Many have no wish to go back to New Orleans

At Houston Astrodome, dazed thousands wait

Main concern is lost loved ones

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON, Texas - The Astrodome floor was packed yesterday with thousands of people, many of them dazed and in shock, sleeping on green cots, searching for loved ones and wondering what to do next.

Most had gone through hellish conditions to get here. Some said they would never go back to New Orleans. Others planned to return, eventually. And others didn't know what to do.

The Astrodome had taken in 18,000 yesterday, officials said. An additional 4,000 were processed at the Astrodome and sent to other area shelters.

Wayne LeBlanc stole a car to get here. He and his two sisters and their children had made it to the New Orleans convention center by Wednesday, swimming part of the way and traveling part by police boat, but there was no refuge there.

Instead they found fighting, shooting and people dying inside the building, they said. There was no food, no water, no medical care.

"You had to get out," said his sister, Ariane LeBlanc. "Everybody was doing it. Everybody was stealing cars."

By the time they reached the Astrodome on Thursday night, Ariane LeBlanc couldn't stop crying. They would wait here, they said, until an aunt arrived by car from Miami to pick them up and take them there - perhaps for good.

They were some of the lucky ones. Barry Manson, who lived in New Orleans' Garden District, didn't know what would happen to him: "I'm totally trapped here. I don't know anyone at all, and I don't have any income."

After the storm, he and an elderly neighbor had walked to the Superdome. Mason was so disoriented by yesterday that, as he sat in the stands of the Astrodome, he could not recall exactly when he left home for the Superdome, or when he got out and arrived here.

All he knows is that people were screaming and pushing to board a bus and, somehow, he got on.

As tired and confused victims such as Mason arrived at the Astrodome, they were met by medical personnel. Arrivals were triaged on the buses; some were treated at a clinic set up at the Reliant Arena, a sports facility next to the Astrodome.

Dr. Kenneth L. Mattox, chief of staff for the Harris County Hospital District, said people were being treated for skin rashes, hypertension, diabetes and asthma.

Two people have died since they arrived in Houston, Mattox said. Both were elderly and had pre-existing medical conditions.

Rosie Gray, who arrived on a bus from the Superdome and is diabetic, said she was given an insulin shot and asthma treatment when she got to Houston. But her chief concern yesterday was finding her daughter and mother - they were separated as they fled New Orleans.

As an announcer read names over the public address system of people searching for lost relatives, Gray said she would wait at the Astrodome until she heard him say, "Rosa Gray, you got your family."

"My mama, I don't know where she is. They may be in Baton Rouge," she said. "I just hope and pray that they're all right."

People had tacked up hundreds of notes in search of relatives on a bulletin board on the Astrodome's ground level. An electric sign, typically used to post football scores, flashed names and phone numbers. And people roamed the floor of the Astrodome, holding makeshift cardboard signs with the names of missing loved ones.

George Lewis, who lived in the Paris Oaks neighborhood of New Orleans, arrived at the Astrodome on Thursday and was still trying yesterday to reach his son, Brian Freeman of Silver Spring, Md.

Lewis and his sister rode out the storm at her two-story house, then found a boat and used pieces of 2-by-4 lumber to paddle to a neighborhood school, where they spent the night. They were rescued from the school by another boat, and then bused here.

Lewis said he'll have to go home, eventually, to clean up what's left of his house. But he won't move back permanently.

Leroy Fair Jr., who lived in the 9th Ward, won't move back to New Orleans, either. He had 20 feet of water in his house and was rescued Wednesday, after spending two days in the attic.

"I knew I was going to dehydrate and die if I stayed," he said, sitting on a cot on the floor of the Astrodome. "I've seen catastrophe [happen] to other people, but I've never experienced it myself."

Fair arrived from the Superdome by bus Thursday. Now, he hopes to move somewhere safer than New Orleans. Perhaps a Chicago suburb, he said.

With the Astrodome already filled with people who had stories like Fair's, officials and volunteers were preparing for even more to arrive.

Volunteers set up green cots in the Reliant Center, which officials estimated could hold 11,000.

"Buses have not been turned away from the site," Houston Mayor Bill White said during a news conference yesterday morning. "The City of Houston and this region will use its capacity to care for tens of thousands of families. We will be making a decision daily when we've reached our capacity."

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