Astrodome too full to accept any more
ASSOCIATED PRESS | September 2, 2005
BY PAM EASTON AND MATT CURRY
HOUSTON-- After accepting more than 11,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees, officials said the Astrodome was full and at least temporarily halted the flow of evacuees into the shelter Thursday night.
"We've actually reached capacity for the safety and comfort of the people inside there," American Red Cross spokeswoman Dana Allen said shortly before midnight. She said people were "packed pretty tight" on the floor of the Astrodome.
Instead of sending arriving buses away to other shelters, however, officials decided early Friday to process the refugees there and begin housing people in the adjacent Reliant Center, where the Houston Texans play football, said Houston press secretary Patrick Trahan.
It wasn't immediately clear if others would be housed at the Astrodome.
At least 20 buses were lined up in three directions outside the Astrodome early Friday. Dozens of frustrated and angry people milled about outside. Some were handed bottles of cold water, their first in days.
Before we left New Orleans they said everybody will be in the Astrodome," said Patricia Profit, who stood outside one of the buses while some of her relatives were inside the Astrodome. "'Don't panic, don't worry, you'll still be with your family.' That's what they told us. Now we can't be with our family."
Houston's fire marshal had made the decision that the stadium was full, said police Sgt. Nathan McDuell.
"It would be unfortunate if we were to bring these individuals from a desperate situation and create another desperate situation here," McDuell said.
He later said the situation had been reassessed and more people could be processed.
"It's a very fluid situation and we have to deal with the situations as they arrive," McDuell said. "Our main goal and main interest is to make sure everybody is safe."
The total of 11,375 inside the Astrodome when the initial decision on capacity was made was less than half the estimated 23,000 people who were expected to arrive by bus from New Orleans in Houston.
Those refugees who arrived earlier, weary from days in the sweltering, miserable conditions at the Superdome, were happy to get a shower, a hot meal and a cool place to sleep.
Thirty deputies working on overtime provided security and searched refugees for weapons. A few people were arrested, although Sheriff Tommy Thomas didn't have an exact count. He said some men were arrested for going into the female 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.
Police officers also have confiscated 30 guns, most of which have been voluntarily surrendered, McDuell said.
Doctors and nurses set up a clinic to help people with high blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems. Ambulances waited in the parking lots for those needing hospital care, said Dr. Herminia Polacio, a Harris County public health official.
"Many of them have been in situations in the Superdome where they have been under quite a bit of duress, such as several days without medication," she said.
Organizers spent the past two days setting up cots that covered the Astrodome's cement floor. They provided phones and a message board so refugees could contact loved ones, and gathered supplies such as bottled water, soap, toothbrushes and diapers.
Outside the Astrodome, trucks delivered sandwiches and paramedics assessed new arrivals for health problems under tents in a makeshift triage center.
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."
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."
The first refugees arrived Wednesday night on a school bus, apparently commandeered by a person who then picked up other evacuees who were stranded on the interstate. Another school bus arrived about two hours later, followed by the first commercial bus that was part of the emergency evacuation effort to transport Superdome residents to Houston.
Hungry and tired, the refugees ate scrambled eggs, biscuits and orange juice for breakfast, and then passed out on cots to get some much-needed rest.
"People are so happy to have a hot meal," said Margaret O'Brien Molina, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. "Some of the folks haven't had a hot meal in days."
Some, however, weren't pleased about the long trip to Texas.
Ruby Roussell, who lost her house and car to the hurricane, said she climbed aboard a bus in New Orleans thinking she'd be dropped off in Baton Rouge, where she has family. Instead, she found herself in Houston.
"We didn't choose to come to this place," she said. "We didn't ask to come here."
Farrell Johnson, a 54-year-old carpenter from New Orleans, said the shelter was overcrowded Thursday afternoon and tempers had begun to flare. He said it's hard not to be frustrated given the circumstances.
"First, you know, we done lost everything," he said. "See what I have on? This is it. That is enough right there."
Houston Mayor Bill White said some problems are to be expected.
"You're talking about God's children here ... My mom and dad used to say, 'There's always a few bad apples,"' he said.