenching, all at once."

On the way over to the convention center, which she believes has yet to open, Keliher spots in the distance a large group of people walking through downtown. When she gets closer, she realizes it's simply a group of teenage tourists. "Thank goodness," she says, before calling Laura Miller on her cell to see if the mayor needs any assistance at the convention center. Keliher also asks Miller if she will be on the 6 p.m. conference call with Jack Colley and other local officials. Miller was unaware of the call, just as she was unaware of Perry's visit the day before, which will lead some to speculate that Miller has appeared unhappy with Dallas' involvement in the housing of evacuees simply because she feels she's been left out of the loop.

 

The convention center has opened earlier than expected; already buses are coming in and unloading folks, who begin emptying out their meager belongings on hundreds of long white tables that, in a few hours, will be replaced by thousands of cots. Two days later, one of the dozens of doctors working the convention center will tell Keliher that on the very first bus, a 6-month-old was taken off without its mother, who died en route to Houston.

On the way back to her office, Keliher gets a message on her BlackBerry: A bus coming to Dallas has overturned, and one person aboard has died. "Oh, my God," she mutters. She then gets a call from a Denton County official who wants to know why Mayor Miller's on TV blasting Denton for not taking any evacuees, when the Denton officials were still trying to figure out how many they would take. (It turned out to be 380.)

Back at the office, Keliher runs into John Wiley Price, who earlier had informed county employees to use the word "evacuees," not "refugees." He tells her he had to go on black radio to "get in front of the story" that people were being "searched and sterilized" at Big Town in Mesquite. He worries his folks will not take kindly to the image.

After the conference call, Keliher stresses to Clemson that Decker will be needed perhaps as early as Saturday morning. He tells her it will be ready by midnight. She then takes a call from a Wal-Mart executive who is delivering truckloads of personal hygiene products at Crowley; then another call from a Denton official; then another and another. Throughout them all, Keliher stands behind her old, ornate wood desk, holding her phone with her left hand while her right is perched on her hip. She looks a little like an Old West gunslinger.

She will come to realize there is no plan to the evacuation of New Orleans, that it's a "disorganized exodus." This will be Keliher's life for the next several days and perhaps even weeks--getting housing and medical care for those who need it, getting bus tickets for those who have jobs and family waiting elsewhere and trying to figure out just what the long-term economic impact so many new thousands will have on the city and county.

"You can look at it as being a drag on your community, or you can look at it as having some additional people who can come in and contribute to your community," she says during a moment's rest Friday evening. "In reality, the hardest part is going to be after the first two or three weeks. People will step up now, but then the horror will subside and then we'll really need some community help. What are we going to do long term?"

She doesn't yet know the answer and doesn't need to for the moment. Hers are now days spent going from one facility to another, from Big Town to the convention center to Decker. At the convention center Sunday, where officials estimate 1,800 to 6,000 people spent Saturday night, Keliher learns that doctors have been spending much of their time treating the infected feet of people who spent days walking barefoot in wastewater full of broken glass. She's amazed by the medical facilities and pharmacy, awed by the line of volunteers that stretch out the door and perhaps a little overwhelmed by the gung-ho attitude of Dr. Ray Fowler, a UT-Southwestern assistant professor of surgery who's in charge of medical operations at the convention center.

The first thing Fowler says to Keliher is a line from the movie Patton, one George C. Scott delivers just before going into battle: "I've always felt that I was destined for some great achievement, what, I don't know. The last great opportunity of a lifetime--an entire world at war--and I'm left out of it? God will not permit this to happen. I will be allowed to fulfill my destiny. His will be done." The man clearly takes great pride in his work.

A little later, Keliher mentions the impression Fowler made. She turns to Clemson and asks him, "Isn't that your attitude: I can handle this?"

"The whole community has responded like that," he says.

By Sunday afternoon, they figure Dallas and the neighboring counties wound up with some 15,000 people before the governor's office began diverting them to other cities and states. "It's just not that many people," Clemson says. They're already trying to figure out how to shuffle people around, perhaps taking families out of Reunion or the convention center and putting them in Decker, where they can be together and have some privacy.

 

At Decker, there's a giveaway general store set up by Wal-Mart and staffed by Edna Pemberton and other folks from Oak Cliff's Concord Missionary Baptist Church. Sheriff's deputies take Keliher into the mess hall, where there's chicken and polenta and steamed vegetables enough to feed the 500 people housed in the facility; they inform the judge that Sheriff Valdez commandeered it herself from the convention center and brought it back to Decker.

