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Wednesday, September 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Exasperated evacuees forced to flee second storm

The Associated Press

HOUSTON — They waded through the chest-high floodwaters in the streets of New Orleans. They were plucked from their rooftops in the rescue baskets of helicopters. They survived the hell of the Louisiana Superdome and a 350-mile bus ride to Texas.

Now, after becoming settled at emergency shelters in Houston, Hurricane Katrina evacuees are on the move again to escape another storm.

"This reminds me of the Israelites marching in the desert," Norman Bethancourt, 51, said as he waited for a bus to take him from Reliant Arena to Ellington Field, where he and the other evacuees were set to board planes bound for a military base in Arkansas.

About 1,100 evacuees — down from a high of nearly 10,000 — living in Houston's two largest shelters, Reliant Arena and the George R. Brown Convention Center, began making their way to Fort Chaffee, Ark., as Hurricane Rita strengthened into a hurricane and lashed the Florida Keys with heavy rain and strong wind.

Texas officials also were planning to move evacuees out of shelters in Corpus Christi and Beaumont. In all, some 4,000 were headed for Arkansas and 3,000 to Tennessee.

Forecasters said Rita would continue to gain strength as it crossed the warm Gulf of Mexico and probably would come ashore in Texas as early as Friday.

Houston officials said moving the evacuees was necessary because the shelters might not hold up in a major hurricane. They hoped to have everyone moved by last night.

The evacuees carried little. Some had a backpack, others a plastic bag. A few had pillows. One girl, tears streaming down her face, carried a stuffed toy in a little cage.

"A lot of people didn't want to go," said Wayne Sylvester, who was wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed: "I Survived Katrina." "It looks like the storm is following me. Choice is you don't have a choice."

Coast Guard Lt. Joe Leonard said 10 planes flew evacuees to Arkansas yesterday, and officials were prepared to move an additional 2,300 evacuees today, if needed.

Other evacuees went to shelters in Dallas, stayed with family and friends or returned to Louisiana. "They can go wherever they want," said Leonard, who is overseeing shelters in Houston. "There are opportunities to be bused to various places."

Many evacuees were not happy about leaving for Arkansas and were looking for somewhere else to go.

"Hell. It's been pure hell," said Lisa Banks, 33, who was outside Reliant Arena with her four children, ages 8 to 15. "I'm not going to Arkansas. I feel like a rag doll, people throwing me around."

Seated on a chair, she kept a black plastic garbage bag nearby. It was filled with towels. Banks, airlifted with her family out of their New Orleans home, had hoped to settle in Houston, find a job and a place to live.

"I don't know what's going to happen next," she said. "We really don't know what to do. We were supposed to get housing here."

Arkansas?

"No," she said adamantly. "Arkansas is not a good place for me."

"I don't even know where that's at," Michael Russell said as he ate his lunch of macaroni and cheese and a sausage while he waited for his brother. They hoped to move to Hammond, La., not Arkansas. Both are from New Orleans.

Carmelita Speed, 25, clutched a box of tissue and periodically dabbed at tears. She reluctantly was going to the plane and Arkansas.

"I hope and pray it isn't like the Superdome," Speed said, describing how for days there she "slept on the ground, or on cardboard."

Said her boyfriend, Roland Mitt: "I'm running out of patience. I'm upset. I'm mad. I'm disgusted. All of the above."

"I just want to live peacefully and have a happy life," Speed said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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