SAN ANTONIO (AP) – As search-and-rescue continued along a storm-ravaged coastline, thousands of evacuees converged Monday on emergency shelters all across Texas with all the belongings they could carry and an unanswerable question: What now?
More than 37,000 people left homeless by Hurricane Ike have arrived at makeshift shelters throughout the state, and officials said even more were on the way. The strain was beginning to show.
Some shelters were overcrowded, food and water scarce, and there were isolated reports of fights and arrests. State officials worried that evacuees would return home too early to hard-hit areas of Southeast Texas, where first responders and emergency workers are already overwhelmed and overworked.
“Stay where you are,” Gov. Rick Perry urged evacuees during a news conference in Orange.
“The absolute worst thing that could happen is for people who are in areas that have electricity, that have fuel, that have water, to come back into these areas and put additional strain on the structure that we have in place,” he said.
But even as some evacuees appeared to be ignoring those pleas, others were still coming by bus from Galveston, Houston and other battered cities to nearly 300 emergency shelters set up across the state.
Pat Schmidt, 57, and her 16-year-old daughter, Marilea, were hanging out by the curb outside of the mammoth warehouse-shelter at Port San Antonio. On the ground beside them were just four bags: A small suitcase, two carry-ons and a Pier 1 shopping bag that held dirty shoes and half-empty water bottles.
They arrived on one of the many buses from Galveston at 6 a.m. Monday. The 245-mile trip from the island took more than 11 hours, delayed when other buses in their caravan broken down along the way.
“We went in and they told us they serve breakfast at 8 a.m., better get in line early,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt and her daughter plan to stay with her sister-in-law in Austin, doing what they can to keep their minds off of the destruction back home. Their immediate plans meant meeting basic needs: A shower—they haven’t had one since Wednesday—sleep, then shopping for some extra clothes. Beyond that, Schmidt couldn’t say.
“They told us there’d be no power, no electricity for at least two weeks. Whenever they say we can come back, my sister-in-law is going to drive us back. But this is where we are today,” she said.
“I’ll cook to earn my board. We’ll just hang out. I don’t want to watch anymore pictures of Galveston,” said Schmidt, nodding toward the entrance to the shelter. “Everyone in there was watching it, but I just can’t. Not anymore. It’s kind of like a dream that you’re in and you know you’re going to wake up. But instead of saying, `Oh, it was just a dream.’ It wasn’t.”
In Austin, more than half of the 6,200 evacuees who sought shelter from Ike have since left, but authorities couldn’t say for sure where they went. Some returned to coastal areas that were spared the brunt of Ike’s destruction. Others were staying with family and friends, but it was impossible to say how many, said Sara Hartley, emergency operations spokeswoman for the city.
Some who arrived at shelters last week ahead of the storm said the strain had worsened with the arrival of the latest wave of evacuees, many of whom chose to ride out Ike and disregarded earlier evacuation efforts.
Shauna Leigh, 20, got to the San Antonio shelter on Friday after fleeing Galveston with her mother, Rena, and 2-month-old baby, Thomas. “There wasn’t hardly anyone in there. It was quiet, but as time progressed, more people came,” she said, as her mother chimed in: “Longer breakfast line. Longer lunch line. Longer dinner line.”
Her father, Ronald, rejoined the family Monday morning, after making the drive from East Texas. They’d like to stay with relatives, but many of them live in Houston or elsewhere along the coast and are still without power.
“Right now we’re just waiting it out, seeing what happens. I don’t think I can stay here that long. There’s just so many people and there’s sick people, too, and I have my son,” she said. “I just don’t want to make this a permanent home.”
At one overcrowded East Texas shelter, many of the 1,600 evacuees were moved on Sunday to other locations near Fort Worth after tempers flared and fights broke out among evacuees housed in an abandoned Wal-Mart.
The building, pressed into service because several shelters used during Hurricane Gustav weren’t available, has minimal bathroom facilities, requiring portable toilets, showers and wash basins to be placed in the parking lot.
Police said seven people were arrested after incidents Saturday and Sunday.
“You get 1,600 people on cots in an old Wal-Mart, things like that are bound to happen,” said Tyler police chief Gary Swindle.
Nicholas Harris, 23, of Beaumont, among the 800 evacuees relocated Sunday night, was happy to be out of Tyler.
“We was all on top of each other, and everybody had to fend for themselves,” said Harris, who was moved to a shelter at the First Baptist Church in Watauga. “It’s been real hard, but God’s going to take care of us.”