After the Flood

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.

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