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Hurricane Katrina

In Houston, generosity flowing

As the focus shifts to finding permanent homes, city leaders assure residents the infrastructure won't be compromised.

Published September 9, 2005

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HOUSTON - This city's ability to absorb tens of thousands of hurricane evacuees has amazed officials and residents alike.

"It's blowing my mind, the city is abuzz right now," said Kate Kuffen, spokeswoman for the city's department of housing and community development. "We've absorbed thousands. ... The inner-city is more dense than I've seen in my life."

But how long can Houston maintain this level of generosity?

"Our goal is to assure our residents that their basic infrastructure will not be compromised," Houston Mayor Bill White said. "Our goal is not to have any compromising impact on services to our residents."

Many have reached into their own pockets to help.

"You've got people here who looked at the situation and went straight to their savings accounts, they want to help people," said Terry Spurs, 50, an operations manager at Broussard Logistics. "I don't think you'd find anybody who would consider this a burden."

Some aren't so sure.

"Our mayor thinks we can absolve all this, but I don't think we should be helping out simply hoping that someone will pay us back," said a caller to Houston's KIOL-FM 97.5 morning talk radio show, identified only as Jason.

Rumors churn about a spike in crime. The reality: Police made 37 arrests, mostly for public intoxication, said Lt. Robert Manzo, a police spokesman.

"People are assuming things, but a vast majority of these individuals are families, elderly, men with wives and children," Manzo said. "They're really not interested in coming here to commit crimes. They're interested in rebuilding their lives and getting back on their feet."

Many of the city's 4-million residents are largely unaffected by their new neighbors.

"I can't say it's bothered with anything I do," said Bill McCain, 73, a retired lawyer. "I'm proud of what we're doing. ... That's what empathy is about."

For Angela Lewis, however, the evacuees had a personal impact.

When the 39-year-old Xerox employee went to apply for food stamps, she found a long line of evacuees and was redirected two doors down. She understood.

"They really need help, maybe even more than me," Lewis said. "The government has plenty of our taxes to use, so let them use it."

The city's focus has shifted to long-term solutions, with permanent housing the top goal. Already, the number of evacuees at the Astrodome complex has been cut in half from 25,000 late last week.

"They want to be responsible citizens with a place to call their own - that's our motivation for getting people out of the dome and on with their lives," said Patrick Trahan, spokesman for the mayor's office.

Coast Guard Lt. Joe Leonard, who is heading operations at the Astrodome, hopes everyone is out of local shelters by next weekend. "Will we get there?" Leonard asked. "I don't know, but we're working hard to get there."

That means almost every arm of city government is in overdrive, from social services to law enforcement to schools.

Perhaps the biggest effort is a program to distribute 10,000 housing vouchers covering six months' rent. Apartment owners have reduced rents and waived application fees to take part.

"There's going to be some loss, yes, but in the end it's not an issue with our owners," said Michelle Rhone, regional director for Kalee Investments, which operates about 1,500 units in the area. "We wanted to do what had to be done to get these people out the Astrodome and back into some sort of normalcy of life."

Two closed elementary schools are reopening to accommodate thousands of evacuated children expected, requiring 100 more school buses.

The Department of Health and Human Services is providing emergency food stamp cards to evacuees for up to three months, averaging about $150 a month per person. Statewide, the department has provided 50,000 families with food stamp benefits, said Jennifer Harris, spokeswoman for Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

More than 200 Texas counties were placed under federal disaster status, and officials count on the federal government to reimburse them for evacuee expenses.

"There are questions about who will pay for all of this, but our premise has been to get people the help they need first and worry about who will pay for this later," Harris said. "In particular, we know the feds will bear much of the brunt."

[Last modified September 9, 2005, 01:20:04]

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