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Texas continues to offer refuge to storm victims; GLO team to assist

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

As the death toll continues to climb and refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama seek asylum from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, Texas continues to join other states and the federal government in attempting to meet the needs of those affected by the storm and its aftermath.

While thousands of refugees who previously were housed in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans are being moved to the Astrodome in Houston, other refugees are being moved to shelters in other major cities such as Beaumont, Dallas and San Antonio.

Gov. Rick Perry, who already has mobilized to Louisiana a medical taskforce with the Texas National Guard and promised humanitarian aid, shelter and space in Texas public schools for displaced out-of-state youngsters from the affected areas, will tour the hurricane relief shelter at Reunion Arena in Dallas today at 2:20 p.m.

The efforts of the state and its citizens were lauded by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison today, who said, "The city of Houston and the state of Texas should be commended for opening up their facilities to the victims of this devastating hurricane. (Houston) Mayor (bill) White, Judge (Bob) Eckels and all of Houston's city officials are working diligently to ready the city for our neighbors in need. Congress is attempting to determine what the needs are and how they can best be met in all of the affected areas. While we cannot bring back the losses to the victims of this devastation, hopefully, working as a nation, we can help regain some sense of normalcy in their lives."

Phil Hardberger, Mayor San Antonio, said he has been advised that San Antonio may also be asked to house some of the refugees. "Whatever we are called upon to do - as San Antonio citizens and the government of San Antonio, both the city and county and all of our officials - we intend to welcome these people with open arms." Hardberger said San Antonio residents will "try to give them some dignity that these circumstances have taken away from them."

The San Antonio official said many of those in Louisiana who had jobs before don't have them anymore. They have no money coming in. "That in itself is a disaster," he said. Hardberger said many have lost their homes and their possessions, and their monetary resources are either totally exhausted or nearly exhausted.

Hardberger described the circumstances as a "cry for compassion and understanding from one human spirit to another." He said San Antonio "will not fail to respond."

As more and more aid is being sent to the affected areas, the Texas General Land Office today announced it has been asked by the U.S. Coast Guard to send its Oil Spill Prevention and Response team to assist in the New Orleans recovery.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said these experts will travel to Zephyr Field in Kenner, La., 15 miles west of downtown New Orleans, and will receive a specific mission upon arrival. "We're just happy to help," Patterson said. "We know that Louisiana would do the same thing for us if we were in similar circumstances." The Land Office team is mobilizing oil spill response equipment and personnel, that includes: seven boats, including three airboats, three 18-foot boats and one 24-foot boat; one bird rehabilitation trailer that will be used to provide air conditioned-sleeping quarters for team members; one mobile command post; 10 trucks; one equipment storage trailer; and 16 personnel from all five Land Office oil spill field offices.

Patterson said the teams are self-sufficient, carrying their own food and water. They also will be carrying extra gasoline and diesel fuel. Satellite communications capability has been arranged because telephone and cellular phone services have been disrupted in the New Orleans area.

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn today announced that her office will waive the state hotel/motel tax for the victims of Hurricane Katrina seeking shelter in Texas.

"Our prayers go out to the victims of this catastrophic storm," Strayhorn said. "The state of Texas stands ready to help the tens of thousands of refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in any way it can. The state hotel and motel tax will be waived for victims from the affected states setting up temporary residency in Texas."

Storm refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama who are housed in hotels and motels in Texas need only show proof of residency from their home states when checking into hotels and motels in Texas and notify the hotel or motel they intend to stay for at least 30 days for the 6 percent state hotel/motel tax to be exempted.

In Houston, where refugees are being buses from the Louisiana Superdome after the facility lost electrical power, began leaking water and had no water for restroom facilities, Harris County Judge Bob Eckels said the city is expecting an influx there of between 20,000 and 25,000 refugees.

Eckels estimated that there might already be some 100,000 refugees from the storm who have relocated to the Houston area, either staying in shelters, hotels and motels or with friends and family. He said that while these additional individuals being added to a city whose population already was that of the entire population of Louisiana is putting a strain on the city's health care and central services, "We're happy to be able to help our neighbors."

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan today announced that President George W. Bush would visit the affected states on Friday. "The nation stands with all those in the region who have been affected by one of the most devastating national disasters in our nation's history," he said. The president is expected to fly to Mobile, Ala., to meet with Alabama Governor Bob Riley and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for a helicopter tour along the Alabama-Mississippi coast and two on-ground visits. He will then travel to New Orleans where he will be joined by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for an aerial tour of that area.

McClellan said there is a "massive federal response effort" under way, being coordinated with local and state officials. He described the land area under a federal disaster declaration as some 90,000 square miles.

He also announced that former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will team up to lead fundraising efforts. The two were mainstays in the fundraising efforts that raised more than $1 billion in monetary relief for victims of the Asian tsunami last December. Calling the hurricane damage and aftermath a "national tragedy," McClellan said there is a "long and difficult road ahead that will require continued support of all Americans."

The White House spokesman said governors of the three affected states have requested, and been granted, a waiver of cost share requirements for emergency federal relief. As a result, the federal government will now take over 100 percent of the cost of the federal emergency response for 60 days, retroactive to the Aug. 28 and 29 disaster declarations.

McClellan called the federal government's efforts "unprecedented" and a "massive undertaking." He said the incident is a "major catastrophe" that has required a "major response." The federal government already has brought in some 7 million MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), 15,000 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice and thousands and thousands of gallons of water. He also said the United States has received "numerous" offers of condolence and assistance from nations around the world, although the United States has not requested international aid. He said the nation is "not ruling things out" and will look at those offers and probably take some nations up on their offers.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff confirmed that "dozens and dozens" of nations from across the world have offered assistance. Those offers are being coordinated by the U.S. State Department, he said, to ensure that "what we get is what we can use." He said as many times as the United States has responded to the needs of other countries in peril, "The world has responded to us."

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