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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas - New York Times

Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas - New York TimesSeptember 21, 2005
Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL

HOUSTON, Sept. 20 - Hurricane Rita prompted a mandatory evacuation of this city's public shelters on Tuesday, emptying them as quickly as they had filled just three weeks ago and sending still-dazed survivors of Hurricane Katrina packing off to Arkansas, to the bus terminal, to the airport and, for some who considered themselves lucky, to paid and furnished apartments here in the Houston area.

Clustered in the hot sun and with all they had salvaged spilling from black garbage bags, shopping carts and suitcases tied with cords, evacuees set to leave one of the shelters, at Reliant Arena, seemed largely resigned to this new flight, although there were some flashes of temper.

Leading a circle of 10 with hands clasped in prayer as buses and taxicabs filled around them, Johnny Jeremiah, minister of the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church here, intoned, "God, this day, right now, this place, with this foolishness going on, we need you."

City and county officials, who had moved a vast bureaucracy to house more than 27,000 survivors in four public shelters quickly after the New Orleans disaster, said none of those now leaving the shelters would be put in housing that could be at risk from the approaching storm. But they said they might have to relocate people who had earlier been placed at hotels and motels in low-lying areas.

With the new storm's path uncertain, Galveston, which still bears scars from the great hurricane of September 1900 - the nation's deadliest disaster, with at least 6,000 killed - ordered a mandatory evacuation to begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Mayor Bill White of Houston said that this city of two million would make its own decision Wednesday and that as much as half the population could be called upon to evacuate.

In recent days, the dwindling thousands of storm survivors who had been sheltered in the Astrodome and Reliant Arena, as well as the adjacent Reliant Center exhibition hall and the George R. Brown Convention Center, were concentrated largely in the arena, which was finally emptied Tuesday night.

For the last hundreds in the arena, the day was particularly trying. Families sat on bundles of possessions like war refugees. Pregnant women and the injured waited in wheelchairs. Red Cross volunteers weaved through the throngs, passing out cold water and pastries.

With her month-old daughter asleep in a stroller, Monique Davis scooped up diapers that had spilled over the ground. Nearby lay a trash bag with stuffed animals poking out. A boy rocked solemnly on a wooden hobbyhorse.

About 500 people who had applied for apartments and been promised them lined up for buses and taxicabs to get there. Others boarded tour buses to Ellington Field for flights to new shelter at Fort Chaffee, Ark. - some chose to make the entire trip by bus - or to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where Continental Airlines was offering free tickets out. Still others got rides to the Greyhound terminal, where free tickets also awaited.

Steve Freeman, an oyster shucker with an injured leg infected from walking through floodwaters, said he planned to take up Continental on the free flight to reach Norfolk, Va., where he heard there were lots of oysters. But he was suspicious of the official motives for the evacuation.

"They've been trying to get us out early," Mr. Freeman said. "We're the working people. They don't want us here."

Paul Horton, driver of a produce truck, said he would use his airline ticket to fly to Atlanta to join his wife and two children, who had evacuated there with a neighbor. He has been separated from them since the hurricane, Mr. Horton said, when they got out after the water reached chest-high. He was later rescued and evacuated by bus to Dallas, then Arizona, Arkansas and finally the Reliant sports and entertainment complex in Houston.

Rohonor R. Randall, in a wheelchair with a bandaged foot ailing from exposure to polluted water, said she was bound for Fort Chaffee, but by bus.

"I'm not afraid of planes, I just like to be on the ground," Ms. Randall said.

She called for her newfound friend, the Rev. Hugh Hairston, pastor of Loveland Church in Ontario, Calif., a leader of a group of volunteer clerics called Operation Compassion. He offered a prayer for her foot.

Ms. Randall gripped his hand and said: "You never know where life leads you. Life changes in an instant, like God is showing you life is valuable."

Maureen Balleza and Bill Dawson contributed reporting from Houston for this article, and Christie Taylor from Galveston.

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