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41 evacuees spent days on bus before being delivered to shelter

SAN ANTONIO—Confused, exhausted and angry, 41 storm-tossed nomads finally arrived at a shelter in San Antonio on Sunday after being shuttled more than 300 miles across Texas on multiple buses since Thursday night.

"We were used and abused," said 70-year-old Warren Jackson of Beaumont, Texas, after he stepped slowly from a charter bus. He was recovering from a stroke when Hurricane Rita hit, and he'd thought that the trip to safety would be fairly uneventful.

"We rode for two days in Beaumont on city buses," said Nykaochia Collins, who said the passengers had to sleep on the buses and couldn't get food.

Another man, who'd begun his journey in New Orleans weeks ago, said he was on a bus that had passed through Lufkin, Livingston and other Texas cities without a layover.

"They've been bouncing all over the place," said shelter director Robert Marbut as he and a team of nurses, firefighters and other emergency personnel sprinted from the shelter's doors to comfort the passengers. Most of them were poor, some of them were sick, and more than a few of them were in tears after their nightmarish journey.

Two of the passengers were hospitalized Sunday night: a man who needed kidney dialysis and a woman who was in labor.

They were a mixed bunch that had fallen through the cracks of the retreat from Rita. Some had first been evacuated from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina's rampage through south Louisiana. Others were residents of the Texas coastal cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, which lay in the path of Hurricane Rita.

They said they'd met on Thursday night on Beaumont city buses that were supposed to shuttle them to other vehicles that were headed for shelters away from the Gulf coast.

But something went wrong. Connections weren't made. Links in the chain of deliverance were broken.

Shelter officials on Sunday were trying to evaluate the haggard evacuees' medical and psychological needs and to piece together their stories, which often conflicted because of their dazed condition.

Many of the passengers didn't appear to be suffering from major medical problems when they boarded buses in Beaumont and Port Arthur three days earlier, shelter director Marbut said. But their conditions deteriorated during their long ordeal.

They joined a shelter for people with more serious medical conditions, including heart disease, strokes, emphysema, diabetes and mental illness. At this shelter, people move more slowly than do evacuees at other shelters in San Antonio. Wheelchairs and aluminum walkers are more common than TVs and teddy bears.

"This is the most acute and desperate situation I've seen," Dr. Charles Singleton, a silver-haired, 66-year-old retired internist who volunteered at the shelter over the weekend, said of the shelter that now houses victims of two hurricanes.

Many of the passengers were staying in the shelter overnight, but officials were trying to find hotel rooms for some of them.

"They've been through such shock and trauma that they need to be placed in the best possible environment we can find," Marbut said.

Baptist Child and Family Services has volunteered to pay for the hotel rooms.

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(Kahn reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)

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

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