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With Shelters Full, Port Arthur, Texas Scrambles To Find Housing For Displaced People


Officials in Port Arthur, Texas, are scrambling to find places to shelter the thousands of people who are displaced by this week's floods. Port Arthur was hit hard by Tropical Storm Harvey a few days after the hurricane hit Houston. The shelters set up in Port Arthur quickly filled to capacity. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency has started airlifting evacuees in military cargo planes. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Port Arthur's shelters have struggled during this disaster. The first debacle was when a shelter at the Robert Bowers Civic Center housing more than a hundred people flooded on Tuesday night. Other municipal shelters filled to capacity soon after opening. And then there's the bowling alley which firefighters commandeered in the middle of the night Tuesday and turned into a surreal refuge for residents and their animals. There were even reports of a pet monkey taking refuge there.

Evelyn Ellis is parked in her wheelchair at the Max Bowl under a neon sign that says laser tag. She says she was rescued out of her house by men in a boat on Tuesday and then dumped in the lobby of the bowling alley.

EVELYN ELLIS: They brought me in the front. I don't know if you want the negativity or not, but they brought me in that front, and it was wet in there. And I was already wet from the boat rode - threw me in there and left me, you know?

BEAUBIEN: The 85-year-old has a can of oxygen next to the right side of her wheelchair and a fluffy Pomeranian named Baby Girl nestled in her lap. At first, there were no beds or cots here, she says. She just slept on the floor.

ELLIS: And I guess I slept about a hour. But that floor is so hard and my old bones, so - and I have arthritis on top of that (laughter).

BEAUBIEN: So you'd think she'd be happy when city officials on Thursday told her and the rest of the residents of Max Bowl that this place is being shut down, and they're all going to be relocated. But Ellis wasn't happy because plan was to move everyone to the airport and then fly them 300 miles away to Dallas. Ellis is hoping to avoid getting sent to Dallas and says as soon as the roads are open, her daughter's going to come pick her up.

But other evacuees jumped at the offer of going to Dallas. On Thursday, hundreds of people were packed into an unfinished terminal of the Jack Brooks Regional Airport just north of Port Arthur. There was no air conditioning, and the vast hall reeked with the smell of wet clothes.

Ashley Jones was waiting with five of her extended family. They were rescued on Tuesday by the Coast Guard and brought to a mall but couldn't find a shelter that would take them.

ASHLEY JONES: Unfortunately all the shelters were full. But luckily they have this today where they're actually flying us to Dallas.

BEAUBIEN: This is how desperate people are to get out of Port Arthur. Jones knows nothing about what is going to happen when they get to Dallas.

JONES: I have no idea where they're taking us. I mean we just found out about this five minutes before we came here. But I don't know if they're taking us to a shelter. I don't know if there's going to be enough, you know, room for us there because I'm number 712. Almost a thousand people are here waiting to find out what's going to happen. No one knows at this point.

BEAUBIEN: Jones, like all the other evacuees, got a number written in permanent marker on her forearm when she arrived at the airport. Hers is 712 and serves as her spot in line for a flight. When an evacuee's number comes up, they're loaded into the back of a hulking, gray military cargo plane, and away they go. FEMA officials at the airport say that the people getting flown out of Port Arthur will get housed in civic centers and other large municipal shelters once they arrive in Dallas. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Port Arthur. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.