Making A Shelter A Home | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Making A Shelter A Home

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A week after Katrina, Jackson's largest shelter—the Red Cross-sponsored Mississippi Coliseum—is a whole new ballgame. Each day at the Coliseum possesses a completely different vibe. Saturday filled itself with excitement—from the meet-and-greets with Deuce McAllister and David Banner to the wedding officiated by Rev. Yamily Bass-Choate. Thanks to the donations of a wedding gown, tuxedo, wedding cake and other essentials, Hurricane Katrina evacuees Joseph Kirsh and Trenise Williams wed on Saturday night in what 24-year-old evacuee Nafeesa McCoy called a "beautiful service," with Jackson saxophonist eZra Brown providing the processional.

"David Banner was keeping the kids busy during the wedding," McCoy recalled. "I ain't gonna lie; they're keeping us busy here with great things."

On Sunday morning, the Coliseum began to show signs of miniature homes. Last Tuesday night, the day after Katrina hit, most families in the Coliseum did not have bedding. A few lucky residents had cots, and several elderly people slept upright in wheelchairs. By Sunday, though, each family was sleeping on air mattresses, pushed together to form a station of sorts.

One family had decorated their station with carefully positioned stuffed animals, a television, a floor rug and even a makeshift entrance made possible by part of a child's playhouse. Across the floor, another family had decorated the stadium wall behind it with signed pictures of Banner and decorated sheets torn out from coloring books. In the middle of the coliseum, one man worked to reassemble his life by painting watercolors. The precision with which these makeshift homes were created shows that the evacuees' dedication to assembling their lives in the Coliseum is about more than just comfort—it's about forming a life beyond a mere shelter.

Evacuees weren't the only ones filling up the fairgrounds Sunday, though. Ministers and Jackson notables like Supreme Court Justice James Graves and Fondren clothing-store star Ron Chane dotted the Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, some visiting with Jackson's new residents and others working outside to build new structures for the Coliseum. Chane has also been inviting a few evacuees to have dinner out with him and friends most nights since the disaster.

Red Baron trucks parked behind a basketball game to prepare pizzas for the residents' 6 p.m. dinner, filling the grounds outside with the fresh smell of melted cheese and pepperoni. Wal-Mart trucks pulled in with clothes and medicine to offer those still seeking necessities. In front of the entrance to the Coliseum, volunteer masseuses set up tables to offer a little bit of relief to people who had been sleeping on concrete for almost a week. Inside, volunteers from The Computer Co-op were assembling a cybercafe to help evacuees connect with the larger world.

By Monday, the crowd inside the Coliseum had dwindled. Outside, most of the younger residents bounced from space walk to cotton-candy machines in a carnival organized by volunteers at the Coliseum. Inside, many residents, mostly mothers, continued to organize their temporary homes. Many evacuees had already left for new cities or new homes in Jackson offered by various people, but the Red Cross was planning to import 300 new evacuees from the Trade Mart.

"We're about to consolidate!" Red Cross volunteers called to each other around 2 p.m.

Ever the constant presence at the Coliseum, the Red Cross had assembled itself into a more organized unit by Monday. New rules were in place for animal care. Members of the press, allowed to mingle freely the week before, had to be escorted around the premises, as many residents had complained of photographers snapping shots of them without permission. New volunteers sporting badges that read "Hablo Español" caroused the grounds, looking for evacuees unable to communicate in English.

Even as volunteers prepared for a whole new crew, several residents hung out inside the now-familiar walls of the Coliseum. Exhausted after a day of eating cotton candy and snow cones, Kurtshell Robinson, who turns 12 on Sept. 8, threw herself onto her family's air mattress with a smile. "I liked the space walks best," she said. "And the snowball tasted good, too."

Robinson said she made a lot of new friends at the Coliseum, but she is ready to get back in school. "It feels kind of weird to be here," she said. "When we left, I thought I was coming back soon to see my cousins. I'm used to running around outside with them all of the time."

Robinson's mother, Ann, said it would be some time before Kurtshell sees her cousins again, though. "This couple from the Red Cross is going to let us live with them until we get on our feet, and they're going to let my husband work with them doing tire work."

By Monday, Robinson and other residents had resigned themselves to beginning a new, if only temporary life, in Jackson, but she was still anxious to find missing loved ones. "We're looking for Earle and Chelsea Catchings and Cheryl, Terrence and Tamaika McCoy," she said. "If anyone knows where they are, we're staying in Jackson and want to find them soon."

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