The numbers of evacuees from Louisiana being housed in large shelters in Houston, Texas, are dwindling day-by-day. Officials say there are now 4,680 people living in three large centers in Houston, down from more than 27,000 a week ago. Most evacuees are anxious to get out of the shelters and on with their lives.
The inside of the Reliant Center, which is usually used for conventions, livestock shows and commercial gatherings, is now full of cots and mattresses, lined row-on-row. Several hundred people from southern Louisiana now call this home.
Bridget Brown, a Red Cross volunteer from Canada, says it is all very well organized. "There are areas that are specifically for women and specifically for men, specifically for the elderly and then there are some general population areas and you can see that people have set up the cots to make little living rooms for themselves," Ms. Brown said. "Over here, Child Protective Services has set up a little area for unaccompanied minors, but you are not going to see a lot of kids in that area because CPS is trying to get them into foster care."
There have been several cases of family members reconnecting here and there are posters with pictures and names of lost loved ones at the entrance to the hall. The Red Cross is also operating an online computer system to help locate people who were separated from loved ones who ended up in far away cities.
While here, the hurricane Katrina victims can count on three meals a day, a warm safe and comfortable place to sleep and a variety of social services.
Glenn Lucien, who escaped flooding in Chalmette, just southeast of New Orleans, says he and his family are doing well. "It is comfortable and they feed you good. They have services they provide for you and they are really helping you," said Mr. Lucien.
But sleeping in a large auditorium, surrounded by hundreds of other people is not something most people want to do for a long time. So many evacuees have rented houses and apartments in Houston. Some have also gone to other cities where they have relatives or friends.
Ed Conley, local spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, says families from the stricken area in Louisiana face some hard decisions.
"I think every family is trying to make the best decision and they are making really, think about it, huge decisions," Mr. Conley says. "Where are they going to live, where are the kids going to go to school, are they going to stay here or do they want to go back home or go someplace else?"
Although several thousand people have been able to leave the Houston shelters over the past several days, there are many, including elderly and disabled people, who may need to stay here longer. Mr. Conley says FEMA's main job is to help victims of the hurricane get back on their feet and get on with their lives. But he acknowledges that many of the people left in these shelters will be in need of emergency assistance for some months to come.
"As long as there is a continuing need for people and we are talking about those emergency needs of housing, maybe some unemployment assistance, maybe some essential personal property or some essential medical, that is our job to continue to provide that assistance if they are eligible and the far (vast) majority of people here are," Mr. Conley says.
Houston officials say it is likely two of the three sites being used now as shelters will be closed this coming weekend. They say remaining flood victims will be consolidated in one shelter and provided with assistance for as long as it necessary.