Houston residents glad to help hurricane victims, but wary of future

Many chip in, some worry about strain on services

Katrinia's Wake

September 05, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- Watching the news from New Orleans last week, Jennifer Gutierrez was frustrated by what she saw as the slow response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Which is why Sunday found the 21-year-old Houstonian at the Astrodome, where this city is hosting thousands displaced by the storm. At a table before hundreds of cots, most of them occupied by disaster-weary evacuees, she was spending a second day answering questions about emergency aid, steering people toward health and welfare services and taking down the names of lost loved ones.

"I'm happy to do it, to help with the relief effort," she said as she jogged another missing-family bulletin up to the crew working the stadium public-address system."But this many people -- I don't think we could handle them here for months."

The first Texas stop for many in the exodus from Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Houston has taken in tens of thousands of refugees over the past week with both a neighborly sense of welcome and an apprehension about their ultimate impact on the city.

Volunteers who have given up their holiday weekends to help settle storm victims here say they are glad to pitch in during their fellow citizens' moment of need. Church groups, teams of coworkers and individuals have flooded the complex of stadiums and arenas where the city is housing the evacuees to offer everything from haircuts and manicures to lodging and jobs.

But the volunteers and others here worry that the swelling of the population for an indefinite period of time could increase crime, strain public services and burden city schools.

"They say we're overpopulated already with the schools," said Anita Gracia, a 34-year-old mother of three who works as a customer service representative with a car rental agency.

"Now they're talking about taking in kids from these disaster-infested waters, without shots or papers. What are we bringing to Houston?"

With nearly a quarter-million refugees already in Texas and more on the way, Gov. Rick Perry on Sunday ordered emergency officials to airlift some to other states that have offered to help.

"There are shelters set up in other states that are sitting empty while thousands arrive in Texas by the day, if not the hour," Perry said. "We are doing everything we can to address the needs of evacuees as they arrive, but in order to meet this enormous need, we need help."

At the Holiday Inn Intercontinental, Andrew Sandler said Houston had been "wonderful." The administrator of the Maison HospitaliM-hre skilled-nursing facility in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Sandler led last week's evacuation, under armed guard, of 65 patients with an average age of more than 88.

He said the hotel at the northern reaches of Houston had offered a discount on rooms for patients and staff, while a wireless provider had given him a break on cell-phone service and volunteers were showing up with supplies and offers of help.

"It's been incredible," he said.

At the Astrodome, Natasha Growe agreed. Until last week, the farthest the 30-year-old mother of two had ventured from her native New Orleans was Baton Rouge, La. After the storm surge flooded her out of the Lafitte public housing complex, she arrived here on Thursday.

Volunteers gave her family fresh clothes, supplies and enough food to make 12-year-old Andrew sick. "I'm surprised to see people being so generous," she said.

Texas has been taking in refugees from New Orleans since Wednesday in the wake of a storm that displaced some 1.5 million people across the region. Officials here estimate that 123,000 Louisiana residents are being housed in 100 shelters across Texas, while an additional 100,000 are staying in hotels and motels.

Angel Adame, an insurance claims reporter who was helping to match volunteers at the Astrodome with tasks that needed doing, said those numbers could be cause for worry.

"There's a lot of concern about the impact on the economy because of this and crime may go up," she said. "But if the shoe were on the other foot, we would want them to do it for us."

The population boom appears likely to be temporary. Growe was planning to leave Houston to stay with family in Baton Rouge until she can return to New Orleans.

Tyrone King Sr., a 58-year-old maintenance worker with the New Orleans housing authority, also said he planned to go home as soon as possible. Both he and Growe said virtually all the evacuees they'd spoken with had the same ultimate goal.

"We'll stay here for a while," said King, who was hoping to get work with the Houston housing authority for the time being. "But if they build New Orleans back up, we're going back. There's no two ways about that."

When a return will be possible remains a question. Officials have said it's likely to take months, at best, to pump the floodwaters out of New Orleans and begin to rebuild.

Meanwhile Harris County Deputy Sheriff Terry Lewis said Houston would do what it could to help. Lewis, a detective who ordinarily investigates burglary and theft, spent his day off Sunday in uniform, pulling 12 hours at the Astrodome on security detail.

He said supervisors have advised deputies to be prepared to work extended shifts every third day for the next month or more -- on top of their regular duties.

"There might be some strain on services, but it don't matter," Lewis said. "We're all Americans. These are our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters. We're going to help. We're going to do what has to be done."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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