As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, this past weekend, tens of thousands of people fled the city, seeking refuge in other parts of of Louisiana and in eastern Texas. Many of them remain stranded in hotels and shelters now wondering when they will be able to go home and what they will find when they get there.
Hotels in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi are full and hotels in southeastern Texas are filling fast, as refugees from Louisiana come across the border. Almost all the 58,000 hotel rooms in Houston have been booked, at a time of the year when there are usually plenty of vacancies.
The Red Cross and Salvation Army charity organizations have set up several shelters in the Houston area and some local churches are offering free meals to people who fled Katrina's wrath.
These refugees from a neighboring state left almost everything they own behind them. These are the people who listened to official calls to get out ahead of the storm. Some may have saved their lives by fleeing, but now they sit here anxiously wondering when they will be able to return and what remains of their homes.
A typical story is the one told VOA in a telephone call from a woman from New Orleans named Angelle Ziegler, who is now ensconced with more than 20 members of her extended family at a small motel in La Porte, Texas, just south of Houston. She says they are divided up in four rooms, for which they are paying the weekly rate of $400 and using the little money they have left to buy food.
"We cannot afford $400 a week," she said. "Everybody came with the money they had and we did not even have time to stop at the banks or anything to get money. We have paychecks coming in that we cannot cash because we cannot get them."
It is hard for working people like the Ziegler's to seek charity, but they are now considering a move to one of the area shelters. There are ten children in the group and there are no kitchens at the motel to prepare food for them.
Angelle says her husband had a good job at a shipyard in Gulfport, Mississippi, a short commute from New Orleans. But Gulfport was also hit hard by Katrina and there is no way of knowing when he will be able to work again.
"Just when things were looking up for me and my husband, he is up for a big promotion," she explained. "He works in Gulfport and Gulfport is under water. I am in nursing school and I have about 18 months left to finish. We were looking for a new future for ourselves and it is just down the drain now, you know."
Angelle and the other refugees from New Orleans also worry about people they left behind in the Crescent City. One woman in another room at the motel tells her that her firefighter husband set her on the road out of town and then went back to work. He may working with the rescue and relief efforts now, but Angelle says there is no way for this woman to contact him.
"You cannot get through to New Orleans, any kind of 504-number you cannot reach, or 985 area code, you cannot call out to that," she explained. "It [a recording] just tells you that due to the hurricane everything is down, so she cannot even reach her husband."
There are hundreds of thousands of people from the devastated area now living as refugees in their own country, awaiting word from loved ones left behind, wondering how they will make ends meet in the coming weeks and worrying that they may never fully recover from the ravages of a monstrous act of nature called Katrina.