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Texans try to help their neighbors from Louisiana

HOUSTON—More than 15,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina packed the Astrodome on Friday, even though the facility was set up to handle half that many, illustrating the tremendous task facing Texas officials determined to help their stricken neighbors.

The dome can handle only about 8,000 cots, Houston officials said. The city opened two convention centers for the overflow, the Reliant Center next to the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.

Thousands of hurricane victims were also being sent to hastily opened shelters in San Antonio, Huntsville and Dallas, where all city police officers have been called in to duty. Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said other cities, including Austin, are being asked to take in displaced Louisiana residents. Fort Worth officials are considering reopening two closed hospitals and a Masonic home.

Walt said the former Kelly Air Force Base was being prepared to accept evacuees, including those turned away from the Astrodome.

The majority of evacuees will arrive in San Antonio by plane rather than by bus, Walt said.

It was unclear how long the Louisiana residents might need to remain at the former base, but Walt said state officials will care for them as long as necessary. New Orleans officials have said that it could be months before residents can return to the flooded city.

In Dallas, storm victims poured into Reunion Arena, the former home of the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks. When it fills, people will be sent to the nearby Dallas Convention Center. Together, the facilities can hold about 1,000 people.

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm said the city is calling on mayors and county judges throughout North Texas to prepare large public facilities that can be serviced with food, showers and security.

The task for police agencies was beginning to appear daunting.

Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle was calm and measured when he joined Suhm at a morning briefing. But his comments were sobering.

"We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," he said. "We're requiring all of our officers to come in, in uniforms. We're also canceling leaves and vacations. ... We are paying overtime and backfilling positions.

"We anticipate we're going to be in this for a very long haul, and we are preparing immediately."

Members of the Texas State Guard will be deployed in Dallas because they're trained in "shelter management and detention issues," Kunkle said.

Also Friday, Zachary Thompson, director of the Dallas County Health and Human Services Department, expressed his frustration with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. He said the agency, which is drawing heavy criticism for its hurricane response, has been slow to help Dallas County.

The county needs federal money to address the onslaught of storm victims, he said.

In Houston, workers described a dire situation.

"We have a crisis," Steven Glonsky, a doctor at Methodist Hospital in Houston, said after a 13-hour shift at the Astrodome, where the 130,000-square-foot main floor space was covered in cots. "I think the influx of patients is overwhelming right now."

Glonsky, a general surgeon who specializes in critical care, said he's seen about eight to 10 doctors at the dome, but he wishes there were 50 to 100.

About 30 buses were stopped outside the dome's parking lot Friday morning for about 45 minutes while city and county officials talked about where to reroute the refugees, who arrived after a 300-mile ride from the Louisiana Superdome. Many of the buses opened their doors, allowing passengers to spill onto the streets around the dome.

Melvin Jones, 27, sat near the bus with his 3-month-old son and 20-year-old girlfriend. He was frustrated by the lack of communication.

"The hurricane ain't done us that bad," said Jones, who had to float his son, Melvin Jr., on a blow-up mattress to get through the flooded streets of New Orleans. "It's the aftermath that's hurting us."

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(Miller and Wethe report for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Star-Telegram correspondent John Moritz contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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