Texas struggles to cope as refugee influx hits 240,000

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The Independent US

The electronic traffic signs along route I-10, the Interstate highway that for days has been the prime artery for the bus caravans of evacuees fleeing southern Louisiana, flashed a new message that no one wanted to see: "ASTRODOME SHELTER CLOSED - I-45 TO DALLAS".

They might almost have said "TEXAS CLOSED", because the state which moved so quickly last week to open its arms to survivors of Hurricane Katrina, taking the brunt of the largest movement of evacuees in modern American history, by yesterday had reached saturation point.

By most estimates about 130,000 evacuees are now in Houston alone. About a quarter are in the Astrodome and other facilities, including a large convention centre, while the remainder are either in hotels or with friends and family. Across Texas, however, the number is close to a quarter of a million, with Dallas and San Antonio also close to capacity.

With still more refugees pouring in every day, Governor Rick Perry issued an appeal to counterparts in other states to take some of the pressure off Texas. States that have promised to help include Michigan, New York, West Virginia and Iowa.

"There are shelters set up in other states that are sitting empty while thousands arrive in Texas by the day, if not the hour," Governor Perry said. "We are doing everything we can to address the needs of evacuees as they arrive, but in order to meet this enormous need, we need help from other states."

Three airlines that are based in Texas - Continental, Southwest and American - have meanwhile all agreed to contribute aircraft and crews to start an airlift of evacuees out from Houston to other parts of the country. The first of those flights left late on Sunday with 149 refugees from San Antonio, where shelter was provided in a former air base as well as in the warehouses of a former Levi jeans factory.

Already, the grim diaspora of Katrina refugees has reached several states and it continues to expand. Tens of thousands of refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have arrived in each of the neighbouring southern states of Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Others have already travelled as far as Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina.

But the strain will be greatest on Texas. The public health system is close to being overwhelmed, while longer-term housing must be found for refugee families and schooling given to children. After the end of the long Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of evacuee children are expected to show up in public schools across Texas this morning. School officials have made it clear that every child who was chased across state borders by Katrina will be given a place.

"We will do everything we can to welcome these students and return some form of stability to the lives of these youngsters," insisted the Texas education commissioner, Shirley Neeley. It is assumed that the newcomers will remain in the school system here at least until the end of the year and possibly for much longer, depending on how many families decide in time to return to Louisiana.

Evacuees in shelters like the Astrodome, meanwhile, will be told that they cannot stay there for ever. Many may now find themselves shunted on to other states entirely via the airlift. It was not clear if leaving Texas would be offered on a voluntary basis or forced upon some families.

Either way, officials are adamant they need to start emptying shelters like the Astrodome as soon as possible. Although conditions inside are at least safe and increasingly comfortable, they offer no privacy to families and doctors are fearful of the spread of disease. About 90 children in the Astrodome and surrounding facilities were being treated yesterday for diarrhoea.