- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

DALLAS — The first of several hundred buses carrying displaced refugees from Hurricane Katrina left Louisiana last night, headed for the Houston Astrodome, where as many as 27,000 will be sheltered indefinitely.

Dallas officials last night volunteered similar space in its downtown Reunion Arena, which the local Red Cross plans to use as its operations center here. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said several busloads would be en route within hours. That facility could house only an estimated 1,000.

A massive organizational effort was under way in Houston to gather food and water, organize medical facilities and other relief personnel, and provide sleeping facilities for the refugees, including nurseries to accommodate thousands of children.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is coordinating the various city, county, state and federal agencies in a frantic effort to ready the 40-year-old Astrodome for the evacuees.

“It will be a noble calling for the grand lady at this time in her career,” he said. “We’ll have a group of people who are tired, who are frustrated, who are scared and who have been through a tremendous tragedy.”

The idea to use the Astrodome for those displaced by the Gulf Coast hurricane came after a lengthy conversation Tuesday between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

Mr. Perry’s offer came after the Louisiana governor announced that the more than 15,000 refugees who were housed temporarily in New Orleans’ Superdome would have to be evacuated within two days. Living conditions there — with no power, little food and no water or toilet facilities — had become a health problem, Mrs. Blanco said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agreed to facilitate moving refugees to the Astrodome. FEMA employees will be driving more than 475 buses to Houston.

The famed Astrodome opened to much fanfare in 1965. At the time it was built — at a cost of slightly more than $35 million — it was billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Once home to the Houston Astros baseball team and the NFL’s Houston Oilers, the dome’s function as a professional sports venue has since been supplanted by a newer, more modern stadium.

Mr. Perry said last night he didn’t know how long the visitors would remain in the Astrodome .

“Nobody knows that,” he said. “This is all relatively new. After all, no one’s been through a disaster of this scope, and we just know that, by the grace of God, this could be Houston that’s facing this, instead of New Orleans. We’re going to take care of our neighbors the best we can.”

Negotiations still were under way last night to open a dozen or more “standby” sites for refugees. The Red Cross said yesterday it had placed about 40,000 hurricane refugees in about 200 shelters, most of them in northern Louisiana or eastern Texas.

In Dallas, Mrs. Miller said the refugees likely would arrive with not much more than the clothes on their backs and would sorely need help from the local citizenry.

“We have a very unique situation in Dallas, and our people will respond,” she said.

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