By Mark Guarino
AUSTIN — Lights out in a high school gymnasium. As some hurricane Rita evacuees snore in a deep slumber and others quietly chat in pockets atop bleachers, Antonio Romano sits up, makes the sign of the cross and then stands to layer more blankets on his son, daughter and wife who are sleeping on the floor at the top of a stairwell.
“We never thought this was going to happen. Maybe we’re going to lose everything. Terrible, terrible,” said the 28-year-old cook, his whispered words trembling. “I love my kids. This is a bad place for kids.”
This is a city that is making room for 15,000 evacuees from Houston and its surrounding area, many showing up late Thursday night after driving 15 or more hours, in what is usually a three-hour trip. It is a disaster that has a precedent: Unlike the chaos that accompanied the New Orleans evacuees running from hurricane Katrina, this group had time. They come to Austin in complete families, with their pets and carrying clothing and food to last at least a week.
For Austin, the influx of additional people could not have come at a worse time. Friday was the kick-off of the fourth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, drawing 65,000 music tourists from around the country and filling up the city’s hotels months in advance. Upon their arrival to Austin, Rita evacuees encountered highway signs directing them to makeshift shelters in high schools and middle schools. Twenty-five shelters opened up immediately, a number expected to rise to 42 by Saturday.
The incoming migration also comes at the same time the Austin Convention Center is closing its doors to the last of the survivors of hurricane Katrina. Although the downtown facility housed 4,000 New Orleans residents, 150 people remained Friday, the last day it will serve as a shelter, said volunteer Judy Jones. “The city wants to open it for revenue, honestly,” she said.
The new arrivals helped create expected conditions: gridlock on the highway, cell phone disruption and the common sight in parking lots of cars stuffed with bags of clothing, rolls of toilet paper and sleeping children.
Some hotels did report rooms were available, although there was a catch. The Hilton, located next door to the convention center, was selling rooms for $269 a night.
Those with no choice ended up at shelters like the Delco Activity Center, located on the far Northeast side of the city. In a facility that, in happier times, hosts all the city’s public high school graduations, 775 people slept, on air mattresses or the bare floor. Mothers clutched infant babies to their chest to rock them to sleep. Families pressed their bodies together as they dozed. Children too excited to sleep played on the stairs, one group having a swordfight with plastic clothing hangers. Pets, from cats and dogs to roosters, chickens and birds, were logged in and kept in a separate room. The bleachers were divided into sections, one for single men, another single women. Those people uncomfortable with sleeping in the dark huddled near lit stairwells or tucked themselves under tables.
Those families who showed up after midnight (when the shelter was full) slept outside in their cars or set up makeshift camps with tents.
Two policemen and various Red Cross volunteers hurried about in an environment that was somewhat tranquil, but tense.
“You don’t know if you have a job to go back to,” said Danny Morales, a construction worker from Port Lavaca, Tex. He said he is most worried about his four kids. „For them, it was more dramatic. They don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
A group evacuation had an effect many did not realize: it brought families together. Mickey Garza and Cassandra Munoz, both 17 from Wharton, Tex., sat together in a hallway. They said they spent the day playing cards and dominos. “It’s more time with my family. I don’t see her a lot,” Garza said.
Henry Flores, a 17-year-old from El Campo, Tex., arrived with 40 family members, although their presence couldn’t ease his nerves. “I feel scared,” he said. On the way to the shower, he clutched a bottle of shampoo, “one of the most important things” he remembered to pack.
Tourists arriving in Austin for a weekend of good music were not fazed by the turn of events. During his set Friday, singer-songwriter Steve Earle polled the number of Houston people in the audience and half the crowd screamed. “Tickets are a good investment aren’t they? If the hurricane hits (Saturday), head for Washington,” he said.
Tim Shevlin, 46, of Arlington Heights, said he didn’t cancel his travel plans because he was convinced Austin would experience a “storm, not a hurricane.” “And we’ve all been in storms,” he said.
“I think (the festival organizers) will try to make it better than ever to prove they can weather the storm,” he said.
Despite the turn of events, in some parts of Austin, life continued as normal. Marching bands blared and fans cheered during a high school football game between the LBJ Jaguars and the Lampasas Badgers. Badgers bus driver Lanette Higgins said her town, located west of Austin, also welcomed evacuees from Katrina and Rita. What upset her was hearing about the people left behind at the Superdome. “You’ve got to pull it together,” she said. “This is a nation that pulls together.”