Five days of frenzy: Vickery Meadow, Ebola and out-of-control media

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Apartment 614, where Eric Duncan was staying before he died from the Ebola virus. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

A few hours into the apartment 614 quarantine, the media maelstrom approached fever pitch.

They arrived in droves, even before police and health department officials showed up, say witnesses to the press’ descent on The Ivy Apartments in Vickery Meadow.

“The local guys, for the most part, were fine, but the national guys were horrendous,” says Rebecca Range, the executive director of the Vickery Meadow Improvement District.

They climbed fences, photographed crying women and children, and demanded answers from residents who did not understand what they were asking, Range says.

“It’s a big property — we had it closed off right away, but they were finding different ways in. You have to remember that most of the people at The Ivy don’t speak English. Eight different languages are spoken there. So you can imagine the chaos.”

“They all asked me, ‘What happened? What happened?’” he recalls. Over hammering helicopters and chattering reporters, he told them: “I said, ‘Ebola happened.’ ”

Conrad High School student Se Da Oo Shay is fluent in “three and a half” languages and says he knows just about everyone at The Ivy. He spent that first afternoon, Sept. 28, doing everything he could think of to explain the situation, as it unfolded, to his neighbors.

“They all asked me, ‘What happened? What happened?’” he recalls. Over hammering helicopters and chattering reporters, he told them: “I said, ‘Ebola happened.’ ”

18-year-old Se Da Oo Sha, who interpreted vital information about Ebola to residents. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
18-year-old Se Da Oo Sha, who interpreted vital information about Ebola to residents. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The Ivy residents call him Shay. They come to him with their problems.

“They have a broken faucet, they don’t tell the office. They tell me,” he says.

When Shay arrived home from school to police blockades, news vans and cameras, he hurried to the apartment manager’s office.

“I asked what’s going on, and they told me that Ebola was at The Ivy, and I was thinking, ‘What is Ebola?’ I Googled it,” he says. “At first I was very scared, and I worried that this would be someone I know, but then I learned it was a guy, Eric Duncan, who I did not know. And I could breathe.”

Duncan, the first person ever diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, reportedly traveled from Liberia to Dallas to marry Louise Troh, occupant of Ivy apartment 614.

The details are familiar by now: Duncan went to Presbyterian Hospital Sept. 25 but was soon discharged. Three days later, when he was violently ill, an ambulance transported him back to the hospital, where he tested positive for Ebola, an infectious virus that has killed more than 4,000 and counting in Africa. Duncan died eight days later.

Duncan’s diagnosis prompted a mandatory quarantine of Troh and three others inside Ivy unit 614.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of Troh and the others, hundreds of reporters armed with mics, cameras and blinding spotlights stalked the apartment, day and night.

The Ivy residents’ inexperience with both the English language and American media made for a special kind of chaos.

One group of residents said they must torch the apartment; it was how they dealt with contaminated properties in their country, says Shay. Others proposed vandalizing apartment 614 because they wanted the occupants and the media to leave.

This was the sort of irrational response Shay worked hard to prevent during the media siege, which lasted five days, until the quarantined were relocated.

“To an outsider it might have looked like the officials were really organized when it came to keeping people informed, but really it was Shay,” Range says, only halfway kidding.

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Apartment 614 as it looks today.
Apartment 614 as it looks today. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Shay spent the better part of his life in a refugee camp near a war-impacted region of Thailand, he says with no hint of self-pity.

On an average afternoon, the teenager is dressed stylishly in a crisp white button-down, dark jeans and flip flops. His hair is spiky, his wristwatch techy. In the span of an hour he is interrupted several times by residents who need his help — eventually he excuses himself to help two visibly upset Burmese-speaking women report a crime.

Since he moved to The Ivy, it has been like this, he says. Through a refugee resettlement program, he and his 14-year-old brother moved to Dallas a few years ago to live with their grandparents. He speaks English, Burmese, Karen and some Thai. Of his own volition, he teaches English to anyone in the complex who wants to learn. Five nights a week, more than 30 people gather, sitting on the floor of a tiny apartment. He does his own homework while they work through exercises he’s given them.

“Without him, we are blind,” remarks one resident.

So when “Ebola happened,” as Shay puts it, he was thrust into the middle of the frantic effort to relay information to those surrounding the affected apartment.

As representatives from Dallas County, the City of Dallas, Dallas Police, the Center for Disease Control and Hazardous Materials steadily joined the effort, there were two major goals: stop potential spread of the Ebola virus and prevent panic. Both relied heavily on good communication, explains Stacey Roth, the public safety coordinator for Vickery Meadow Improvement District. At The Ivy, where so many languages are spoken, communication was problematic.

