Grown-up evacuees among a sea of cots anxiously chatter on cell phones, figuring out what comes next. But arranged in a nearby corner are hula hoops, toy cars and crayons — a reminder that many of those chased out by Hurricane Ike are old enough to feel fear but too young to really understand.
One crayon drawing tacked to the wall of the play area has a meticulously drawn white clapboard house under dark gray clouds. A black oval in the sky is labeled "eye."
More than a million Gulf Coast residents were displaced by Ike. Officials haven't counted how many are children, but in some of the largest evacuation centers, volunteers say they may represent as many as half the evacuees curled up on the seemingly endless rows of cots.
"I have never seen so many children in shelters," said Kathleen Whalen, a program manager for nonprofit Save the Children. "It's really surprising."
Whalen was an evacuee herself — she fled her New Orleans home for Hurricane Gustav and stayed in San Antonio to help evacuees from Ike. She said the storm seems to have displaced more young families with children than other disasters she's seen, such as the California wildfires and Midwest floods.
At the largest shelter in San Antonio, where more than 4,000 people were housed at one time, Save the Children gave out roughly 400 portable cribs and more than 2,000 packets of children's books in just four days.
The nonprofit, which had mostly done disaster aid internationally until Hurricane Katrina hit three years ago, works with the Red Cross to provide supplies like diapers and set up play areas in shelters.
"It's overwhelming for an adult. You can imagine how scary it is for a child," said Whalen, who saw some children melt down when they lost sight of their parents. "It's a really big building with so few landmarks."
'Long way from home'
Parents said even the basics are a challenge for small children in a shelter. There are long lines for meals. Their parents fear their children will get sick from such close contact with thousands of people. Jamesetta Rougeaux, who evacuated from Galveston, said every trip to the restroom with her 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter requires a long walk across the sprawling shelter.
"She's asking me when she's going to school. When is she going back to her own bed? When is she getting her own toys?" said Rougeaux, gesturing toward her little girl, who was hand-in-hand with her brother. "I tell her, 'I don't know.'"
Asked what it's like having a young daughter in a shelter, 46-year-old single father Carlos Simon joked sarcastically, "It would probably be easier winning the lottery."
He left his home in Hitchcock, near Galveston, with his 4-year-old because he walks with a cane and can't swim. He hasn't been able to bathe her since they arrived because he doesn't want to take her into the men's area. The scared little girl also has gotten sick.
"She's all I have, and we're a long way from home," he said outside the shelter, where he had come to pray for a moment while another single parent watched his daughter as she napped.
14 frightened kids
Ellenor Grogun was with two other relatives responsible for 14 children — mostly nieces and nephews — at the San Antonio shelter. They tried to flee Galveston before the storm, but they didn't make it out in time because the water rose so quickly. They rode out the storm at the high school, scrambling to the second floor with their blankets and pillows after water started seeping through the first floor.
Building material peeled free by Ike's winds banged against the building as the storm came ashore early Saturday. "All the kids jumped up, hollering and screaming," Grogun said.
The younger children "were scared. They peed in the bed and everything."
Whalen, a social worker for many years in New Orleans, said the littlest evacuees lose their sense of security in the shelters. Play areas, like the tiny corner cordoned off with cots at a shelter here, provide pockets of normalcy. Amid scary portable toilets and strangers, toy cars and crayons are familiar comforts, she said.
"They calm children down. It can allay fears that they're never going to do the things they could do before," Whalen said. "Safety is a primal response. If you lose your sense of safety, you can't do anything."