Rebuilding Life After Katrina, in Houston

Thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina have relocated to Houston, and many plan to stay there, at least for a while. Mike Pesca talks with some New Orleans residents trying to get their feet back on the ground in Houston.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

President Bush is back in the Gulf Coast today, his third visit since Hurricane Katrina struck two weeks ago. The president went into New Orleans to see relief efforts and, later, took a helicopter tour of surrounding parishes. And he spoke to reporters in New Orleans.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This great city has got ample talent and ample genius to set the strategy and set the vision. And our role at the federal government is, you know, obviously within the law to help them realize that vision.

CHADWICK: Hundreds of thousands of people who escaped the disaster went to Texas. The question facing the evacuees has gone from surviving for the next hour to surviving for the next few weeks or months. NPR's Mike Pesca reports from Houston.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Odessa Jerome(ph) used to work at the parking lot of the Superdome in New Orleans. She never received her last paycheck, by the way. Now she sits tired in the parking lot of Houston's equivalent sports complex. It's ironic, she notes. Jerome, who wasn't on assistance or in subsidized housing in New Orleans, wants to resume the same lifestyle in Houston. She's just waiting for the right line.

Ms. ODESSA JEROME (Evacuee): The red tape is no one gives you specifics. You hear through word of mouth what you have to do, and then you're running around in circles. And then when you finally get to the part where you're supposed to be where you are, you've got a line with 10,000 people in it, and it takes you all day to get one thing done.

(Soundbite of beeping)

PESCA: A few hundred feet away stand 21-year-old Nicole Ray(ph) and her 19-year-old cousin Rinette Henry(ph) withdrawing cash from a temporary ATM. A young man they do not know ask them about the $2,000 debit cards FEMA was handing out. The girls' qualifications to answer this question seem to be that they're standing next to a cash machine.

Ms. NICOLE RAY (Evacuee): Over there in the next building. You've got to go early, though. You have to get up at 6:00 'cause the line be long.

PESCA: I think they're done with the $2,000 FEMA card. They're done with that. Is that what he's asking about?

Ms. RAY: Oh, hey, hey, he said that they're done with the $2,000 FEMA card. He said they're done with the FEMA card.

PESCA: The news `No FEMA debit cards at the Astrodome' is flashed on the sign on the 610 Highway that normally tells of traffic delays, but people here haven't been out on the highway--actually Nicole has. Frustrated at the lines here, she took a cab to the city's main housing office, where she secured Section 8 housing for her family, three children, no husband. Nicole and Rinette look at some of the people in the shelters who they say have blown a lot of their relief money already, and they can't understand it.

Ms. RAY: They're just going out, shopping out of control like they're somebody just going on a shopping spree and just forget about everything else.

Ms. RINETTE HENRY (Evacuee): Right. Yeah, going to the big mall. You-all take a ride to the big mall out here, you'll see them buying G-Nit(ph) or buying Rocawear and all that.

Ms. RAY: Timberland.

Ms. HENRY: Timberland. You ought to see that.

PESCA: The big mall--huge, in fact--is the Galleria Mall. It's the one locals refer people here to when asked, `What's the closest mall?' It's a 17- to $19 cab ride away the people opt for because they don't want to get lost on an unfamiliar bus system. But the Galleria is one of the ritziest malls in the country. Famika Henry(ph), who was at the Galleria yesterday, walked past the Versace, Neiman Marcus and Tiffany to find a Champs sporting goods for shoes and socks for her children. She has in hand a Red Cross-issued debit card, $300 per family member.

Ms. FAMIKA HENRY (Evacuee): This is just clothes for them to put on their back. They don't have nothing. They came here with no underwear, no nothing. They still need uniforms and school supplies to go to school. You know, we lost everything, and they think 2,000 going to help a family? All of us have four children apiece. That's not nothing.

PESCA: Henry's family does have a hotel room for 10 more days, until her two-week FEMA voucher runs out. At that point she will hope to get some other form of assistance. The plan is that all the people sheltered at the Astrodome and Reliant Center will be out by next weekend. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Houston.

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