Thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees packing into Houston's Astrodome are getting electronic access to the outside world.
Corporations, volunteers and nonprofit agencies continued working Friday to install telephones and Internet-enabled computers inside the sprawling former sports stadium in one of many efforts aimed at bringing communications technologies to hurricane victims.
Astrodome refugees, displaced from the Superdome in New Orleans, were getting 10 minutes blocks of time to make free local and long distance calls.
Many of them haven't heard from friends or family — nor have they been able to let loved ones know they're safe — since Katrina ravaged their hometown on Monday.
Audree Lee, 37, said she was relieved after hearing her teenage daughter's voice. Lee had relatives take her daughter to Alabama so she would be safe.
"I just cried. She cried. We cried together," Lee said Thursday after using one of the free lines at the Astrodome. "She asked me about her dog. They wouldn't let me take her dog with me. ... I know the dog is gone now."
Technology For All, a Houston nonprofit, was coordinating with authorities to set up a center in the Astrodome with 40 desktop computers loaded with Internet connections and office productivity software.
"We're just working on this one little piece," said William Reed, the organization's chief executive. "We recognize that these folks need a connection to the outside world."
SBC Communications Inc. said it planned to establish a communications center at the Astrodome with about 1,000 telephone lines and free high-speed Internet service. A similar setup was also in the works at a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, where the company is based.
Verizon Wireless, meanwhile, offered to recharge cell phones for free at its stores and many emergency shelters, while Cingular Wireless invited displaced residents to make free calls from its company-owned stores in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
SBC spokesman Larry Meyer acknowledged food, showers and other basic needs would come first, but said "we've got to begin to address other needs as well."
Farrell Johnson, a 54-year-old New Orleans carpenter who now calls the Astrodome home, said he appreciated the efforts.
"It's not bad in there to get to use the phones," Johnson said. "Everybody is being very cooperative."
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