That’s where Shay would prove invaluable.

“We thought he worked for The Ivy at first,” Roth says. “This kid. He was talking to everyone. Answering their questions. Handing out literature about Ebola. Speaking calmly to people who were upset.”

Like Shay, most of The Ivy residents — especially those from Asia, where Ebola is not a problem — did not know what Ebola meant.

They didn’t even fully understand the concept of a virus, Roth notes.

That first afternoon, after repeating the same information so many times, Shay sat down for about an hour with pen and paper and translated vital information about Ebola into Burmese.

He took the translation to The Ivy’s office and made 100 copies, which he distributed to the Burmese residents.

This was before the CDC delivered the same information in Spanish and English, and 14 days before other agencies offered to help translate important information, Range notes.

Most of The Ivy residents — especially those from Asia, where Ebola is not a problem — did not know what Ebola meant. They didn’t even fully understand the concept of a virus.

Later, a Dallas ISD translator helped interpret incoming information, but the initial, urgent translation came from Shay.

Shay says his school allowed him a day off to help with communication at The Ivy.

He walked door-to-door with police, city and county officials, and VMID and CDC representatives, translating.

Shay interpreted for a British reporter early on, he says, but the lady they were trying to interview, 614’s next-door neighbor, reacted angrily.  “She yelled, ‘Get out of my house!’ ” Shay says. Another woman threw rice at a reporter, Shay says. Shay, too, grew agitated with the media.

“They were stopping us on the way to school, making us late, trying to talk to little kids. The kids got smart and just responded in their own language, even if they knew English,” he says.

Range says reporters were increasingly aggressive. She describes some walking into homes without knocking or barely knocking. Many of the residents do not lock their doors so family and friends can come and go, she explains.

One national news reporter barricaded herself in an elderly man’s apartment, Range says. The man was distraught when he reported the situation to the apartment manager, using Shay to translate. The reporter refused to open the door for the manager or Vickery Meadow security officers. Roth and the Dallas police finally went to the door and told her that if she didn’t leave, they would tell the rest of the media that her station had locked a 60-something year-old man out of his apartment. A loud argument ensued, Range says, but the reporter finally relented.

“Well, the residents at that point were not worried about Ebola,” she says. “They were worried about the media.”

And the fallout continued.

Several children who reportedly had been in contact with Duncan were pulled from school for observation. Some students from Vickery Meadow reported classmates picking on them.

Residents of The Ivy were told to stay home from work in some cases.

The VMID brought in an attorney to meet with residents who had been denied a right to work because of the Ebola scare.

Some of the hundreds of volunteers who work in Vickery Meadow stopped coming in, and the National Night Out block party and parade was canceled.

“The residents at that point were not worried about Ebola. They were worried about the media.”

The United States Postal Service halted mail delivery.

“This really upset the residents,” Range says. “They were probably as upset about not getting their mail as anything.”

When the mail carrier eventually returned to The Ivy, he was wearing a mask and blocked off his vehicle with cones.

Finally, health officials announced that Troh and the other quarantined residents would be moved, and they sent in the Hazmat team to clean the apartment.

“It is not so much a concern that we need to get her out of here because it’s dangerous or anything like that,” City of Dallas public information officer Sana Syed told reporters at the time. They were moved, she said, because they and the rest of The Ivy’s residents were scared.

A decontamination crew filled and removed about 140 barrels of material from apartment 614, and officials escorted the family to a secret address.

The media’s departure, for the most part, coincided with Troh’s.

The USPS has resumed mail delivery after an Ebola scare had carriers on high alert: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
The USPS has resumed mail delivery after an Ebola scare had carriers on high alert: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Vickery Meadow is a 2.68-square-mile neighborhood bordered by Central, Royal, Abrams and Northwest Highway. It is home to 25,329 people — almost 100 for-rent complexes and 15 single-family homes. It is ethnically diverse. More than 4,351 school-age children live there. In the ’70s and ’80s it was a booming singles community, but by the ’90s the area was so downtrodden that a neighborhood improvement district, which garners municipal funds to help struggling areas, was approved.

Today the area — Lake Highlands’ next-door neighbor — is an example of what a good improvement district can do. Since the Vickery Meadow Improvement District formed, crime has dropped 60 percent — from 4,262 violent crimes in 1990 to 1,336 in 2013, according to police department statistics.

Before moving to Dallas, Stacey Roth was a beat cop in New Orleans’ French Quarter. She is a tough lady (she was in three physical fights during the last Mardi Gras season she worked, she says). Yet her family voiced concern two years ago when she accepted a job as public safety coordinator for the VMID, which, among other efforts, funds private security for Vickery Meadow in collaboration with the northeast Dallas police division.

