HOUSTON – Thousands of hurricane survivors who took shelter in the Astrodome packed their possessions Thursday and moved next door as officials sought to consolidate the dwindling number of refugees who still don't have permanent housing.
The refugees, some pushing grocery carts piled high with belongings, moved to the Reliant Arena, a smaller adjacent building where new cots awaited them.
Relief workers say the refugees can stay for now — even though aid agencies would prefer the entire complex were cleared of refugees by Sunday's home opener for the NFL Texans at nearby Reliant Stadium, the facility that replaced the Astrodome.
"You are not going to leave somebody on the street," said Justin Dombrowski, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But, he added, workers are advising refugees about how to move on.
"There's a really hard push to get people on to that next step," he said.
The new home in Reliant Arena (search) was noisy and considerably more crowded than the Astrodome, with cots nearly touching each other. Meanwhile, the Astrodome floor was cleared of everything except large piles of cots and bags of blankets — the only remnants of the once-bustling makeshift city refugees found when they arrived.
The number of refugees at the Astrodome has steadily dropped as families move to other shelters or find permanent housing. About 3,600 remained in Houston's four main shelters, down from a high of 27,100.
Louis Lazard, 27, said he wasn't ready to leave the Astrodome, where he's been staying with his 83-year-old grandfather since Hurricane Katrina (search). Lazard agreed to move to the arena, but he wasn't sure of his next step.
"I just can't make a decision overnight," he said. "I need time to think and see if this is what I really want. It's not like I came here on my own."
Lazard, who already has a construction job, has been unable to contact his girlfriend. He believes she's in a shelter in Shreveport, La., with their two toddlers.
"I got to think my situation out to make sure I really want to stay here and make sure this city can satisfy me and my family," he said.
Shirley Parkman, 56, left the Astrodome on Thursday to move in with her sister in Pontiac, Mich. She's homesick for gumbo and hopes to return to New Orleans someday.
"Thank God that I have more sisters that I can go and depend upon and live and rebuild what I've lost," she said.
Shelters in Dallas also took steps to close. All refugees at the Dallas Convention Center should be moved into Reunion Arena by Friday, said Red Cross (search) spokeswoman Anita Foster. About 853 people were staying at the two shelters on Thursday, down from a high of about 17,000.
Close to 20,000 others remained in about 175 shelters across Texas. Overall, as many as 373,000 refugees are believed to be staying in the state.