First bus of Gustav evacuees leaves

Thursday, September 4th 2008, 1:57 pm
By: News 9

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Hundreds of Hurricane Gustav evacuees packed into buses Thursday morning for a return trip to Louisiana from a temporary shelter that has been housing 1,700 people who fled their homes Sunday.

Officials were hopeful about 1,000 evacuees would be bused out Thursday from the old Lucent Technologies plant in western Oklahoma City.

"Are we going to get everybody home today -- probably not," said police Sgt. Paco Balderrama. "But we have 25 or 26 buses at strategic locations across the city, so we should be coming and going all day."

Balderrama said each bus holds about 47 people and wouldn't depart until they get the go-ahead from Louisiana officials that the parishes there were ready for people to return.

He said evacuees from four parishes in southern Louisiana had been cleared for returns Thursday morning -- Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Acadia and Calcasieu. More than 500 people could be forced to stay through the weekend, Balderrama said.

Evacuees toted their belongings in boxes, suitcases and plastic bags as they made their way to a waiting bus. A little girl clutched a stuffed animal and a coloring book as she walked toward the bus. Each evacuee was given a care package that included bottled water and two meals for the drive, which was expected to take between 13 and 15 hours.

"It could be 20 hours. I don't care," said Alfred Scott of New Orleans. "It's a nice city, but I'm ready to get out of here."

Scott said the evacuees were met with open arms and treated well by volunteers at the shelter. He said he and some friends even met a local at a nearby gas station who took them for a tour of the city.

"It's been a wonderful experience," he said. "We went out and saw the city, had a few beers."

Patricia Walker, also from New Orleans, praised volunteers for providing evacuees with good meals and recreation to help pass the time.

"The volunteer services were wonderful. They did an outstanding job," she said. "I feel everyone should be thankful for what they got.

"I really have no complaints. The only complaint I have is that I'm ready to go home."

Balderrama said nine evacuees were arrested Wednesday night, bringing to 34 the number that has been arrested since arriving in Oklahoma City. All of Wednesday's arrests were for public drunkenness, and all of those arrested were banned from the facility but would be allowed to board buses bound for their homes in Louisiana, Balderrama said.

Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Office of Emergency Management, said operations at the shelter ran smoothly considering the short notice they were given to get the facility up and running.

"We basically set up a city overnight, really in about 13 or 14 hours," she said. "It's a tribute to Oklahoma City and all of our partners. "From what I've heard, compared to other cities, you would think this is a five-star hotel."