Louisiana Evacuees Crowd Texas Churches, Hotels

8-29-05 - Louisiana residents fleeing from the path of Hurricane Katrina took shelter in churches and hotels along Interstate 10 in Southeast Texas, some gathering around televisions to watch the storm's progress toward their homes.

"They're tired and they've been on the road all day and they don't know what they're going home to," Janie Johnson said by telephone Sunday night from Orange, where three shelters had opened by late Sunday. "They're tired and they're worried."

The evacuees began to arrive Saturday as Katrina churned across the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened.

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper along I-10, a major east-west route from New Orleans. Johnson described it as a "river of headlights" Sunday night.

With that river came a steady stream of people seeking shelter.

About 100 people settled in at the First Baptist Church, where activities were set up for children. Shelters then opened up at First Presbyterian Church and Community Christian Church.

Local veterinarian clinics and city animal control took care of the pets residents fled with.

In nearby Beaumont, about 260 people had checked in at the shelter the American Red Cross set up in a building at Ford Park.

John E. Bergeron, a volunteer and shelter manager, said most of those who had checked in came from New Orleans. Some had gone as far as their financial resources would take them. "They were happy we were here," she said.

Bergeron said the shelter, which can hold up to 500 people, would stay open as long as needed.

"When the last person leaves here to go back home, we will close," she said.

Katrina intensified into a Category 5 giant over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 175 mph before weakening slightly on a path to hit New Orleans around sunrise Monday. That would make it the city's first direct hit in 40 years and the most powerful storm ever to slam the city.

Hotels also were filling up as evacuees headed west.

"We are 100 percent full," said Agatha Boniface, assistant general manager of a Hampton Inn along I-10, which connects New Orleans and Houston. She said they've been booked solid since Thursday, mostly with evacuees.

She said that those who call there are sent along farther west.

"We have a lot of people booked, but they're kind of stuck in traffic," said a man working the front desk at the Hilton Garden Inn Houston Westbelt. He said they've been completely booked since Saturday.

"If we take a direct hit, we saw New Orleans for the last time on Saturday," Lisa Tschirn, of Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, said in a story in Monday's editions of The Facts. "Rome fell, Babylon fell and now New Orleans will fall, too." Tschirn was among the evacuees at a Days Inn in Clute.

Johnson said some Red Cross crews were working at the Texas Tourist Information Center just inside the Texas state line. They passed out water and maps to shelters in Orange and provided directions for people who wanted to go farther.

In Houston, officials at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System talked with officials at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans on Sunday afternoon. Besides offering information on their experience evacuating patients during Tropical Storm Allison, Memorial Hermann officials offered to take in patients from Ochsner. But transfer plans were canceled when winds grew too strong to transport patients by helicopter.

Tom Flanagan, assistant vice president of emergency services for Memorial Hermann, said that they are awaiting word from Ochsner whether they will need to transfer patients after the storm passes.

Meanwhile, Memorial Hermann Memorial City has prepared a 20-bed unit and Memorial Hermann Northwest has prepared intensive care beds.