The full scale of Hurricane Katrina's devastation may not be known for months. As authorities in the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast struggle to help those left behind and sift through the wreckage, the hundreds of thousands of people who fled their homes ahead of the storm are now stuck in unfamiliar cities -- including Atlanta, Georgia -- facing an uncertain future.
As Hurricane Katrina churned north through the Gulf of Mexico last the weekend, forecasters warned it could strike Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Public officials ordered a full-scale evacuation of coastal cities. So thousands of people packed up their cars and headed east, to the closest state not in the storm's path -- Georgia. They got off the highway at the first city they knew - Atlanta.
Now, small hotels like this Comfort Inn just west of downtown have become refugee centers. Jai Wooten fled her home in New Orleans along with her fiancé and eight of their relatives. She says they were told to evacuate. "They said you gotta go," she says. "We went. But now what? What do we do now?"
They're all in this hotel, and Ms. Wooten says they only have enough money to get by for a few days. "We're just living on God's love, and the love of the people of Atlanta," she says. "A lot of luck and a lot of prayer. That's it."
In the lobby, between donated meals, she watched TV news reports showing that her neighborhood was flooded. Her home is destroyed. It's a predicament she shares with nearly everyone here. New Orleans architect Tyrone Causey says he has no idea how to rebuild his life. "We're stuck. We're stuck," he says. "So you know I'm just trying to -- I'm going to put my head together with everybody and we'll see if we'll be on the same page and can make something happen."
The hotel has lowered its rates and is charging people based on how long they plan to stay. The hotel staff, in addition to their usual tasks, are on the phones asking local people to help the evacuees. Front Desk Manager Susan Nation calls Atlanta businesses to request donations. "We need baby items, everything from pampers to milk…so we need everything - anything that you would use at home, we're needing it here…"
Sontirell Bacchus, another New Orleans resident, has been spending much of her time trying to get in touch with celebrities to ask for donations. But she says she has a larger concern - one that makes her feel helpless and terrified. "We have other family and friends back there. We probably won't hear from them for months," she says. "We don't know if they're dead or alive."
Despite the uncertainty about their future, those who escaped with their loved ones say they feel grateful. "The things, you can get those again," says evacuee Jai Wooten. " You can get them again and again and again and again. You start over. It's hard not having my family's pictures or my daughter's report card, not having the things I'm used to having. But what do you do? You just start over."
In New Orleans, Ms. Wooten runs a day care center. Now she and others are trying to ensure that the dozens of children here at the Comfort Inn have some fun. They're swimming in the pool, taking walks, and getting together to watch funny movies. Ms. Wooten says she wants them to enjoy a respite, however brief, from the trauma they all may be experiencing for a long time to come.