Keliher and Clemson take an elevator to meet a family of 25--the youngest is 2, the oldest is 60--living on the 10th floor, which a sheriff's deputy reminds is where the Beatles stayed. Though the place is squalid by most standards, a decaying jail that's been opened and closed often in the last few years because of budget cuts, the children are pleased to be together, safe and well cared for, especially after having spent two days penned up outside the Superdome. Only after Keliher leaves the room do they discover she's the very person who helped turn this jail back into a hotel for God knows how long. And a 4-year-old boy sitting on a thin mattress says only, "That's a very nice lady. --Robert Wilonsky

Still Living

What's it like to lose everything you own in a devastating flood? We can't imagine, so like most media, we spent a chunk of last week talking to Hurricane Katrina evacuees gathered at Dallas shelters. Here are some of their stories:

The Lee family are amazingly positive, despite their current situation. Anthony Lee is a 48-year-old truck driver from New Orleans. Four months ago his rig rolled over, crushing his left leg. He's been through two surgeries since then, and now he faces a seemingly insurmountable task--starting over from scratch in Dallas. Members of their extended family left Kenner, Louisiana, on Saturday night, with his wife behind the wheel of their car the whole trip. Shundrae Lee, a 25-year-old medical assistant, is impressed with the outpouring of support from the many Dallas residents who have reached out to help. "There are 14 of us in a one-bedroom apartment right now. I lost my ID, everything I own. We've been given emergency food stamps and a place to stay, and a local reporter from a TV station actually hired a P.I. to look for our missing family members. My mother stayed at our house in New Orleans. She just said that she was putting it in God's hands. We're all praying for her."

Sherrell Russell, Mildred R. Mays and Josephine Smith arrived in Dallas on Thursday night. After registering with the Red Cross at Reunion Arena, they began to assess their immediate future. "It took us three days to get here, and we didn't even really know where we going," said Russell. "We're out of touch with so many people right now; Josephine is missing her 4 daughters, her sister, all of her nieces and nephews...we don't even know where to start to look for them." Smith is missing her grandmother, Mary-Louise Russell. "She tried to ride out the storm, you know...she just said that it was God's will."

"There was a lot of looting in Kenner, where we're from," says Pamela Alvarez, a 17-year-old high school student. "When we go home we expect about six or seven feet of water in our house...My grandma lives in New Orleans, and we saw my uncle on TV with his dog on the roof. It was horrible seeing our family up there on television. Nothing matters, we just want to see our family. Everything else is material."

"The Superdome was horrible," says Yolanda Gibson, 42, who lived in Uptown New Orleans and is now staying at Reunion Arena. "People were being shot, murdered. Girls was being raped. I saw bodies in the water. It was just sad...I don't know where my family is. We were trying to wait it out, because I had no choice but to stay. I had no way out. We heard on the news to come to the convention center and we waited there a couple of days for the bus to come. We thought this one man was sitting up in his chair sleeping, but he was dead. So they took the body and put it in a cooler. My daughter is a deputy sheriff in New Orleans, and she brought her sisters and their fiancés and the grandbabies to the jail, but it flooded. I don't know where they are. I just want to find them."

 

"All of us that came here are scared but we had to monitor ourselves because we couldn't afford to fall apart in front of the children," says Gosephine Young, 52, from the West Bank. "We just pray that those left behind got out. I can't foresee New Orleans ever being the same. My hope just ran out when I saw what happened [at the Superdome] on the news. Just ran out. Thousands of people. Where do they go? I'm still looking for my brother and my sister and three nieces. People in Dallas are doing what they can, but we got to pray for the people left behind."

"I used to hang out downtown in Jackson Square," says Ron Reeves, 29. "I knew everybody on the streets of New Orleans. My buddies all said, 'We're going to weather the storm,' but when it came down to it, nobody stayed but me. I was out there. I got a few injuries, debris was flying all around and hit me in my eye. You got to walk all hunched over. Those big USA Today newspaper stands were just flying everywhere. Two-hundred-year-old trees would just snap like twigs. I dialed 911 from a pay phone when the water was up to my knees. Just kept dialing. But nobody answered. That's when I thought, oh no, even the police can't help me now. I went to the Superdome. At first everyone was all cool. We had some water, we were all nonchalant. We were under the impression we were going to get housing and buses to take us out. Then the first bathroom clogged. And urine creates this ammonia smell that you just can't stand, so people started using other parts of the Superdome to go to the bathroom. Then somebody brought in some liquor from looting, and people got out of hand. They got babies lying here and babies lying there and people just getting out of hand. The tension was so high. My friend, an older black lady who was a street musician, I know she was raped and murdered. She's gone. But I weathered it out. On the bus here, you could just feel a sigh of relief from everybody. We thought, we don't know where we're going, we're just leaving here. I'm with my friend, and we're not going to go back to New Orleans. We're going to L.A. " --Andrea Grimes and Jeff Liles

Wrist Slap

A Dallas County jury recently found a former University of Texas at Dallas student guilty of aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon. For that crime, the jury gave Prathap Rajamani 10 years probation and a $10,000 fine.

"Disbelief," was how Brian Corrigan, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, described his reaction to the sentence. "If the victim was one of their daughters, they would have a hard time convincing me that they would have made the same decision."

Richard Pruitt, who served on the jury, said the decision was appropriate.

"There were four women on the jury, who all had daughters. I have a daughter," said Pruitt, a professional photographer. "It's just there were so many things the prosecution didn't give us that we would like to have."

