HOUSTON — Texas' largest city opened two more giant centers for victims of Hurricane Katrina on Friday after refugees filled Houston’s Astrodome to capacity.
Mayor Bill White declared that the city’s convention center and an exhibition hall would accept more hurricane survivors, and conventions for the coming weeks would be canceled.
“We see the tragedy which is ongoing in New Orleans, and we are doing the best we can to make sure when people get to Houston they have a decent place to stay,” White said.
As shelters in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio filled up, the governor’s office reached out to the state’s mid-sized cities to find additional space.
“This is just the beginning of what will be many months,” Gov. Rick Perry said. “It will be a long effort trying to help people rebuild their lives and get a sense of normalcy, safety in what is a very trying time.”
The state was considering using housing vouchers to allow displaced Louisiana residents to move into apartments, the governor’s office said.
Elsewhere, officials from as far away as Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming and Michigan said they would also accept refugees. Elected leaders were considering various places to house them, including military barracks and an empty shopping mall.
Other states such as Illinois and Maryland offered to let hurricane survivors enroll their children in public schools.
In South Carolina, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn proposed housing up to 5,000 refugees in unused military barracks, an empty mall and other large buildings in Columbia.
Relief and shock
Despite crowding at the Astrodome, more buses were being loaded Friday at the Superdome in New Orleans, where conditions had become desperate as thousands struggled with lack of supplies, clogged plumbing and no air conditioning.
When the Astrodome filled, Katrina refugees who had finally arrived by bus were left in limbo for more than two hours before they were redirected to the exhibit hall.
Evacuees, most who hadn’t bathed since the hurricane hit Monday, showered in one of four locker rooms once used by the Houston Astros and the Houston Oilers. Those teams now play in new stadiums, one within walking distance of the aging Astrodome.
Audree Lee, 37, felt relief after getting a shower and hearing her teenage daughter’s voice on the telephone for the first time since the storm. Lee had relatives take her daughter to Alabama so she would be safe.
“I just cried. She cried. We cried together,” Lee said.
As she was offered chips and an apple, Lee said the conditions Houston are far better than they were in New Orleans, but she can’t wait to get back to her home state.
“I’ve never been through anything like this,” she said. “We have nothing to go home to. I just want to be safe and comfortable.”
Janetta Arnold was among those who found room at the Astrodome. She was rescued with 13 relatives after being stranded for three days on a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans highway.
“I was able to get a shower last night,” the 36-year-old grocery store cashier said Friday. “I am grateful for what the people here in Houston have given us.”
Volunteer Daniel Rittgers said many of the refugees remain in shock.
“They are still in the moment of survival,” he said. “They have been displaced.”
San Antonio pitches in
In San Antonio, the former Kelly Air Force Base began accepting people on buses that were turned away from the Astrodome. Up to 7,000 people could be accommodated in an air-conditioned office building and warehouse.
Plans were being made for alternative sites in San Antonio once those buildings filled.
As people arrived, they were given pink lemonade and allowed to use portable restrooms. Others arrived on military helicopters directly from New Orleans and were met by people with food and medicine.
Many refugees showed up hot, dazed and exhausted. They were given toothbrushes, soap, washcloths and other toiletries when they signed in. Aides questioned them about health needs.
Health, safety are challenges
Inside the Astrodome, doctors had trouble keeping up with everyone needing treatment.
“Many people might think there are enough people here, and there are not. We just need help,” said Dr. Steven Glorsky, who had treated evacuees for heart attacks, open wounds and diabetes. “We have a crisis in there.”
A few people were arrested in the Astrodome, although Sheriff Tommy Thomas didn’t have an exact count. He said some men were arrested for going into the women’s showers. Others were arrested for fighting over cots.
“These bunks are going to be territorial. Somebody gets up and then somebody’s going to take their bunk,” Thomas said.
Dr. Stuart C. Udofsky, chairman of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said about 30 psychiatrists from around Houston are assisting with the mental health needs of those staying inside the Astrodome.
“The Astrodome was designed to have maybe 20,000 people for six hours at the most for something upon which they are all focused,” Udofsky said. “To be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for an indeterminate period of time, that experiment has never been run — and we are trying to do that right now.”
‘A better Big Easy’
Myron Johnson, 27, was just happy to get three meals, a cot and some fresh clothes. The Pizza Hut worker fled his New Orleans apartment Monday in nothing but boxer shorts, leaving behind nine relatives.
“I don’t know where my family is. I’m here by myself,” he said outside Reunion Arena. He was frustrated he had not been able to contact loved ones.
“I thank God for the good volunteers of Texas, but all they can do is try to keep your spirits up,” he said. “I just want to know that they’re OK so I can salvage the rest of my life.”
Johnson held out hope that he would eventually return to New Orleans.
“In my heart, I believe there will be a Big Easy again,” he said. “A better Big Easy.”
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