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Refugees' sad tale: 'We lost everything'
San Francisco Chronicle


September 03, 2005

HOUSTON - It wasn't her 8-year-old son's artwork of floodwater and devastation that made Chaka Wilson cry. Maybe, she figured, the drawings would erase from little Kelvin Walker's mind the sight of dead bodies floating past the family's apartment building in New Orleans.

Wilson's tears were not so much for what had happened, but for what will happen next.

Her husband, who was in jail when Hurricane Katrina hit Monday, is missing. The apartment where the family lived was destroyed. All they had now was a cot in the middle of a sea of humanity in the cavernous Houston Astrodome, and the stress of it all boiled over.

"We got nothing," she cried, falling back on a cot as she clutched Kelvin and her two other sons, their faces streaked with tears. "We ain't got nothing, but we got each other. I'll take care of y'all. I'll always take care of y'all."

The scene was one of confusion and sorrow as thousands of exhausted and hungry refugees flowed into Houston, 347 miles from hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

Many of the new arrivals at the Astrodome, like Wilson and her children, were plucked off the shoulder of the interstate as they walked out of town. Others were removed from the squalid shelter at the Louisiana Superdome, where fights and violence had begun to break out, according to several people who had been there.

By Thursday evening, thousands of people crowded the concrete floor of the domed stadium, where Army cots had been placed on virtually every inch of available space. Some estimates had the crowd at 4,000, others as high as 11, 000.

Huddled in wool blankets were the elderly, infirm and simply worn-out. Mothers nursed their babies as dozens of children frolicked under the stands, playing touch football or keep-away, or just climbing on the large rolls of Astroturf in the corners.

Many of the refugees had lived in public housing in New Orleans, and now they were homeless. Those who were willing to discuss their situation all said they had nowhere else to go, no prospects for jobs and virtually nothing left of their belongings.

"We lost everything," said Renata Hughes, who lived in a housing complex in central New Orleans with her five children, including 10-month old Christion, whom she rocked in her arms. "We had to push the kids through the water in a shopping cart and hitch a ride on a milk truck. The baby didn't even have a bottle when we got here. I don't know what we're going to do now."

Five members of Hughes' family, including her mother, brother and grandmother, are still missing, she said.

From all appearances, the refugee camp being established in the domed stadium is no short-term fix. It is beginning to dawn on local officials that they are on the receiving end of one of the largest displacements of citizens from one city in U.S. history.

People in the Astrodome were getting items that some hadn't seen for days - clean water, food, fresh clothes. Dozens walked through the crowd holding signs with the names of missing loved ones. A bulletin board at one end of the field contained hundreds of notes from people searching for the missing.

There were places for nursing mothers, the disabled and sick. The locker rooms were used for showers. There was even a place for people to bring their pets.

Adrian Ory, 57, who was sitting on one of the cots, was thrilled to be given food.

"I was starving," she said as she accepted a hamburger. "I would have eaten a dead dog."

Ory arrived in Houston with her deaf daughter, Adrian Munguia, 39, and her disabled 10-year-old granddaughter, Angel, whose wheelchair had to be left behind in New Orleans. Angel was lying on a cot under a blanket.

Ory and Munguia lived in different apartments near Legion Field in New Orleans, but they were together when the water started rising.

"That wind started cutting up," Ory said. "It was blowing and blowing. Man, that water started rising - you couldn't see no cars.

"I saw bodies floating by, dogs on top of roofs, dogs swimming."

Eventually, they were rescued by a National Guard boat.

"Oh, Lord, I don't know what to do now," Ory said. "I was born in New Orleans. It's home. I guess it will get back up sometime and I'll go home."

Not so for Johnnie Harris, 48, who escaped with his 6-year-old daughter, Johnneika.

"I don't want to go back," said Harris, who was wandering outside the Astrodome getting fresh air. "New Orleans is gone."

Like Ory, Harris and his extended family tried to stay in their house.

"We thought we were going to die," Harris said. "We were screaming. We had to go to the back of the house to get away from the water, and then a tree fell on my house and caved everything in.

"I was hugging my little girl. ... She kept saying, 'Daddy, are we going to die?' ... I told her the truth. I said, 'If we go, we're going together.'

"You know that fear with a child, their eyes wide open and they don't know what's coming? It went to my heart, man. God done saved us."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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