They have food and clean air, but there's one constant worry. Lost loved ones

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The Independent US

If you had located Row V, Aisle 235 in the Houston Astrodome yesterday, you would have found a speck of joy in an ocean of misery. Jack ­ he won't give his full name but he's a Houston volunteer ­ had set up with his hand puppet, a furry bear, and was singing "Old McDonald's Farm" to about 20 grinning kids. Then he stopped. "Hey man," he called out. "Can you get me a microphone system? I can't talk no more."

Everyone wanted something. If you were not an evacuee ­ and it's not hard to tell us apart ­ they found you. Thelma Thornton, who is 74, found me in the car park outside. Clasping a fake plastic Burberry handbag and wooden walking stick, she wanted first just to talk. Her bus had rolled in minutes before but the Astrodome was full. What was going to happen to her now, she wanted to know?

What can you do for Thelma? It's hot and she has to sit. With arms around her body, you lower her on to the only available resting place ­ a plastic-wrapped package of water bottles. What she really wants is to find Tiffany, her granddaughter, who got on a different bus in New Orleans and has vanished. Even more, she wants word from her two daughters. They have been missing since the storm.

Corey Patterson, 36, couldn't get into the Astrodome either. In a pair of shorts and nothing else, no shoes on his feet even, he just wanted information. He had been in the Superdome in New Orleans, like everyone else arriving yesterday morning and, without power, they hadn't heard any real news for days. "How many bodies have they found?" he begged. " I know there's got to be a lot of dead people."

A working cellphone is like gold, but trying to call anyone back in Louisiana is pointless because the networks are down. You tell people not to bother trying, but they want to anyway. Everyone is separated from someone and maybe a phone call ­ just maybe ­ will bring good news, not bad. For Thelma or for Corey. The last he heard of his 15-year-old daughter, Colby, and his wife, Francis, is that they were forced by rising water from their uncle's house and "were jumping from house to house trying to find higher ground".

And there is the desperate need to tell their stories, of the horror of the storm and the equally, but quite unexpected, hell of five days in the Superdome. Deborah Brown has lost all three of her boys somewhere on these buses. She dials and finds someone in Texas to talk to. Suddenly her grief and anger boils over. "They treated us like animals, like animals, do you hear?" Tears begin to stream down her cheeks.

Inside the Astrodome, they are the lucky ones, on the whole. It is an astonishing sight of the kind you would associate perhaps with the Vietnamese refugee crisis of nearly 30 years ago. You don't expect to see it here. The cement field of the dome ­ its fake plastic grass is long gone ­ is a giant dormitory of military camp beds. More beds fill the concourse running round the whole dome one level above.

The place is noisy with children crying and there are occasional announcements being made over the PA system. But, generally, things seem orderly, the air is clean and everyone has been fed a good breakfast. For that people seem inordinately grateful. "We've got more love here in Texas than we ever got back in New Orleans," says James Allen, 31. He arrived here with his wife, Latasha, and his five young children, without anyone going missing.

Their friend, Bandra Trueblood, was far less lucky. In deep water, she found herself being crushed last Monday by a house that had broken loose from its foundations. She held on to her youngest child. But to protect him she had to let go of two other children. They are gone now, and so is Bandra's fiancé.

It is these people who will slowly bear witness to the calamity in New Orleans. Their words, coming out in anguished narratives in Houston and everywhere else they are finding themselves, are providing the details of a quilt of death and loss.

Listen, for example, to Irwin Lives, who is in the Astrodome with his wife, Dolores, and his three-year-old grandson, Levinsky. He has "MOM" tattooed on his arm, but he fears she is gone. For some, he says, the water did not seep into town. It exploded. "In this one building down near Legion Fields," he said, "the folks there were on the first floor and they were sleeping. The water, it came in so fast, it just burst the door down and sent them straight out the window feet first. Feet first! They were shot out of that room like by a gun."

I leave the Astrodome to find Thelma. She had placed a call to the Urban League in Houston and someone had called back to offer help. But she was gone from the car park. I am told she is on her way to San Antonio now.

* One refugee died and many others were injured when a bus carrying them from the New Orleans Superdome overturned and rolled across a main road. At least 10 people were taken to hospitals, several critically injured, The Daily World of Opelousas reported on its Web site. Trooper Willie Williams, a spokesman for the state police, said the driver lost control of the vehicle, but other details were not immediately known.