Houston May Become Permanent Home for Many Evacuees

Many who fled flooded New Orleans for shelter in Houston's Astrodome are already eyeing potential jobs and considering making Houston their new home.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

NPR's Robert Smith has been talking with New Orleanians evacuated to Houston, and he's found that many of those now there are already thinking of that city as a permanent home.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Anthony Bertrand had only been at the Astrodome refugee center for a few hours when he headed back out again to the streets of Houston to figure out what his job prospects were.

Mr. ANTHONY BERTRAND (Refugee): I seen, as I was getting off the bridge, that they got a Burger King over here hiring. So you know what I'm going to do the first thing in the morning. I got to get out here and pave the concrete. I gotta go do what I gotta do.

SMITH: He has no resume, no references, but luckily he escaped New Orleans wearing the shirt from a McDonald's uniform, and that will have to serve as proof that he's been working. Bertrand says it's now a competition to see who can get ahead first.

Mr. BERTRAND: In a minute, they're gonna to have down there a hundred thousand people coming from New Orleans here, and it's gonna be hectic for the city.

SMITH: Do you feel like you have to establish yourself before the others get here?

Mr. BERTRAND: Yes, I do. I really do 'cause that's all everybody talking about, establishing theyself. I mean, nobody don't want to go back to New Orleans, nobody.

SMITH: An unexpected outcome of Houston's generosity may be a whole slew of new residents. Already, the city is starting to plan for the long-term care of these evacuees. Mayor Bill White called on Houstonians to offer up spare apartments and vacant garages. Officials promised mail service and school access for the refugees. Philip Hilton from Orleans Parish says you can't help but feel the love here.

Mr. PHILIP HILTON (New Orleans Refugee): The Lord sent us to the land of milk and honey and all we got to do is accept it and do things accordingly. This place is big enough for all of us to live life and live life more abundantly, just like God want us to do.

SMITH: For people like Hilton, who don't own property or have steady jobs, the decision to stay in Texas is easy. Aquita Duncan(ph) is also here for good. Everything she owns is in a child's wagon she's pulling behind her.

Ms. AQUITA DUNCAN (New Orleans Refugee): We was living all right in New Orleans, but we don't have nothing now. It's a new beginning, a new start for the children to grow up in a new environment, for them to just, you know, live better.

SMITH: Older refugees or ones that still own property back in New Orleans seem more likely to say that they do want to go back. Bruce Terrence will return to see how his house fared and hopefully rebuild, but he wonders how New Orleans can survive if it loses a lot of its young population.

Mr. BRUCE TERRENCE (New Orleans Refugee): The workers who work in the shopping centers and other places outside of New Orleans, those businesses are going to hurt when they eventually open back up because they won't have their work force.

SMITH: Because their work force will be in Texas.

Mr. TERRENCE: Right, exactly.

SMITH: Texas officials are reluctant to talk about how they will handle a permanent influx of mostly poor and needy folks to their cities. Governor Rick Perry says there's simply no choice.

Governor RICK PERRY (Texas): There's going to be some people, I'm sure, that come here and decide Texas is a great place to live and stay here and be great contributing members of the Texas society, and we welcome them. You know, it's a free country, and they're going to live where they want to live, but what's most important right now is we're going to take care of them, because they are in need.

SMITH: What started as an evacuation could end up being a migration, and New Orleanians could become the newest immigrant group in Texas. As he looks for a job, Bertrand says he already feels a stigma from the pink wristband that identifies him as a resident of the Astrodome. He points back toward a grocery store.

Mr. BERTRAND: I'm walking through there and I heard one guy say, `Oh, yeah, we got to watch them 'cause they're here.' I mean, that's not nothing to say. You know we're gonna need help, at least help us some kind of way. You know we're gonna need the help. Don't just cast us to the side because we not castaways.

SMITH: What they are now is Texans. Robert Smith, NPR News, Houston.

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