UTD police arrested Rajamani in November. He confessed to using chloroform to drug and anally rape a fellow student at UTD's Waterview Apartments, the nation's largest private dorm. In an April 28 story headlined "The Dorm from Hell," the Dallas Observer reported that life at Waterview, for many residents, was a nightmare of black mold, broken toilets and leaking ceilings.

The story also examined the threat posed by violent crime and poor security at Waterview. Ten rapes were reported in the past three years, but UTD officials issued just two crime alerts. In the other eight cases, including the arrest of Rajamani, UTD authorities failed to issue a crime alert warning other students of the incidents. UTD officials said all eight were acquaintance rapes and posed no threat to the other students. Indeed, officials said Waterview residents were safe, and crime was not a problem. They also told the Observer Rajamani was no longer at UTD.

That same day, however, two reporters found Rajamani smoking a cigarette on the balcony of his former apartment at Waterview. Rajamani told the Observer that university officials allowed him to finish the semester at UTD. He also agreed to a second interview.

I called Rajamani a few weeks later at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, where he was taking classes. I was surprised at his willingness to talk. I asked if he had confessed to using chloroform on a friend and raping her. He hesitated for a moment and then said, "Yes."

 

In May, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Corrigan asked me if I would be a witness at Rajamani's trial. I agreed.

The trial took place in August. I testified that during the interview Rajamani said he confessed. I also said Rajamani explained that he did so because he thought the victim was going to die.

On the witness stand, Rajamani admitted to raping "Amy Smith," the pseudonym for his victim. Rajamani, a native of India, said he loved Smith and raped her to stop her arranged marriage. He said Smith was from southern India, and custom there requires that when a man rapes a woman, they must marry.

A psychologist hired by the defense said Rajamani suffered from severe depression, psychotic symptoms and schizoid personality disorder. A mental health expert testifying for the prosecution disagreed. After viewing a videotaped confession, the expert said Rajamani was sane at the time of the attack.

Once the case was given to the jury, Pruitt said it took them little time to decide the verdict. "There was no doubt he was sane," Pruitt said. "There was no question about the guilt."

Sentencing was a different matter.

The prosecution argued that Rajamani was a sexual predator. Pruitt said jurors never bought that.

"He's not a sexual predator," he said. "I did not think he would go and rape someone else."

Pruitt said jurors also were concerned the prosecution never hired a mental health expert to examine Rajamani. State district court Judge Molly Francis finally hired an expert a few days before the trial began, according to Pruitt.

"We were surprised the prosecutor did not hire a professional to examine him," Pruitt said. "That seems like the logical thing to do."

Pruitt said jurors were aware that because of Rajamani's rape conviction, authorities would deport him. Pruitt said this played an important role in their decision to give him probation.

In the end, Pruitt said, the jury believed that the sentence was fair to Rajamani and his victim. "We didn't feel like sending him to Huntsville would help him or make society better," he said.

Judge Francis added 120 days of prison time for Rajamani. After serving his time in prison, Rajamani will be deported to India.

For his part, Corrigan believes justice was not served. "Rape is a horrible crime and deserves nothing less than a severe prison sentence," he said.--Cecelia Lai

We Screwed Up

The Dallas Observer got it wrong. Last week, we ran a story in the City section titled By the Numbers. It detailed a Dallas Police Department plan to hold cops accountable for their daily dutiesthe cynical call it a cop quotaeffective October 1.

Only it may or may not take effect October 1or ever. Furthermore, the document on which the Observer based its story never crossed police Chief David Kunkles desk, though we said it did. An apology and an explanation are due the Dallas Police Department and our readers.

Best then to start at the beginning. We heard of this story the way we hear of many, through a source on the inside. A cop the Observer has relied on in the past, whose information has always been accurate, told us come October 1, police officers activities would be monitored. If those activities were found to be lower than the average of the sector in which the officer worked, the officer could be punished for it. The source said a document detailing the move had already been issued to the force.

The Observer received the five-page document from this source titled Dallas Police Department Patrol Officer Performance Evaluation Planning Form. It said exactly what the source told us. Its first sentence began Effective October 1, 2005. The Observer called another source on the inside, who confirmed that the document was legit and that it came from Kunkles office. The Observer then called Glenn White, head of the Dallas Police Association, the largest union within DPD. White also said the document was legit and that it came from Kunkles office and then blasted Kunkle for issuing the policy.

The Observer tried last Wednesday and again last Thursday to reach Kunkle through DPDs media relations department. Kunkle didnt return the calls; he says he never got the message that the Observer was trying to contact him. The Observer, based on three independent sources and the document itself, ran the story.

Kunkle told the Observer after the story that the plan outlined in the draft document isnt policy yet and may never be policy, despite the October 1 start date. He said the document came from a group of lieutenants charged with increasing productivity and lowering crime. Kunkle himself hadnt seen the document and hadnt signed off on it, though the document has been widely distributed. --Paul Kix


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