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What happens to Katrina evacuees?

Today we're talking shelter.  Tomorrow, school.  The day after, jobs.  But what happens to evacuees for the longer-term?  MSNBC-TV’s Keith Olbermann talks to County Judge Robert Eckels who is coordinating the relief efforts for survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the Houston Astrodome.
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Well, now what?

That's what many evacuees are asking themselves after surviving Katrina's wrath only to be left without a home, money, food, car or job.  They made it this far, but many questions linger about their long-term futures. 

Speaking at the Houston Astrodome Monday, the president‘s mother, Barbara Bush, said in a radio interview that things were “working very well” for the people in the sports stadium there.  “Almost everyone I‘ve talked to wants to move to Houston.  What I‘m hearing is, they all want to stay in Texas.”  She went on to say, “Everyone is so overwhelmed with the hospitality.  And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway.”

Approximately 230,000 people have been relocated to Texas shelters alone.  How many are staying with relatives and friends?  Will they be forced to live that Tennessee Williams line and rely on the "kindness of strangers"?  And for how long?

County Judge Robert Eckels leads homeland security and emergency management for Harris County, Texas.  He talked to MSNBC-TV's Keith Olbermann about his group’s responsibilities to coordinate the relief effort for survivors in the Houston Astrodome.

KEITH OLBERMANN, COUNTDOWN HOST: How long do you think those people in the Astrodome are going to be in your charge and in your arena there?

COUNTY JUDGE ROBERT ECKELS, HOMELAND SECURITY, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: That‘s the $64,000 question.  We do believe that this dome is well established and suitable for a short-term shelter.  It is not a home.  There‘s still 15,000 of your friends and neighbors.  You‘re sharing your bedroom, your bathroom, your kitchen, your living room.  You‘re sharing your life with a big crowd of people.

That‘s not a healthy style, lifestyle for either sociological or psychological purposes.  It‘s the kind of thing that will cause stress and lead to the problems that you had in the Superdome.

So this is a place that is designed and built as a shelter, purely for moving people in, getting a process, and getting them moved on to a smaller, more human scale, to apartments.  We‘ve already moved about 150 or 200 folks into apartments so far, into elderly and senior housing.  We‘ll be moving several 100 a day from now on.  We‘ll be relocating folks to other shelters that are better suited for them than one that is this size.

OLBERMANN: Has the issue of the criteria for shutting down federal assistance, whenever that is, if that‘s five years from now or five months from now, has that been established yet?  Has it been discussed?  Or is it also an open question?

ECKELS: That has not been discussed on our level.  For us, we have the ability to be reimbursed by the federal government for whatever it takes on this shelter period.  Again, this is a shelter, not a home.  Typically, FEMA comes in and provides emergency assistance for a period of time to allow people to be reestablished.

Many of the folks here, as you were discussing earlier, were from projects in New Orleans.  Many of them will be eligible for HUD funding here.  We don‘t have projects in Houston or even in most of Texas like you had in New Orleans.  We use a voucher system to let people move into the homes of their choice.

And so we‘re working with other apartments in this community, with the eligible apartments for what we call section eight housing, to let folks that are eligible for those programs, whether they want to use them here or anyplace else in the country, transfer those vouchers in through our offices here at Houston and in Texas, so that we can then move them into, again, more suitable, more dignified housing.

OLBERMANN: Certainly large numbers of these people are going stay exactly where they are, that the realization that New Orleans is not going to be open for business anytime in the immediate future will become readily apparent to everybody in the immediate future.  Is a city like Houston capable of absorbing a large number of new residents overnight?

ECKELS: We would grow by, you know, maybe 100,000 people a year under any account.  We‘re a fast-growing region.  The Houston area has a population of 5 million people, about the same as New Orleans.  So, yes, we will deal with it, and we‘ll be able to absorb them here in our market if it‘s necessary.