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Saturday, September 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"When will nightmare end?"

Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON — As masses of refugees from Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed Houston's effort to provide shelter yesterday, busloads of the hungry, tired and desperate from New Orleans were diverted to other cities and local officials pleaded with the public for help and understanding.

"God, when will this nightmare end?" cried Felicity Graham, 42, who had endured an eight-hour, 350-mile ride aboard a packed bus from the Louisiana Superdome.

To her dismay, Graham was told there was no room at the Astrodome for her, her four grandchildren and other bus riders.

Houston Mayor Bill White estimated more than 100,000 evacuees have fled to Houston, more than the Astrodome and other makeshift shelters could accommodate. Freeway signs that a day earlier had welcomed refugees were switched to a different message: "Houston shelters are full. Go to Dallas or San Antonio."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that 25,000 evacuees would be housed at Reunion Arena in Dallas and 25,000 more at a former Air Force base in San Antonio.

White disputed the idea that officials should be faulted for a failure to anticipate the destructive power of Katrina.

"There was no emergency plan for the destruction of one of America's most important cities," White said. "If anybody predicted Katrina, I'd like to join their church."

The Astrodome, with 15,000 people living on an 8,000-square-foot concrete floor, was declared full by the county fire marshal Thursday night. He originally had declared it full when the population reached 11,000, but White overrode that decision to allow an additional 4,000 inside the covered stadium where food, showers, cots, clean clothes and medical attention awaited.

An additional 3,000 evacuees were put into the Reliant Arena next door to the Astrodome. And the Reliant Center, a massive convention center, was being prepared yesterday to house up to 11,000.

Most of the 100,000 evacuees are staying at local hotels, three-dozen shelters run by the Red Cross or church groups, or with family members.

The Astrodome census had swelled to the point where postal officials gave it its own ZIP code — 77320 — so that people can send letters and care packages to family members staying there.

White said he has asked Microsoft officials about developing computer software to help relatives locate each other and queried Halliburton officials about how to house and feed large numbers of people. Halliburton provides camps and food for U.S. personnel in Iraq.

Food-stamp offices reported long lines of people seeking assistance. And a coalition of black ministers held an emergency meeting yesterday to put together an aid campaign that will be announced from their pulpits tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of the refugees are expected to remain in Houston rather than return to devastated homes and painful memories.

"I will never go back there, not ever," said evacuee Joyce Carter, 53, whose husband is missing.

White and other officials have developed a mantra: The shelters are only a transitional phase toward returning people to "normal life."

"It is not going to be acceptable to have a permanent refugee situation," he said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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