Ike Evacuees Complain of Violence at Shelter

AP, October 1, 2008

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Accounts of what happened in the Wal-Mart [converted into a shelter for evacuees], drawn from interviews and public records obtained by The Associated Press, raise questions about the soundness of the state’s evacuation plan.

Days before Ike hit the Gulf Coast on Sept. 13, more than 3,000 Beaumont residents were taken by bus to Tyler even though the city had told the state it could accommodate only about half that number. The result was a chaotic experience that many won’t soon forget.

“I thought, ‘Oh Lord, just get us out of here,’” said Verlinda Antoine, 52. “The conditions were too bad for anyone, and they treated us like they didn’t want us there. It was a nightmare.”

Many claimed that the building was unsanitary and that fear of crime and violence was constant.

When a fight between two women in a smoking area attracted numerous onlookers on the second night, police swarmed. Four people, including two juveniles, were arrested on charges that included disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.

“People refused to move out of the way and wouldn’t stop fighting,” Tyler Police Chief Gary Swindle said. The Taser was used after a couple of people threatened an officer with a chair, he said.

Tales of chaos

But some evacuees tell a different story, saying police were overly aggressive and used racial slurs.

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Conditions at the shelter improved the day after the storm, when about half the evacuees were moved to other places.

Preparations under question

Still, questions remain about whether Tyler was capable of hosting thousands of evacuees and whether the shelter where most of them were sent should have been used.

Less than two weeks earlier, Louisiana officials were criticized for placing thousands of Hurricane Gustav evacuees from New Orleans in a vacant Sam’s Club in Shreveport, La., and an abandoned Wal-Mart in Bastrop, La. A top state official resigned in the aftermath.

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But the circumstances were different for Ike. Several large Tyler shelters that had housed Gustav evacuees, including the city’s convention center, were unavailable because they were needed for future events or being used for other purposes.

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