SHREVEPORT, La. – With his city spared from major damage, and his husky body surpassing the edges of a narrow cot, Eddie Brown had come to believe Gustav was no longer the villain in this hurricane story: It was this rusted and vacant Sam's warehouse brimming with 3,000 evacuees.
The Shreveport shelter offered little more than a dry place to sleep. It had no showers, no elbow room and no privacy. After five days, Brown and others who fled here were questioning their decision to leave New Orleans at all.
"If you're gonna help, help me. Don't send me to a place like this," Brown said Tuesday, his eyes sunken in the industrial lights that stay on around the clock for security reasons. "I would rather ride it out without power at home. I'm only taking a few more days of this. I don't care if I have to walk the highway back."
He and other New Orleans evacuees scattered across the country were anxious to return home after their city was largely spared by Hurricane Gustav, but Mayor Ray Nagin warned they may have to wait in shelters and motels a few days longer.
A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remained in effect, and nearly 80,000 remained without power after the storm damaged transmission lines that snapped like rubber bands in the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service.
The dozens of shelters dotting Louisiana and surrounding states provided three meals a day, plenty of water and a cot. In Shreveport, a medical station and shuttle buses to a nearby stadium's shower facilities had also been set up.
But after Hurricane Gustav gave New Orleans only a glancing blow, families began to fall back into the same ride-out-the-storm mentality that helped make Hurricane Katrina in 2005 one of the nation's worst disasters.
"Right now I'd rather be home, even with no electricity," said Curtis Helms, 47, who left New Orleans' Third Ward late Saturday with $20 in his pocket and found himself at a center in downtown Birmingham, Ala.
He had been wearing the same T-shirt and denim shorts since getting on the bus. He said he only left because he feared he could be mistaken for a looter and get caught up in Nagin's threat to jail suspected looters to Angola prison.
Elizabeth Shoughro sat on one of the 2 1/2-foot-wide canvass cots, shaking her head as she surveyed the room. The 83-year-old woman said her sixth-floor apartment off New Orleans' City Park neighborhood never faced any real danger, but she had to heed the evacuation.
"It's terrible, it really is," she said, her cot clustered with those of two other women in a triangle of protection. She gazed at a line of women waiting to change in a single room on one side of the cavernous warehouse.
"I don't feel safe enough to change here. If I reek, it's too bad."
Her 81-year-old friend said she left her purse behind at one of the portable toilets outside the facility, and when she went to retrieve it, $144 and her credit cards and identification were gone.
"I'd give you my name," she said. "But I'm afraid it will help someone steal my identity."
Doug Hubbart, a spokesman with the Louisiana Department of Social Services said the only law enforcement problems at the Shreveport shelter were petty thefts and a handful of minor fights. But that did not stop rumors from circulating that a young girl had been molested. State police declined to comment, and a spokesman for Shreveport police could not be reached Tuesday afternoon.
Hubbart said the incident did not take place. He was more concerned with the mood of the evacuees. He said the shelter was designed to provide basic needs without federal help for five days. With the five-day window closing Wednesday, he was now seeking additional services.
"Portable showers are en route from Jackson," he said. "They should be here today, but the bad weather is holding them up. I don't know where they are going to put them. It's probably going to be outside."
Entrepreneurs were trying to take up the slack. One man drove up in a gleaming tour bus and offered evacuees a ride to the local Wal-Mart for $3. Another woman handed fliers to evacuees, advertising a few rooms in her house at "affordable rates."
Mike Watson, 49, begged patience of his wife and three daughters, even though he was running out of it himself.
The construction worker said he would have stayed behind in New Orleans if not for his family. On the bus, he considered leaving the city for good. Now, he said, he will go back with a sharp eye on hurricane season.
"There's other storms out there, but what can we do but make decisions when they come?" he said. "All I know is I'm dying to get back home. I got a few jobs to finish. I got a house to build. And when I finish that one off, I got another."