Saturday, September 03, 2005

Situation in Houston

This from a friend:

Here is a personal impression of the refugee situation as events are unfolding in Houston. Not surprisingly, this issues dominates almost everything in the city--even football. At Texas Southern University we have already enrolled 300 students from New Orleans.

One of our graduate students, a woman who works as a fairly high-level administrator with the hospital district, spent all day Thursday screening arrivals at the Astrodome. She said most were mentally ill, about half were HIV positive, and many had weapons (maybe 10%). Efforts to enroll students is school are undermined by the lack of information about innoculations and the poor health of many who arrive. She expressed her personal concern that these people will never leave, that they are mostly dysfunctional, and we will be supporting them for the rest of their lives. This woman is in her early 30s and African American.

We drove around the Astrodome yesterday evening. It was an unbelievable site. The traffic was very heavy--almost gridlocked. There are crowds of refugees clustered at various points outside the grounds of the Astrodome. Several hundred were crowded into a Burger King parking lot across the street from the Dome and Fannin and 610; several thousand were milling about in a shopping center parking lot off Kirby at OST (about a quarter mile down the street from the Dome). Crowds also are hanging out at the light rail station across from the Dome (the evening one refugee, with his music ear-pods at high volume ignored warning shouts and stepped into the path of a train).

The crowds outside the Dome, of course, are refugees trying to get out of the confines of the large shelter. Some are engaged in ordinary activities--several were jogging around the perimeter, or just walking; others are just milling about. The overwhelming impression is the trash. It's everywhere.

The Astrodome area is a huge compound containing the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium (the NFL football stadium), a huge convention and exposition center that's about two years old, and the old Astrohall (an old convention center that's slated for demolition). The whole area has been landscaped and, except for parking areas, is park like. Now it's all covered with trash--empty water bottles, plastic bags, and general rubbish.

Earlier in the day I saw clusters of refugees pan-handling, mostly in the Montrose area (4-5 miles from the Dome); another small group was outside of a post office asking for money. On Kirby, just north of the Dome there were larger clusters with signs panhandling among the cars on the gridlocked streets. Many were giving them money.

Of course media trucks with their satellite transmitters extended were everywhere. If you hear that not that many are here, it's not true. There are currently 23,000+ in the Dome and the adjacent convention center, and another 5000+ in the downtown convention center. There are dozens of other refugee centers around the city housing 1000s of others. All in all there are an estimated 200,000-300,000 refugees in the city. Every hotel is full and many have taken frineds, relatives, and even strangers into their homes. As soon as they return from their current cruises and disembark their passengers, 2 Carnival line cruise ships will be moored in Galveston, where each will house 2800 for six months.

The cruises scheduled for these two ships have been cancelled or rescheduled on other ships. The city has cancelled all conventions scheduled for the downtown convention center for September; tonight's football game between TSU and Prairie View at Reliant Stadium has been canceled. The Six Flags Amusement Park across the street from the Astrodome has been closed until September 10. The Houston City Council will meet in a special session on Labor Day to approve $10,000,000 for immediate support of the refugees.

I just heard that a caravan of 11 busses with c 5500 refugees just arrived (it's 10 p.m.); they will be triaged for medical issues, fed, but sent on. The word is that Houston and all of Texas is full.

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