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Astrodome Stops Taking Evacuees


The Red Cross in Houston says the Astrodome is already full. Officials there had announced plans to take in 23,000 refugees from New Orleans. But by early this morning, after accepting some 11,000 refugees, they stopped letting people in. That's left busloads of angry, tired and hungry people wondering where they'll end up. NPR's Robert Smith has been at the Astrodome all night and he joins us now.

Robert, what happened?

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Well, the Red Cross really underestimated the challenge of dealing with this flood of refugees. You have to remember, it was 24 hours ago when a Red Cross official told me that maybe they could do 45,000. And then that was downgraded to 25, 23,000. And then just last night after 11,000 people were in the Astrodome, we heard stories of food and clothing shortages, that there were no cots left inside, they didn't have enough volunteers. And the fire marshal decided that it was a threat to public safety and public health and for the comfort of the people who were in the Astrodome and decided to shut down the door. Well, the problem was that there were hundreds of buses already on the way for New Orleans, and they were arriving, you know, every few minutes at the Astrodome, and that first they were going to turn them away and send them to other cities, but in the end they relented and let these buses in and decided to open another building close to the Astrodome as a sort of temporary facility while they figure out where they're going to put these people.

MONTAGNE: And what was the scene was like there?

SMITH: Oh, it was chaotic. I mean, you have to picture, there was a good 150, 160 buses in this big traffic jam in the parking lot in front of the Astrodome. And, you know, for the refugees inside, they've been traveling six, seven hours and goodness knows what happened to them before that. And here they were about 100 yards from their goal, the Astrodome, there, but they weren't allowed out of the buses, they weren't allowed into the dome. At one point there was a sort of revolt as hundreds of people just got off the buses and laid down on the asphalt there just to stretch out after the long bus ride. But the police went around and herded them back into the buses saying, `If you don't get on the buses, you're not going to get into this temporary facility.' Meanwhile, people who were fed up with the Astrodome were trying to leave that facility.

MONTAGNE: And you've been talking of course to these refugees from New Orleans all night. What are they telling you about what's happening inside the Astrodome?

SMITH: Well, I mean, the first thing they would tell me is that it's far, far better than the Superdome where some of them were in New Orleans. And it's far, far better than other situation in New Orleans because it's air-conditioned and they get food and water. But there's starting to be some frustration with some of the crowding inside the Astrodome. I talked to a couple of families who left because there were simply no cots to lay down on. There was another couple who had all their clothing and personal items stolen. And people are saying that people are very tense in there and there's a lot of arguments and fights. And in fact there was a doctor that left, a doctor who was working there in the Astrodome, who said that they were grossly understaffed there and there was areal health crisis inside the dome.

MONTAGNE: Well, with tens of thousands of refugees headed towards Houston, where are they going to go?

SMITH: Well, that's a good question. Dallas and San Antonio just yesterday agreed to allow 25,000 each. Now San Antonio has an abandoned Air Force base where they can put them. But I talked to someone from Dallas last night, and they really don't know where they're going to put 25,000 refugees in Dallas. What officials tell me is that the people are coming and that's just a fact, and they're just going to have to wing it and find facilities for them.

SMITH: Thank you very much. NPR's Robert Smith speaking from Houston.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.