New Orleans refugees look for fresh start

Future: After escaping with little but the shirts on their backs, evacuees begin thinking about finding jobs and housing in new cities.

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOUSTON - Like thousands of others, Gail Egano and Lloyd Fortune charted a traumatic departure from New Orleans. They escaped the water rushing into their home by bashing a hole through the attic, then traveled by boat and bus to find relief here at the Astrodome.

Now that they've made it to this city, they say they may never leave. Fortune, 55, a machine operator at a coffee processing plant in New Orleans, plans to start looking for a job here to support the couple.

"They opened their arms to us ... there must be something here," Fortune said.

Officials estimate 200,000 evacuees are staying in the Houston area, including at least 155,000 in local hotels and 18,000 in the Astrodome and neighboring Reliant Arena.

Lt. Joe Leonard, a Coast Guard officer who is coordinating shelters at the Astrodome, its two neighboring sports complexes and the George R. Brown Convention Center, said the four facilities could accommodate up to 33,200 people.

But the shelters are only a temporary solution. "We're calling this whole project a transition center," Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt said of the shelters. "We're trying to get people out into housing."

Bettencourt said it would take weeks to get everyone into more permanent situations. Houston school districts are preparing for thousands of additional students, and Bettencourt said plans to help evacuees find work and housing would be announced in coming days.

But word of possible jobs was already beginning to trickle out yesterday.

Fortune said a shelter employee mentioned a job fair being planned for evacuees early next week.

David Ward, another New Orleans resident, said he had leads for construction work and jobs at Loews and Wal-Mart. Ward arrived at the Astrodome three days ago and said he would not be returning to his Uptown neighborhood.

"My plan is not to go back there," Ward, 37, said as he stood outside the sports complex with his two daughters. "Either we're going to stay somewhere in Texas or go to California."

Not everyone wanted to remain in Texas though.

`Going to rebuild'

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who toured the Astrodome yesterday, said many of the people he met inside couldn't wait to return home. He said citizens were asking him whether the city would still have its two most famous annual celebrations, Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.

"We are going to rebuild the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area," Landrieu said, adding that the French Quarter is still in "great" condition.

Losing everything

Even so, Brandy Richards said she would never return.

Richards, 26, said she lived in the projects on Canal Street in New Orleans. She and her boyfriend stayed in her second-floor apartment for a day, and then shuttled neighbors from their homes to Interstate 10 by boat, she said. They then walked through chest-high water to get into the Superdome, where she said they spent two days in the heat and stench and danger.

In the mayhem of boarding buses from the Superdome to the Astrodome, Richards became separated from her mother and grandmother.

"I lost everything. I don't even have my family or nobody. I don't know what to do next," she said.

Richards added: "I don't never want to go to New Orleans. Never. Because I feel they left us there to die."

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