Refugees Trek to Houston Astrodome
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And throughout the day, refugees in New Orleans' Superdome will be put on buses to the Astrodome in Houston. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has chartered about 500 buses for the 350-mile move. Forty years ago, the Astrodome was America's first domed stadium. The 18-story facility was host to the Houston Oilers football team, the Astros baseball team. Last month, developers announced plans for turning the rarely used facility into a hotel. In the meantime, it will be used to house refugees from the hurricane. Capella Tucker of Houston Public Radio reports.
CAPELLA TUCKER reporting:
Houston Mayor Bill White says nobody knows how long the Katrina evacuees will be calling the Astrodome home.
Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston): So we are approaching this with confidence, but some humility, that no American community has dealt with a population the size we may be dealing with.
TUCKER: To prepare, the air-conditioning unit in the Dome has been turned on and bathrooms and locker rooms have been cleaned. Toilets are operational in most of the building and, while officials couldn't say exactly how many, they are confident the plumbing will work. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels has little doubt the 40-year-old sporting venue will be able to handle those coming from the Superdome.
Judge ROBERT ECKELS (Harris County): We do have water in the Dome. We do have locker rooms and showers in the Dome. We can set up more. We have air conditioning. We can serve, through our kitchens in the Dome and through the crowds that it is designed to serve, the kinds of people that are coming in today.
TUCKER: Cots and linens are being shipped in and people will sleep on what used to be the playing field. Eckels says they are assessing the kitchen facilities that are normally used for sporting events.
Judge ECKELS: More importantly, though, is the social conditions and the psychological conditions of living in a family of 20,000 people. Folks just don't tend to do well with that over a long period of time.
TUCKER: To take care of more than the basic necessities, a nursery, health clinic and an entertainment area with TVs are being set up. Tim Kidwell is director of disaster services for the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross.
Mr. TIM KIDWELL (Director of Disaster Services, American Red Cross, Houston Chapter): We've set up an area for mental health. We've set up an area for first aid. So we've tried to organize the Dome as best we can to accommodate all the different needs that we have in running, basically, a small city.
TUCKER: The shelter is going to be a cooperative venture with FEMA, county and city officials, the Red Cross and other local charities. Mayor White says they are counting on Houston's non-profit and faith-based agencies to help.
Mayor WHITE: ...people who've been very badly traumatized, there are some people--great people from all walks of life, but including some of those who did not have shelter before Hurricane Katrina that will be part of the population, and it will really be a challenge to all of our social service providers.
TUCKER: Evacuees will be free to come and go from the Astrodome. The city's seven-and-a-half-mile light-rail line goes right by the complex. Many venues, such as museums and the YMCA, have offered free admissions to everyone seeking refuge from the hurricane.
Schooling for the kids is another concern. Classrooms may be set up in the Dome, and Texas Governor Rick Perry says they are working on opening up the school system.
Governor RICK PERRY (Texas): And I want those stranded families to know that the doors of Texas public schools are going to be immediately open to their school-age children. Under federal law, these children are entitled to enroll in school districts where they temporarily reside.
TUCKER: Just like everything else, details for that are still being worked out. The Astrodome is being used solely for the people coming from the Superdome. Evacuees who made their way to Houston on their own will not be sheltered in the Astrodome. Those evacuees, who are running out of money to pay for hotel rooms, are being referred to Red Cross shelters being set up across the city. For NPR News, I'm Capella Tucker in Houston.
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