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Big Texas-style welcome for storm evacuees

NBC News Janet Shamlian reports from the Houston Astrodome on how the facility has been set-up to accommodate those fleeing the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina and the untenable situation at the New Orleans Superdome. 
Volunteers set up cots on the floor of Houston's Astrodome on Thursday.Pat Sullivan / AP
/ Source: NBC News

HOUSTON  — With the evacuation of New Orleans under way, the Houston Astrodome has been outfitted to welcome the thousands of displaced people from the Crescent City.

NBC News Janet Shamlian reports from the Astrodome on how the facility has been set up to accommodate those fleeing the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina and some of the problems that have already come up.

What is the scene like at the Houston Astrodome?  
It’s much different than what the Astrodome has looked like over the past several years because it has been vacated for four years now, since Houston built a new stadium.

In fact, as recently, as two weeks ago, city officials were discussing what to do with it.

Ironically, one of the ideas under consideration was to make it a luxury hotel. It certainly will not be a luxury hotel, but it will a temporary home for as many as 25,000 people from New Orleans who were in the Superdome.

Several thousand people are already here. By Labor Day, authorities expect the number to top 24,000 — including several thousand children.

However, some problems have come up already. Some people are arriving in private cars and on foot saying that they are also from New Orleans and have been staying in area hotels, but that they have no more money to spend on hotels and they are seeking refuge here.

Authorities initially turned them away, which of course made them very angry. In the last few hours, some have been allowed in on a case-by-case basis. 

Everyone is being searched for alcohol, for drugs, for anything that might cause a problem. With more than 20,000 expected to be sharing living quarters over the next few months, it’s a big task to keep things running smoothly. 

People living in the Astrodome will be fed three meals a day — a hot breakfast, a cold lunch, and a hot dinner. It’s air-conditioned, and there are plenty of toilets. 

Authorities believe that it could stay open for as long as three months, through the end of the year, perhaps even longer, but they are planning through December.

What has been the reaction of people upon their arrival there?  
Everyone wants information. You would think that they would be overjoyed to be here, but they’ve also been displaced. Many don’t know where their friends or family are. They haven’t been able to reach loved ones by cell phone, there is virtually no communication.

So, in many ways, they are distraught, because even though they have a better place to lay their head at night, they are far away from home.

To that end, authorities are going to be setting up televisions and making phone banks available so that people can get some news and can communicate with their loved ones. Hopefully, that will ease some of their stress.

How did they prepare the Astrodome and set it up to avoid the disaster at the Superdome in New Orleans?
It was almost done in record time — 24 hours is all they’ve been working on this. The floor of the Astrodome is lined with thousands of cots. A nursery has been set up because many of the people coming here will have infants and babies. There is a medical facility that will be able to provide things like insulin for diabetics and medical care for those who need it.

Efforts are being made to bring in clothing because people are arriving here with what they have in a duffle bag and the clothes on their back. They have toys for the children to play with and books.

Basically, efforts are being made to meet all of their needs. 

Some critics are saying that the Astrodome isn’t suited to accommodate so many people.What is the response to that?
Clearly it was not built to be a long-term shelter. It was built for pro-football and pro-baseball, which it served happily for thirty-five years.

But, in contrast to the Superdome, it's a better situation — one big reason is because it does have air-conditioning. Authorities plan is actually to put people here initially and then try to get them out to some longer term shelters in the area.

So, no, it’s not perfectly suited, but it’s the best that can be provided right now. 

There are reports that authorities in Houston are only opening their doors to those fleeing the New Orleans Superdome? What is the situation with that?
Houston is already bulging at the seams with people from Louisiana. You practically can’t get a hotel room in Houston, they are full of people who escaped Katrina in advance.

But, hotel rooms are expensive and a lot of these people no longer have jobs, obviously, and can’t afford to live out of a hotel.

So, there are a lot of people wanting in to the shelters and into the Astrodome, not just from the Superdome. That is causing more of an issue than authorities first believed.

The information that has been distributed in Houston, that the Astrodome will be a shelter, has brought out thousands more people than they expected and they just are not certain how to deal with the logistics at the moment.

What is the security like at the Astrodome? Are there National Guard troops there?
They have not allowed journalists inside, so I don’t know about what kind of security is inside the Astrodome. So far we’ve seen a strong Houston police presence on the perimeter.

Everybody will be searched. They are going to be very restrictive on what can be brought in and they are not going to allow anything dangerous in there. Upon exit and re-entry to the Astrodome, authorities tell us they will search people each time.

More than 20,000 people have live under one roof and that is going to be very difficult considering their circumstances.

There has been a large effort on the part of the city of Houston and the state of Texas to make these people feel welcome.

Throughout the day, big trucks have been delivering goods here and individuals have been driving up with just a trash bag of donated goods. The schools are making accommodations to let students into Houston schools as early as next week.

The Lone Star State is making an effort to extend a Texas-sized welcome.