As they drove into Houston on Interstate 10 Thursday morning, evacuees from the New Orleans Superdome saw a "Welcome" sign. Local residents had hung bedsheets over the edge of overpasses and erected signs on trucks with messages like, "Welcome New Orleans, Our House Is Your House."
"They were playing Lil' Wayne [a popular New Orleans hip-hop artist] on the radio when we drove into town," says Augustus Warren Williams, 45. "They are treating us better than our own people."
For the desperate, dirty, overwhelmed people arriving at Houston's Astrodome, which took in 11,000 evacuees until authorities closed the door Thursday night, the contrast with the situation at the Superdome is stunning. They describe a nightmarish scene: tens of thousands of people packed into a stadium surrounded by overflowing sewage, piles of rotting garbage and corpses, in delirium-inducing heat, without adequate food or water. Hostilities rose and violence erupted. Law enforcement was grossly inadequate. Evacuees told stories, some of which have been confirmed by authorities, of rapes, fighting and a suicide. Their relief at having arrived at a place with food, water, sanitary facilities and proper security was palpable.
After initially planning to shelter 23,000 evacuees, authorities decided Thursday night that the Astrodome could only accommodate 11,000. Buses were rerouted to surrounding towns like Huntsville, with San Antonio and Dallas each preparing to receive 25,000 people. So far, families that were split up before evacuation have no way of contacting each other.
None of the volunteers available for comment could provide any idea of how long the refugees will be housed in the Astrodome or in Houston at large. Although the Houston school system has taken on thousands of displaced kids, they have no idea how long this situation will last. No officials would comment on the subject of resettlement, leaving the long-term fate of Hurricane Katrina's refugees uncertain.
As we approach the designated volunteer and press entranceway to the Astrodome, the blast of cool air conditioning is a relief from the scorching Texas sun. Inside the dome, cots are organized in rows according to occupants' last names, so that family members can better find one another if they have been separated in transit. At the Superdome, evacuees were forbidden to leave because of flooding. At the Astrodome, everyone is given a pink wristband upon arrival so that they can come and go as they please.
A bewildering array of volunteers move among the cots, including medical technicians, psychologists and local volunteers registering names and handing out donated food and water.
The contrast between this scene and the one at the Superdome is not lost on evacuees. "It was inhuman and disgusting in the Superdome," says Nathaniel Brooks, 71. "They had us cooped up in there and some of the younger boys were going crazy. Fighting, hurting each other, arguing. I couldn't wait to leave."
The evacuees, most of them poor and black, blast officials for the failed relief effort. "The mayor couldn't stop the rain, but I know he could have done a lot more to help his people," says Brooks.
Laverda Suber, 50, evacuated New Orleans, but her brother and nieces decided to stay, and ended up trapped in the Superdome's catacombs. "My family was calling me from the Superdome, and they couldn't find where the rations were being distributed," says Suber. "They went hungry and were dehydrated."
Hurricane Katrina stripped the Superdome of its Teflon cover, caused leaking, and left the shelter without power.
Evacuees say New Orleans and federal officials failed to provide them with adequate services. They say they were grossly understaffed. "Five or six buses showed up at the Superdome and there was no one to tell anyone what to do -- I got crushed," says James Matthews, 61, who is handicapped and suffered a sprained wrist in the stampede. "This is 99 percent better."
For their part, furious local and state officials are demanding answers from federal agencies about the abysmal federal response to the catastrophe, which left thousands trapped in a lawless city for days without food, water or medical help. The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, was actually reduced to sending out "a desperate SOS" for help.
As the city became aware of the storm's approach, Nagin repeatedly referred to the Superdome as a shelter of "last resort," emphasizing evacuation as the only safe choice for New Orleanians. However, it was widely known that New Orleans could suffer catastrophic damage in a storm of Katrina's magnitude, and it was also widely known that tens of thousands of people lacked the means to evacuate. The question in many people's minds in the Astrodome today is, Why weren't better evacuation and shelter contingency plans in place?
At the Astrodome, plates of sausage, eggs and tortillas are being distributed. A crush of people surrounds a station at which Red Cross volunteers are passing out underwear, stockings, socks, T-shirts, diapers and toiletries. The bleachers are festooned with wet clothing set out to dry in the neon lights. The showers are supplied with soap, and the bathrooms are equipped with industrial-sized pumps of hand sanitizer. On one set of seats hangs a sign announcing free children's events, including a trip to the Houston Zoo.
Despite the appearance of centralized management behind this rescue operation, the relief efforts taking place at the Astrodome are entirely ad hoc. "I was at work this morning minding my own business when I got a mass e-mail from my company saying that we are in great need of volunteers at the Astrodome," says Bryce Giescer, in his mid-50s. "I just showed up, found a Red Cross person and said, 'Point me and push,' and they did." Giescer is an employee of the Reliant Energy Co., which provides most of the electricity for the Houston area. Other companies, including Continental, Shell Oil and BP, are providing a staff of volunteers.
Across the 610 expressway from the Astrodome is Astro World, an amusement park that has offered free entry to anyone staying at the Astrodome. Houston's Third Ward Bike Shop is donating 50 bicycles to evacuees, and kids can ride around the vast and empty parking lot that surrounds the stadium.
Despite the vastly improved conditions at the Astrodome, there are some problems. Several people have been arrested for fighting over cots, and 30 guns were confiscated. Several evacuees have been seen repacking suitcases full of looted merchandise. In the bathrooms, one emergency medical official who declined to be named ordered some New Orleanians to cease using drugs in the stalls. The days spent in the Superdome have left people in varying states of trauma.
The dramatic failure of authorities to deal with the New Orleans catastrophe has caused darker thoughts to surface among former residents. "In some places, the streets are totally dry," says Nathaniel Brooks. "And in other places you can't see the tops of the houses. I don't know how to account for this. But it seems like something's not right."
While kids appear to be content coloring in donated coloring books and playing on the rolled-up bolts of Astro-Turf, many adults lie in their cots staring blankly into the distance. As we approach people, many are indifferent about speaking to us. They have gone through enough already and don't seem to feel that talking to the media will do anything to improve their situation. But traces of the old New Orleanian civility remain. People who do feel able to talk with us shake our hands and tell us to be safe and to take care of ourselves.
Some refugees from Katrina feel betrayed by their city to the point that they are ambivalent about returning. "I've put in my application at the Holiday Inn down the street," says Johnraver Prince, 19. "New Orleans is not doing what they can for us. I'm thinking to stay." Other evacuees echoed these sentiments. Some say their lives in New Orleans have been completely destroyed.