25,000 refugees headed to Houston

Updated: August 31, 2005, 8:35 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

HOUSTON -- At least 25,000 of Hurricane Katrina's refugees at the New Orleans Superdome will travel in a bus convoy to Houston starting Wednesday and will be sheltered at the 40-year-old Astrodome, which hasn't been used for professional sporting events in years.

Red Cross

Evacuees with special problems already have been evacuated to hospitals in other Louisiana cities, but the 23,000 people now confined to the stuffy, smelly Superdome, as well as some other refugees will go to Houston, about 350 miles away.

The marathon bus convoy should take two days, officials said.

FEMA will provide 475 buses for the transfer, and the Astrodome's schedule has been cleared through December for housing evacuees, said Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The New Orleans Saints will practice in San Antonio for the forseeable future, although plans for home games, which are unlikely to be played in the Superdome, have not been made.

"All options are under consideration," Saints director of media relations Greg Bensel said about where New Orleans might play its home games. "It's all on the table and there will continue to be discussions. But, for now, nothing is decided."

The Saints will fly to San Antonio following Thursday night's preseason finale against the Oakland Raiders, will be reunited there with their families, and begin preparations for the Sept. 11 season opener at Carolina. The Saints have spent this week practicing in San Jose, Calif.

Louisiana Superdome
Much of New Orleans, is under water, and the Superdome is surrounded by it.

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said Wednesday that Doug Thornton, a regional vice president for the company that manages the Superdome, told him it will be "very, very difficult" for the Saints to play home games there this season.

The Fairgrounds Race Course, which doesn't get busy until later in the fall, was damaged.

LSU and Tulane players with family along the coast and in New Orleans had been unable to talk to their relatives.

NCAA president Myles Brand said his organization would accommodate the student athletes affected by the hurricane.

"The first priority of those schools caught in Katrina's path is the students, staff and families who have been put in harm's way," Brand said. "The NCAA will be working with conference offices to deal with reduced or lost athletics schedules, the ability of teams to host or travel for competition, and championship qualification."

The hurricane probably killed thousands of people in New Orleans, the mayor said Wednesday, an estimate that, if accurate, would make the storm the nation's deadliest natural disaster since at least the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water," and other people dead in attics, Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."

The frightening estimate came as Army engineers struggled to plug New Orleans' breached levees with giant sandbags and concrete barriers, and authorities drew up plans to clear out the tens of thousands of people left in the Big Easy and practically abandon the flooded-out city.

There will be a "total evacuation of the city. We have to. The city will not be functional for two or three months," Nagin said. And he said people will not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month or two.

Nagin estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people remained in New Orleans, a city of nearly half a million. He said 14,000 to 15,000 a day could be evacuated.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, began mounting one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in U.S. history, sending four Navy ships with drinking water and other emergency supplies, along with the hospital ship USNS Comfort, search helicopters and elite SEAL water-rescue teams. American Red Cross workers from across the country converged on the devastated region in the agency's biggest-ever relief operation.

The death toll has reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone. But the full magnitude of the disaster had been unclear for days; Louisiana has been putting aside the counting of the dead to concentrate on rescuing the living, many of whom were trapped on rooftops and in attics.

If the mayor's estimate holds true, it would make Katrina the nation's deadliest hurricane since 1900, when a storm in Galveston, Texas, killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. The death toll in the San Francisco earthquake and the resulting fire has been put at anywhere from about 500 to 6,000.

Around midday, officials with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers said the water levels between the city and Lake Pontchartrain had equalized, and the water had stopped pouring into New Orleans, and even appeared to be falling, at least in some places. But the danger was far from over.

Officials said they were also looking at a more audacious plan: finding a barge to plug the 500-foot hole.

"The challenge is an engineering nightmare," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Many of the city's refugees -- 15,000 to 20,000 people -- were in the Superdome, which had become hot and stuffy, with broken toilets and nowhere for anyone to bathe. "It can no longer operate as a shelter of last resort," the mayor said.

Blanco said the situation was desperate and there was no choice but to clear out.

"The logistical problems are impossible and we have to evacuate people in shelters," the governor said. "It's becoming untenable. There's no power. It's getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials."

Walter Baumy of the Army Corps of Engineers said that it could be weeks before the water is removed from the city, but that he is confident New Orleans' pumps, once they are back in service, can handle the load.

As the sense of desperation deepened in New Orleans, hundreds of people wandered up and down Interstate 10, pushing shopping carts, laundry racks, anything they could find to carry their belongings. Dozens of fishermen from up to 200 miles away floated in on caravans of boats to pull residents out of flooded neighborhoods.

On some of the few roads that were still passable, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on a crippled highway.

In one east New Orleans neighborhood, refugees were loaded onto the backs of moving vans like cattle, and in one case emergency workers with a sledgehammer and an ax broke open the back of a mail truck and used it to ferry sick and elderly residents.

Police officers were asking residents to give up any guns they had before they boarded buses and trucks because police desperately needed the firepower: Some officers who had been stranded on the roof of a motel said they were being shot at overnight.

In addition to the Houston Astrodome solution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was considering putting people on cruise ships, in tent cities, mobile home parks, and so-called floating dormitories -- boats the agency uses to house its own employees.

A helicopter view of the devastation over Louisiana and Mississippi revealed people standing on black rooftops, baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats.

Looting broke out in some New Orleans neighborhoods, prompting authorities to send more than 70 additional officers and an armed personnel carrier into the city. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter but was expected to recover, authorities said.

A giant new Wal-Mart in New Orleans was looted, and the entire gun collection was taken, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported. "There are gangs of armed men in the city moving around the city," said Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief.

In Washington, the Bush administration decided to release crude oil from federal petroleum reserves to help refiners whose supply was disrupted by Katrina. The announcement helped push oil prices lower.

Power and air-conditioning would be no problem in the Astrodome, although there would be few comforts of home in the stadium seating.

"We want to accommodate those people as quickly as possible for the simple reason they have been through a horrible ordeal," said Rusty Cornelius, administrative coordinator for the Harris County (Texas) Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Cornelius said the refugees would be bused to Houston, but all would not necessarily be on the road at the same time. Specifics of the transport and housing for the refugees were still being worked out with Red Cross and state government officials, he said.

Texas also is looking at the possibility of using the Ford Center in Beaumont for some long-term housing for other evacuees from Louisiana who may be staying in hotels, motels and campgrounds.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.