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The Message in Houston: ‘Shelters Full’

Times Staff Writer

As masses of refugees from Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed this city’s effort to provide shelter Friday, busloads of the hungry, tired and desperate from New Orleans were diverted to other cities, and local officials pleaded with the public for help and understanding.

“God, when will this nightmare end?” cried Felicity Graham, 42, who had endured an eight-hour, 350-mile ride aboard a packed bus from the Superdome in New Orleans.

To her dismay, Graham was told there was no room at the mammoth Astrodome for her, her four grandchildren and other bus riders.

Houston Mayor Bill White estimated that more than 100,000 evacuees had arrived in his city, more than the Astrodome and other makeshift shelters could accommodate. Freeway signs that a day earlier had welcomed refugees were switched to a different message: “Houston shelters are full. Go to Dallas or San Antonio.”

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that 25,000 evacuees would be housed at Reunion Arena in Dallas and 7,000 others at a former Air Force base in San Antonio. In addition, 1,000 Texas National Guard members have been ordered to help with shelter operations at cities throughout the state.

White disputed the idea that officials should be faulted for a failure to anticipate the destructive power of Katrina.

“There was no emergency plan for the destruction of one of America’s most important cities,” White said. “If anybody predicted Katrina, I’d like to join their church.”

The Astrodome, with 15,000 people living on its concrete floor, was declared full by the county fire marshal Thursday night. He had originally declared it full when the population reached 11,000, but White overrode that decision to allow an additional 4,000 inside the covered stadium where food, showers, cots, clean clothes and medical attention awaited.

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An additional 3,000 evacuees were put into the Reliant Arena next door. The convention center was being prepared Friday to house up to 11,000 people.

Most of the 100,000 evacuees in Houston are staying at hotels, three dozen shelters run by the Red Cross and church groups, or with family members.

The Astrodome census had swelled to the point where postal officials gave it its own ZIP Code, 77320, so people could send letters and care packages to family members staying there.

White said he had appealed to corporate America for advice on how Houston could meet the challenge of being the top relocation site for Katrina victims.

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He said he had asked Microsoft Corp. executives about developing computer software to help relatives locate one another and queried Halliburton Co. about how to house and feed large numbers of people. Halliburton provides camps and food for U.S. personnel in Iraq.

Food stamp offices reported long lines of people seeking assistance. And a coalition of African American ministers held an emergency meeting Friday to put together an aid campaign that will be announced from their pulpits Sunday.

Tens of thousands of the refugees are expected to remain in Houston rather than return to devastated homes and painful memories.

“I will never go back there, not ever,” said evacuee Joyce Carter, 53, whose husband is missing.

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White and other officials have developed a mantra: The shelters are only a transitional phase toward returning people to “normal life.”

“It is not going to be acceptable to have a permanent refugee situation,” White said.

Wade Batiste, 29, staying at the Astrodome with his wife and five children, opted not to wait for a government program. A construction worker in New Orleans, he left the Astrodome and applied for work at a McDonald’s restaurant.

“I am not going to let my kids starve,” Batiste said.

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The Rev. D.Z. Cofield, pastor of the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, said he was worried that help could not be arranged fast enough for all refugees.

“My nightmare scenario is with those people we don’t find help for soon enough,” he said. “Even good people, if put under enough stress, will do bad things.”

Although some tempers frayed and a few arrests were made, the Astrodome relief effort appeared to be running effectively. Noise levels were high, and lines for food and clothing were long, but supplies of both were plentiful.

The long-term prognosis, however, was unclear.

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“The long-term things that the refugees are going to need most are the things that Houston, like any big city, is short of: affordable housing, entry-level jobs, training [and] social services,” said banker James Murnane, working as a volunteer at the Astrodome.

“Houston is going to do the best it can, but I don’t know how well,” he said.


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