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Katrina's Aftermath

No Takers for Cruise Ship Offer

FEMA hoped 6,000 might accept, but the idea isn't appealing to people already adrift.

September 07, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — A plan by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to relocate evacuees from the Astrodome and other shelters here to luxury cruise ships hit a snag Tuesday: The residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina don't want to move again.

"We had no immediate takers for the option," Ed Conley, head of FEMA operations in Houston, said of the proposal to turn cruise ships in Galveston, Texas, and Mobile, Ala., into temporary shelters.

FEMA announced Sunday that it had leased three ships for six months as a way to move as many as 6,000 people out of shelters and provide them with beds, private rooms and hot meals.

The agency was so confident that the cruise liners would prove popular that it established a priority system to determine who could go aboard the Ecstasy, the Sensation and the Holiday, leased from Carnival Cruise Lines.

But FEMA workers found that evacuees were reluctant to move and further risk not finding relatives, jobs and schools. Officials said the computer networks established by the Red Cross and other agencies to reunite families would be available aboard the ships.

"It's not a perfect solution," Conley said, "but it's a better solution than we have today."

Dr. Stuart A. Yudofsky, a psychiatrist who has examined evacuees, said he was not surprised that they did not immediately like the idea of moving to a cruise ship.

"They have a level of certainty in their lives now," he said. "They've been through a lot of change."

The first evacuees from Louisiana arrived at the Astrodome a week ago, but the facility was never intended as a long-term solution. The official mantra is that the shelters are "transitional facilities" until evacuees can find better accommodations either by themselves or with the help of public and private relief agencies.

Coast Guard Lt. Joe Leonard, a top official in the evacuation effort in Houston, said he regretted having used the phrase "the dome is home" because it seemed to imply permanency. Like other officials, he was surprised that the cruise ship idea was not going over well.

"They're going to get world-class food on the ship," Leonard said.

As the largest shelter for victims of Katrina, the Astrodome has become a reluctant symbol of the nation's relief effort.

A stream of politicians and celebrities have visited. On Monday, it was former Presidents Bush and Clinton, as well as Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil McGraw; on Tuesday, actor Jamie Foxx and a top NAACP official were here.

The site has also become the preferred venue for announcing large-scale relief efforts. The two former presidents announced the formation of a fundraising foundation; the NAACP announced plans to find housing for 20,000 evacuees.

"You can't be human and watch all these things go down and not do something," Foxx said.

In an effort to maintain order at the Astrodome, officials have tightened security -- imposing an 11 p.m. curfew and restricting where evacuees can walk outside.

One fence will separate evacuees from tailgate parties being held before the Sept. 18 Houston Texans football game at Reliant Stadium, adjacent to the Astrodome. But officials are planning a barbecue, possibly with live entertainment, for the evacuees to enjoy while the football fans are tailgating.

In addition to experiencing some physical isolation, evacuees have little access to outside news, and rumors are rampant. Talk that authorities were taking names of those seeking permanent housing caused several hundred people to form a line.

Houston police remain inside all the shelters. "We are providing a strong presence to give the survivors the absolute sense of safety," Sgt. David Crane said.

The cruise ship offer was a hot topic of discussion Tuesday among evacuees as they sat in chairs and on the grass outside the Astrodome, the Reliant Center and the Reliant Arena, all part of a massive civic complex surrounded by acres of parking. More than 23,000 evacuees are listed as staying at the three venues, with 2,900 more at the downtown convention center.

"What do I need with a cruise ship?" said Kimura Eubanks, 28, standing beside his three young children.

"I need a job, a way to support these kids. Staying on a ship is just going to put me that further behind in getting my life together."

Joseph Bijou, 28, agreed: "This ship stuff is bull.... People are getting angry and frustrated about getting work. That's what's important."

FEMA officials hope evacuees will change their minds about the ships.

Jolene Richard, 38, who fled to Houston after her New Orleans home flooded, said she was adamant about not going to a ship, even if it meant an indefinite stay at the Astrodome.

"I want to stay on land," she said. "I don't want any water around me at all, no sir."

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