“They said it was a dangerous area,” Roth says. “When I got here I had to laugh. My first thought as I drove around was that this is beautiful compared to where I came from.”

Rebecca Range, former executive director for the Lake Highlands Public Improvement District, also was surprised when she started as VMID’s executive director last year.

“Even being right next door, I had a lot of misconceptions about Vickery Meadow,” she says. “I had a perception of a scary place with a lot of crime. I could not have been more off track about what this neighborhood is about.”

Vickery Meadow is special, she says. “The strength and beauty of the people here does not match the outside,” she says, referring to potholes and infrastructure issues, “but that is what we are working on now.”

There are some 40 nonprofits that support Vickery Meadow residents — health services, hunger prevention, education enrichment, English language and citizenship courses, and refugee services among them.

Vickery Meadow is known around Dallas as a refugee community. Range says those statistics are beginning to shift as the properties become more attractive to renters. Still, some apartment complexes are more refugee-intensive than others.

Between 80 and 90 percent of The Ivy is occupied by refugees, Range says.

Most of those are from Burma, and some are from Africa and other parts of the world.

“Even being right next door, I had a lot of misconceptions about Vickery Meadow. I had a perception of a scary place with a lot of crime. I could not have been more off track about what this neighborhood is about.”

The moment Range and Roth received word about the Ebola case, they knew to prepare for the inevitable media takeover and, thanks to the improvement district, had the resources to do so.

“One of the benefits of a neighborhood improvement district is that the area has contracted security,” Range says. “If anyone ever wonders what a public improvement district does, well, it does a lot of things, but in this particular instance, the city and Vickery Meadow was so lucky to have one in place, because Stacey and our contracted security were able to secure the property immediately.”

That extra security is in large part what the taxpayers buy when they support the improvement district, Roth adds.

Many Ivy residents, like Ramadan and Fathima Bee, had a front row seat to the Ebola-related ruckus: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Many Ivy residents, like Ramadan and Fathima Bee, had a front row seat to the Ebola-related ruckus: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

In the days following Duncan’s diagnosis and death, the press corps moved from Vickery Meadow, to Presbyterian Hospital, to the M Streets and the Village Apartments, where, respectively, two nurses who cared for Duncan also developed Ebola — they both have recovered.

Public panic waned as Louise Troh and the other residents of apartment 614 were released from quarantine with a clean bill of health.

As Shay, Roth and The Ivy’s assistant manager stand outside the offices recounting the Ebola frenzy, a reporter shows up and asks about Troh: “Will she move back here?”

The apartment staffer says she wants to be left alone and heads inside. Roth politely tells him he will have to talk to the landlord, who is out today.

The answer is no, Louise Troh will not move back. Not into 614, anyway. The front door of 614 is taped, and a quarantine sign is still posted. “The inside is totally gutted,” Roth says. They did not do this to the other Ebola-impacted properties, she says, “but this was the first; they really tore it all out, destroyed everything.”

The manager does not plan to rent the apartment, Roth says. “They will eventually use it as a storage room or something.”

Shay has returned his focus to academics — he made the B honor roll last semester. He plans to go to Richland Community College next year and might study to be a doctor, he says. “I want to help people.”

His handling of the Ebola incident proves youth or inexperience won’t hinder Shay’s altruism. He teaches an English class at the International Rescue Committee and says he plans to continue teaching the informal classes at The Ivy.

Looking back, he is sorry that Duncan died, and he feels for the man’s family, but he is grateful that Ebola did not spread and that no other related tragedies ensued.

The front door of 614 is taped, and a quarantine sign is still posted. “The inside is totally gutted,” Roth says. They did not do this to the other Ebola-impacted properties, she says, “but this was the first; they really tore it all out, destroyed everything.”

He was glad to meet VMID staffers Rebecca Range and Stacey Roth (the gratitude is mutual, they say) and to interact with City Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, mayor Mike Rawlins and Northeast Police Chief Andrew Acord, among others who were on the property daily throughout the ordeal.

While he loathes the behavior of the media, he had mixed feelings about appearing on television around the world.

“I was on BBC, CNN, New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Fox News and many more, and my mom in Thailand saw me,” he says.

Mom, who helped him immigrate for educational opportunities, he says, “told me to be careful.”

Sure, she was impressed by her son’s activism, but what struck her most, it seemed, was Vickery Meadow itself, Shay says.

“She told me, ‘You live in a very nice apartment.’”


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