Evacuees Grow Anxious in Houston

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Following arrows drawn in bright-red ink ,Tamara Green, 28, and her husband Myriaun Clark, 20, apprehensively shuffled Green's seven youngsters, aged 1 to 12, along in the queue outside the Reliant Center last Thursday afternoon. Before Hurricane Katrina, they lived in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward; now the closest thing they have to a home is a collection of cots and stuffed bags on the floor of the Astrodome. Waiting on line to apply for a Red Cross debit card, the couple heard a rumor that they needed a photo ID to qualify for a card. While Green remained in the queue with the well-behaved children, Clark rushed back to the Astrodome to search their belongings for some form of ID, returning several minutes later breathless and empty-handed. Still, they decided to take their chances inside anyway.

As the family made its way around the giant hall set up for distributing the cards and found an empty desk where two smiling Red Cross volunteers waited, Green and Clark worried that they'd be turned away. They weren't. After a brief interview that included completing some forms, Clark and Green, debit card in hand, turned their caravan of a family around and headed outside. Green wouldn't say how much they had received, but she looked crestfallen. “It wasn't what I expected,” she said, her words betraying more bewilderment than anger. “I'm not complaining. I'm grateful for everything we've been given. But I know people who are by themselves here who got more (money on their cash cards) than we did.”

Long lines, bureaucratic confusion, misleading rumors and painful disappointment have become part of the daily routine for many weary evacuees who, like the Green-Clark family, remain in Reliant Park nearly two weeks after being shuttled here from New Orleans. Of the 150,000 storm victims who fled to Houston from Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast since August 31, 27,000 were deposited in Houston's largest shelters. As of Tuesday morning, 3,760 are still here . Although they're grateful for the material and emotional support they've received, many evacuees are also growing increasingly frustrated with red tape and disorganization they encounter as they try to rebuild their lives, find jobs, obtain insurance and other benefits, and secure more permanent shelter. Storm victims can sign up for food stamps, financial aid, housing assistance, and unemployment and social security benefits, as well as register on the computerized nationwide survivors' database and receive advice on filing insurance claims. But first, they have to find the right entrance, get into the right line, and show up with the right forms and documentation — a confounding maze of requirements that can take days to navigate.

The debit card distribution is a case in point. Last week, when FEMA and the Red Cross each announced plans to give evacuees cards worth up to $2000, the Reliant Center was overrun by storm victims from inside the facility and from shelters throughout the city. Fistfights erupted along the lines that quickly snaked around the complex, and people fainted from heat exhaustion, prompting officials from both agencies to evict the evacuees who had stormed in from outside facilities, and shut down the system for the day. The Red Cross resumed its giveaway the following day with less chaos, though the Houston Chronicle reported that some recipients returned later to report that their cards weren't working. FEMA meanwhile, briefly resumed distribution then abruptly decided to discontinue its debit card program altogether and told anxious hurricane victims to apply for aid through its website or its toll-free number. The agency promised that applications would be processed speedily, but the Chronicle quoted evacuees complaining they had been unable to get through on the phone line.

Anxiety and exhaustion are evolving quickly into impatience and anger. New Orleans community leaders living inside the complex, helped by an advocacy network of Houston churches and schools, has gotten some 4,000 evacuees to sign a petition demanding immediate financial assistance; a long-term recovery package; streamlined procedures for obtaining services, and, smoother transition to homes away from mass shelters. Houston officials said that under a plan devised by local, county and federal housing authorities in conjunction with New Orleans government officials and the Houston Apartment Association, they expect to have moved the vast majority of evacuees out of the Reliant complex by the weekend and into more permanent dwellings. Already, the agencies have found apartments furnished with two beds, a table, and couch for more than 3,000 evacuees. But many, many more are still standing in line, waiting.