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Thousands of Katrina evacuees remain adrift

SILOAM SPRINGS, Ark.—Thomas Marquez was tired, his tooth hurt, his asthma was acting up and everything he owned was in a couple of small duffle bags that he carried across the sun-baked lawn Thursday.

He and about 150 others who were forced to leave flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina had arrived in tour buses at the Arkansas Baptist Assembly camp. For most, it was their fourth or fifth stop since the storm.

"I'd like to be like everyone else, just have a home," Marquez said as he headed for an assembly hall where he'd be assigned a post office box, given lunch and directed to a bunk room where in most cases 15 people would share 26 beds.

He and thousands of others are adrift, many of them being moved about to unfamiliar places such as the leafy Baptist camp in the Ozark Mountains. The night before, camp arrivals had stayed at Fort Chaffee, a military barracks 70 miles away.

Earlier, Regina Halley and Eddye Marie Virgil weren't even sure where they were going as they waited for the bus outside their dormitories at Fort Chaffee.

"All I know is we are going on a road trip," Halley said.

Halley said she knew it would be better than her first stop: the squalid Superdome in New Orleans. Then came the Houston Astrodome, or for some the Houston convention center or other temporary Texas quarters. Then Fort Chaffee. And now the camp.

"I feel bad for these people," Kelly Boyd, the chief of staff for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said as she helped at Fort Chaffee. "You're forced out of your house once and you move somewhere else and you move somewhere else. But these people have a good spirit. I know I wouldn't have held up as well as they have."

First lady Janet Huckabee stood at the top step of each Fort Chaffee bus Thursday morning.

"My role is encouragement, to let them know we value them as people," Huckabee said. "We're opening the doors of our state. It's the right thing to do."

Right after Katrina, about 9,000 evacuees were taken to Fort Chaffee. They've since left or have been relocated, leaving the barracks virtually empty before the new arrivals this week.

The barracks were ready to take in 4,080 evacuees being housed in Houston, but only 341 wanted to make the trip, state officials said. Boyd said the barracks were available for people who might be chased from the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Rita.

In addition to trying to find quarters for evacuees, Arkansas got a $3 million federal grant this week to help them find work.

The Baptist camp had a job fair Thursday and information on housing. Evacuees also were sent to two other church camps Thursday, where they got similar assistance.

"It looks pretty nice, compared to what we've seen," said Brenda Edwards, who arrived with her 13-year-old son, Jamon Edwards. "I feel blessed compared to other people."

Still, many evacuees feel rootless and remain stunned from the loss of their homes and belongings.

"I lost everything, and there's nothing I can do about it," Norton Hunter said. "There's nowhere to go; that's what my life is like. I don't know where I am going to end up."

His wife, Marlene, wasn't too happy about spending just one night at Fort Chaffee.

"They put us out again," she said.

Marlene Hunter said she worked at St. Rita's Nursing Home, where 34 people were found dead, in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish. That, on top of losing her home to the storm, has left her wary and bitter.

"I don't trust nobody no more," she said.

Some people were adapting to being wanderers, at least so far.

"It doesn't bother me," said LaQuetta Zeno of New Orleans, who's with six other family members. "Everyone wants it to be like home, but unfortunately the time isn't right for that right now."

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

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