HOUSTON – Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, survivors who have made Houston evacuee shelters their homes are moving on. Some have gotten jobs in Houston and plan on staying at least until New Orleans is rebuilt, while others are scattering throughout the country.Organizers want most of the evacuees out of the shelters by mid September, said Joe Laud, spokesman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management. At their highest capacity, Houston shelters housed about 25,400 evacuees. Less than one-fifth of those still remain. Yesterday, in front of the shelters, evacuees lined up with their suitcases, awaiting taxis to take them to the airport, local housing, bus stations and train stations. Among them was evacuee Deion Armstrong, 44, who was heading to the Amtrak station to catch a train to Philadelphia. Armstrong, who lost his Alzheimers-stricken mother to rising waters after the storm, is a doctor. He plans to return to New Jersey, where he spent his childhood. He will seek employment at his alma mater, Rowan University.Across the street from the convention center Sunday morning, a woman walked around with a sandwich board that read, “Thank you Houston, your love is big. I’m from New Orleans and I need a job.” The sign also listed her telephone number.
Sitting a few yards away was evacuee Ricky Hampton, who plans to spend about a year in Dallas living with family. Hampton is adamant about not living on the government dole for long.
“It hurts my heart to get food stamps,” he said. “I’m hoping on a fellow giving me a grand so I can get started, maybe eventually buy a truck and start my own business.”
Next to him was evacuee Zena Smith, who is deaf. She and Hampton had become friends during their stay at the convention center. Smith is still unsure about her fate, but she scribbled on a piece of paper, “Yes I want to back in New Orleans. I not ready to though. – I want fun, clubs, bourbon, work, anything.”A few evacuees said they could never live in New Orleans again. Some are looking for a new start and are using the hurricane as their window of opportunity, while others are wary of revisiting post-storm memories if they return. “The only way I’d go back is to visit,” evacuee James Knight said. Many, including evacuee Jennie Green and her four children, are planning on staying in Houston, which she says has been good to them so far. She wants to work as a housekeeper or cashier and said she will set out today to apply at local Wal-Marts and a few other places.Knight said he will stay in Houston as long as he’s welcome, but he has already seen signs that the evacuees’ welcome is wearing out.”The attitude in Houston is changing,” he said. “You can tell by the police officers. They’re getting more strict. When they get like that, you know it’s time to get out.” The city of Houston and Harris County have organized a joint housing task force to relocate families from the shelters into local apartments. Each family will receive a housing voucher that will need to be presented to its apartment manager, who will bill the city for the rent. The program is funded through a $10 million relief fund authorized by the Houston City Council.
The city has also set up Housing Choice Centers to assist evacuees with moving into more permanent houses and apartments. A joint-agency taskforce based in the shelters is also helping evacuees obtain necessary items such as furniture and kitchenware for their new apartments and houses.
Most major airlines are now offering free airfare to people who can prove they were hurricane victims, Laud said. Continental Airlines is set up in the George R. Brown Convention Center booking free one-way tickets to anywhere in the country. Free bus passes are available in the shelters. Primary and secondary students displaced by the hurricane have been welcomed in Houston’s school system, as have university students at local schools such as the University of Houston and Rice University. College students from New Orleans are spread out across the country. Many universities, including the University of Michigan, have accepted students and faculty for the fall term. Despite the help, evacuees are still unsure of their long-term arrangements. Their plans are sometimes muddled and often do not reach beyond the next few weeks. “It’s hard to start over,” Knight said. “Not many of us really know how.”