DALLAS – Texans are welcoming tens of thousands of refugees from deadly Hurricane Katrina.
The American Red Cross (search) could not provide immediate information on the number of shelters open across Texas but shelters were known to be open in Houston, Dallas, Austin and cities all along the Texas-Louisiana border.
At least 25,000 refugees, a majority of them at the New Orleans Superdome (search), were to travel in a bus convoy to Houston starting tonight and will be sheltered at the Astrodome.
About one thousand people were in Houston shelters early today, and relief officials expected that number to triple.
In Dallas, people began arriving at Reunion Arena (search) downtown, where the city's Red Cross shelter operations were being consolidated, hours before it was ready to open today.
The Dallas Convention and Visitor Bureau (search) reports that hundreds of reservations have been made through its special hotel rates program, available to hurricane survivors through a toll-free phone number and online booking program.
The evacuation from the smelly and sweltering Superdome was kept almost secret to avoid a stampede as refugees boarded giant trucks and then buses. People were taken a few at a time through a garage, then up a ramp to trucks that plowed through 4 feet of water and took them to the buses.
People with physical problems were evacuated Wednesday morning, loaded into a variety of vehicles and taken to hospitals. The evacuation of the more able-bodied began later.
Almost everyone carried a plastic bag or bundled bedspread holding the few possessions they had left after Hurricane Katrina (search) decimated their city.
Some hobbled on walkers, canes and crutches; others inched forward on wheelchairs. Women led children and carried babies.
"I don't care where they're taking us. Anywhere is better than here," said James Caire, 49, who had been at the Superdome only about six hours.
With no air conditioning and little electricity, the heat and stench inside the Superdome were unbearable. As the water pressure dropped lower and lower, toilets backed up. The stink was so bad that many medical workers kept masks on as they walked around.
Dr. Kevin Stephens Sr., in charge of the special needs shelter at the dome, described the arena as as a health department's nightmare.
"These conditions are atrocious," he said. "We'll take trucks, planes, boats, anything else, I have to get these people out of here."
The noise around the dome was constant. Helicopters took off and landed on the helipad outside. Generators ran. Trucks backed up and moved past. Every time one baby stopped screaming two more seemed to start. And there was the constant roar of thousands of conversations going on at once.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) has provided about 500 buses to transport the refugees. It was not immediately clear how long the refugees will be in Houston, 350 miles from New Orleans. "We're buying time until we can figure something out," said William Lokey, chief coordinator for FEMA.
The Astrodome's schedule has been cleared through December for housing evacuees, said Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (search). The building no longer is the home of a professional sports team — the Houston Astros left in 2000 and the dome is now used for events such as conventions, concerts and high school football games.
Phillip Triggs, 40, wasn't keen on the idea of being forced to Texas.
"As far as the idea of going to another state, no, man, this is my home," he said while catching a breath of fresh air. "My family is here. My home is gone. For us to be going through what we're going through, we're just not ready for this."
Cots and blankets for up to 25,000 people were being set up on the Astrodome's floor. Knowing that the people would arrive tired, frustrated and disheartened, shelter organizers began planning activities that might help take the evacuees' minds off their troubles, such as free trips to museums and amusement parks.
Organizers plan to use Astrodome kitchens and locker rooms to keep refugees fed and clean, but they said they realize it won't be easy because the arena was not built to handle so many people.