Officials Set Sights on Astrodome Evacuation
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Evacuees scattered around the country by the winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina face a third week of dislocation and confusion. Many are still being moved from temporary shelter to temporary shelter often thousands of miles from the homes they left behind. Others are being encouraged to take the next step toward building temporary lives. Officials who oversee thousands of people housed at the Houston Astrodome complex say they hope to have survivors out of its shelters by next Saturday. But confusion and other logistical problems have evacuees and officials both worried about that deadline. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
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CARRIE KAHN reporting:
On the floor of the Houston Astrodome yesterday, Linda Jeffers(ph) walked around nervously, talking with other hurricane survivors about the deadline.
Ms. LINDA JEFFERS (Evacuee): Everybody in here has a grateful attitude. People have been kind, but it's changed. That's all I--it's changed.
KAHN: She says she doesn't want to complain about the generosity she's received, but ever since FEMA handed out the $2,000 debit cards Friday, the atmosphere in the shelter is different. Jeffers, who evacuated out of New Orleans, says aid workers and FEMA officials are making it clear to residents that the time to go has come.
Ms. JEFFERS: You got money now, you know, and they feel like everybody has money or a dollar or whatever, so get along, little doggy.
KAHN: Jeffers got a $2,000 debit card before FEMA abruptly ended the program this weekend. But Alba Ellis(ph), who was rescued from her New Orleans rooftop, wasn't as lucky. She says her daughter, who is the head of her household, stood in line for two hours before FEMA officials told her there were no more cards.
Ms. ALBA ELLIS (Evacuee): If you're going to say you're going to do something, stand by your word. These people had hope.
KAHN: FEMA says it handed out more than 6,000 cards to evacuees but only to those inside the Astrodome shelters before suspending the program. A spokesman said the cancellation was due to technological and staffing problems. FEMA said for those evacuees living in hotels and homes in Houston, they should log on to the Web or call its (800) number for checks or direct deposit.
Unidentified Woman #1: ...debit card.
Unidentified Woman #2: The debit card--that's over at the George R. Brown.
KAHN: But by Sunday, hundreds still came to the gates of the Astrodome looking for the cards. They were handed fliers and turned away, like Samm Trann(ph) of New Orleans, who's been staying with a friend in Houston.
Ms. SAMM TRANN (Evacuee): We tried to get records Monday, but, you know, I have no transportation. Somebody just dropped me here, and you're, like, confusing. I lost.
KAHN: Others living in ad hoc arrangements outside the Astrodome were equally frustrated. Norma Bickham(ph) is sleeping in a donated room with 19 other people. She says only those living in the shelter are getting help, and the rest are not.
Ms. NORMA BICKHAM (Evacuee): And they turn us around every day, `You don't have beds. You can't come. Come back tomorrow.' We come back tomorrow. We are running out of--we have no--you know, we're running out of gas, money and everything else, and they are just--we're seeing them walking around with suitcases and everything, but what the hell about us?
KAHN: FEMA officials say more than 36,000 families are living in the Houston area and have registered for aid. But Gilbert Bennett of the Houston Fire Department, who is part of the Astrodome's command center, says they can't all come here for services. He says it's going to take a while to set up distribution centers around Houston and is asking people to be patient.
Mr. GILBERT BENNETT (Houston Fire Department): We live in that instant society where you think you can push a button and it happens. That does not happen. You have to set this stuff up.
KAHN: He wouldn't give a date for when those centers would be up, but Harris County Judge Robert Eckels says a big move toward expanding services citywide is to get everyone out of the Astrodome by the 17th.
Judge ROBERT ECKELS (Harris County): This is a shelter. It is not a home, and it will not become a refugee center.
KAHN: Eckels says he's optimistic that deadline will be met. Nearly 2,000 evacuees have left the Astrodome complex just in the past two days.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Houston.