Chris Park  /  AP
This buffet Monday night was among the amenities that helped evacuees stuck at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
updated 10/23/2007 11:00:56 AM ET 2007-10-23T15:00:56

Like Hurricane Katrina evacuees two years earlier in New Orleans, thousands of people rousted by natural disaster have fled to an NFL stadium, waiting out the calamity outside San Diego and worrying about their homes.

The similarities ended there, as an almost festive atmosphere reigned at Qualcomm Stadium.

Bands belted out rock 'n' roll, lavish buffets served gourmet entrees, and massage therapists helped relieve the stress for those forced to flee their homes because of wildfires.

"The people are happy. They have everything here," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared Monday night after his second Qualcomm tour.

Although anxieties ran high, the misery index seemed low as the celebrity governor waded through the mob. Scarcely a complaint was registered with him.

"Oooh, I got a picture!" shrieked Olivia Beard of Ocean Beach, one of hundreds who pressed toward Schwarzenegger with camera phones snapping.

The fires destroyed more than 500 homes and 100 businesses in San Diego County, the greatest swath of destruction in a series of Southern California blazes that began Sunday.

Population estimated at 10,000
Of the more than 250,000 people forced from their homes, volunteer coordinators estimated that 10,000 took shelter at Qualcomm, home of the San Diego Chargers. Others camped out in hotels, with friends and family and in other shelters scattered throughout the city.

With the stadium housing evacuees, the Chargers were flying to Arizona Tuesday to practice at the Arizona Cardinals' headquarters for the rest of the week. The team is scheduled to host Houston on Sunday, but said it was too early to know how the fires would affect that game.

At Qualcomm, thousands of tents, many set up by relief organizations, provided temporary roofs, while hundreds of people slept on open-air cots. Some elderly evacuees were housed in stadium club boxes.

Aggressive efforts by disaster-response officials to bring supplies helped ensure civility. A heavy police contingent and National Guard troops with automatic weapons stood by just in case.

The New Orleans evacuees had dragged themselves through floodwaters to get to the Louisiana Superdome in 2005, and once there endured horrific conditions without food, sanitation or law enforcement.

But these evacuees drove to the expansive parking lots in the San Diego suburbs. The worst that most endured in their exodus was heavy traffic and smoky haze.

But like those who fled in New Orleans, some will have lost their homes.

'Deal with it, or you can whine'
Several said they had narrowly escaped devastating fires in 2003 and shrugged off the inconveniences of sleeping at a stadium.

"You have to deal with it, right?" said Ashwani Kernie, who, along with six family members, had been evacuated from his Rancho Bernardo home.

"You can deal with it, or you can whine about it," he said while erecting a tent in Qualcomm's parking lot, as temperatures hovered comfortably in the low 70s.

Chris Park  /  AP
Evacuees try to get some sleep while others arrive and set up camp at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Monday.
Still, there was widespread anxiety about the fates of homes and belongings left behind. Many had packed up hastily as flames approached.

"They're scared, they're sad, they're losing their homes. They just want to relax and go to sleep," Megan Malan, a massage therapist, said as she rubbed the back of a man wearing a firefighter's T-shirt.

She had little in the way of material goods to offer to the victims, so she provided her professional services, for free, to nervous evacuees.

Stadium TVs set to news
Television sets hung from the rafters for the benefit of football fans, but on this evening, it was anything but "Monday Night Football" that drew their interest.

Hundreds sat in the stands watching the sets, transfixed as news programs broadcast images of destruction. Among them was Bruce Fowler, whose home in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood had survived fires in 2003.

That fall, wildfires killed 22 people, destroyed nearly 3,600 homes and blackened more than 743,000 acres of brush and timber in Southern California, including blazes near Fowler's home.

"Every couple of years, you don't want to go through this worry," Fowler said, sipping a root beer. "I never thought I'd be in a place like this, getting handouts."

Most people seemed happy for the free food and drink. A Hyatt hotel catered one buffet, offering chicken with artichoke hearts and capers in cream sauce, jambalaya and shredded-beef empanadas.

Ester Francis, 90, clutched her cane as her son set up a pair of cots next to a large trash bin.

She does not know what she'll return to when the smoke clears, but said she was grateful for the generosity of strangers. Qualcomm did feel something like a party, she said.

"Everyone's so friendly," Francis said. "I guess it's making us all feel secure at a time when we all feel so insecure."

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