By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Warnings and updates were coming in moment by moment. The city of New Orleans was about to get slammed by a hurricane. At Abstract House, a group home that for 20 years has provided an alternative to homelessness for hundreds of mentally ill and drug-addicted New Orleanians, something had to give.
The clientele is a ragged one. Drunks stumble in around midnight, followed by the crackheads at dawn. It's a place halfway between an institution and living completely independently. For $400 a month, residents get a bed, daily meals, laundered clothes and an opportunity for some structure. They are enrolled in Medicaid programs and administered their medications.
Barrie Byrnes, who owns the housing and adult day-care facility, says she teaches them to bathe, use a toilet and the importance of not spending their entire social security check on candy. Her only rule: "Don't bring in booze and knives -- go hide them in the bushes somewhere."
With Hurricane Katrina on the way, it was time to get out. About 40 residents were enrolled at Abstract House in the days before the hurricane. Some wandered off. The more manageable residents were transported to Baton Rouge. But the 17 who remained were the hard-core psychotics, the ones who "still think there's a lady in the wall who's trying to kill them even after they've taken their meds," Byrnes says.
At a loss for what to do, she dropped them off at the Superdome, less than a mile away. Alone and unsupervised, the men, ages 30 to 70, were told to watch after one another.
Victor Fruge, who has been diagnosed as bipolar, appointed himself the group's pharmacist, figuring that his 30-year-long heroin and painkiller addictions qualified him for the job. He collected everyone's pill bottles and stuffed them into a plastic grocery bag.
"Nobody put me in charge; I just took charge," the 48-year-old says. "Because of me being manic, I make things happen."
When they arrived, the Superdome was still relatively empty. But as the crowds came, so did the voices in their heads. Ray Brown, a 45-year-old alcoholic who is bipolar and HIV-positive, says he spent hours hidden behind a curtain. Leonard Smith, a 56-year-old schizophrenic, says he "went into an isolated place" and didn't speak for nearly two weeks. Still, most of them didn't believe the hype. After all, they never had to evacuate the city when monster hurricanes like Betsy, Camille, Ivan and Andrew blew into town. Outside, the air was calm, the sky blue. They figured the storm would pass them by.
Then one morning the roof blew away. And their adventure began in earnest -- an adventure that ultimately would take them on a 500-mile journey before they landed in Houston.
Hurricane Katrina displaced and upset more than a million Gulf Coast residents. People lost their homes, their neighborhoods, their livelihoods.
Multiply this by a factor of ten and begin to imagine the hardships endured by the mentally ill, who depend on familiarity and routine to keep them halfway sane. Suddenly they were thrust into a constant state of anxiety, forced into large crowds, told to live in squalid and sometimes dangerous conditions, and ordered from one strange place to the next. Many were separated from their caregivers and their psychotropic medications.
"Stress alone will exacerbate any psychotic disorder," warns Dr. Sara Allison, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine. "Compound that with not having their medications, and I would expect them to become acutely psychotic, which is always dangerous."
It took a week for the unsupervised group of schizophrenics, manic depressives and drug addicts led by Fruge to make its way to Houston. They spent three nights at the Superdome, slogging through foul floodwaters in extreme heat amid crying mothers and occasional gunshots. Seeking better conditions, they fled on foot to the adjacent New Orleans Arena, whose floors they discovered were soaked in urine from stopped-up toilets.
On the fourth day of their expedition, the group rode to higher ground on a National Guard truck that dumped them onto a highway ramp, where they baked in the sun for hours with thousands of others. An evacuation bus eventually brought them more than 250 miles to Fort Polk in West Louisiana. They waited outside the gate for several hours before soldiers sent them yet another 200 miles to the Astrodome. This enraged some of the men, who were veterans.
Somehow they overcame their anxieties, not to mention the bickering among themselves along the way. They stuck together, even partnering off to use the bathroom and walking single-file, with leaders assigned to the front and back of the line.
Not everyone made it. One member of the original group was booted out of the Superdome for fighting and is feared dead. But the other 16, including three who had to be hospitalized along the way, made it safely to Houston.
Allison found them at the Astrodome. It was September 1, early in the afternoon, when she arrived at the mental health clinic set up in a separate building at the Reliant complex. But there were no patients. The Dome was filling up fast, and people feared they would lose their cots if they left. So Allison rode a shuttle van to the Dome and, armed with a medicine bag, went looking.