HOUSTON — Houston has become the new home for many people escaping Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. But what kind of a home is it if you don't know where your family is?
There were too many people who, when they first arrived at the Astrodome on buses from the Superdome, had absolutely nothing, some not even their shoes (see "President Bush Says Progress Being Made In Chaotic New Orleans"). One family — which had a 15-year-old, 12-year-old, 9-year-old and 2-year-old — said they had just escaped from Jefferson Parish and felt like they hadn't bathed in a week. The family said too many people arrived at the Astrodome on Thursday and also said they had been turned away and were resorting to sleeping just outside the building, under an arch. They were looking for their mother.
Young children, some barely older than babies themselves, arrived at the Astrodome carrying their diapered siblings. Others said they were looking for their children, their fathers, their mothers, their sisters and their brothers, many of whom had been yanked away during rescue efforts or while getting on the buses. Those who had cell phones were making desperate phone calls and leaving messages. But the batteries were running out, and most of the numbers they had were for areas that should have been evacuated. If they couldn't get through, they didn't know what it meant. Was she alive? Was he dead? Did they get out? Luckily, free phone booths were set up so they could make phone calls, and the Astrodome flashed location information on its internal Jumbotron screens, so that people who were separated en route to the Astrodome had a chance of finding one another. There was also a section designated for lost children — for this near-city of them.
One young woman, 19-year-old Dominique Bellos, was supposed to be a junior at Tulane University this fall. Instead, she roamed the Astrodome, looking for her uncle at the behest of her grandmother. Dominique secretly believed her uncle must be dead, but didn't want to tell her grandmother that, didn't want her to give up hope. She also said the buses transporting people from the Superdome to the Astrodome "smelled like death."
It was a relief to get to the Astrodome, many said, since conditions at the Superdome had been so horrible. They told stories of witnessing children being raped, of people being killed, thrown over balconies, hearing shots ring out. They were so scared of going to the bathroom — where some of the rapes were apparently occurring — that some people, especially the elderly, just went on themselves. "It was treacherous," one 26-year-old survivor said. "We were like ants, it was so crowded." According to some, at the Astrodome, at least, they felt safe, and the lights stayed on. But "I never thought I would be homeless" was a common refrain. Jessica Strahan, a 24-year-old, was crying because she was three months pregnant and it was too late to consider having an abortion.
Annie Gonzalez, a 23-year-old, stopped by the Astrodome to complain that the Red Cross wasn't providing her with enough assistance, since she was staying with a friend nearby and not at the shelter there. When Red Cross VP Darren Irby pointed out that she at least had shelter, she explained that she was but one of a dozen people crashing with a friend, and that she wasn't getting access to the free food, medical attention, clothing and other donations the evacuees at the Astrodome were getting. "Food costs money, clothing costs money," she said, pointing out that she had run for her life and had just as few resources as the rest of the people there did.
Credit cards came in handy for those who wanted to avoid staying at a shelter, but even the people staying at Houston hotels said they felt lost, displaced and were worrying about missing loved ones. Several families stayed at a hotel down the street from the Astrodome, which broke with its usual policies and allowed pets to stay as well. Kim Bourgeois, a 24-year-old from Gretna, Louisiana, said she felt relieved to have her family with her at the Hampton Inn, but that she had left behind a boyfriend policeman in New Orleans so he could help with the relief effort. If and when she could get through to him, all she heard about were horrific things he was witnessing: dead bodies in the water, the Oakland mall burning down. Though her living conditions were better than [those] at the Astrodome, she said she felt like time there was running out, that there was only so long before her credit cards maxed out, and then where would she go?
The farther away you get from the Astrodome within Houston, the less panicked and distressed the evacuees are. "My mindset is that I'm on vacation, I'm on a tight budget," one displaced patriarch said as his children took over a hotel lobby near the Galleria, playing video games and watching TV. Knowing that insurance will reimburse you, that all you have to do is keep your receipts, he said, was a calming factor — mostly because he could afford to wait it out. Others, he acknowledged, were not so lucky, and he was beyond grateful that he'd managed to keep his family together and escape with his wallet intact. "It's more than most people have."
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.