Police directed thousands of storm evacuees from the overstretched Astrodome out of Houston, while officials pleaded for patience in a city that over 36 hours has come to resemble a huge refugee camp.

Houston is sheltering as many as 200,000 people who fled Louisiana and Mississippi, area leaders estimated. The tally includes those who left before Katrina hit and who were in hotels or private homes, as well as others who have arrived since Thursday. Just 300 of the city's 55,000 hotel rooms are vacant, officials said, with many of the rest occupied by multiple people.

"This is just the beginning of what will be many months of trying to bring normalcy to these people's lives," Gov. Rick Perry (R) said outside the Astrodome, where 15,000 evacuees have arrived from Louisiana and thousands more are expected to stay.

Although officials from Pennsylvania to Utah offered shelter, the Lone Star State remained a key destination, with authorities straining to keep order among a tide of traumatized people.

All day Friday, state troopers worked to relieve pressure on Houston, diverting buses to Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Lubbock, Corpus Christi, Amarillo and a string of hamlets in eastern Texas. In waves, the newcomers settled into venues large and small, from a former Air Force base in San Antonio to a church in Huntsville.

"People should be asking themselves in this region where they know of a garage apartment where people can stay," Houston Mayor Bill White said.

Perry said he had spoken with officials in West Virginia, Arkansas and Utah, who all offered to take in refugees.

In Philadelphia on Friday, Mayor John F. Street announced a plan to house as many as 1,000 families from the disaster area in vacant schools, public housing, a defunct hotel and two shuttered hospitals. "On one hour's notice, we can provide housing for up to 400 families," spokesman Joe Grace said.

Such offers, while generous, hardly make a dent in the mass of desperate humanity that has been squeezed into the Astrodome, a vacant sports stadium transformed into a roofed, air-conditioned city of cots, hot food, clinics and playgrounds.

Officials acknowledged Friday morning that they had misjudged the stadium's capacity. They made plans to move thousands of people to nearby convention centers.

"They said there was no more room, that they couldn't take in any more people," said Toscha Williams, who stood with her cousin and their five children as they prepared to board yet another bus.

On the sidewalk, volunteers set up impromptu food and clothing banks, and unloaded trucks of supplies.

Inside, the place resembled a refugee camp in a country at war. People plucked from rooftops and highways, who had waited for days for a bus out of Louisiana, wandered around the vast complex, some desperate to tell their horrifying stories, others too tired to say anything. Relief workers handed out food in the breezeways under the stands. Those who entered the dome and nearby buildings were checked for drugs and weapons. Police said they confiscated several dozen guns and knives Friday.

An understaffed team of doctors and nurses worked in a quickly assembled health clinic, giving tetanus shots to refugees who had been immersed in contaminated floodwaters. Medications unavailable for days were distributed, but health workers said they were worried about those with chronic conditions that had gone untreated. Two elderly evacuees have died, one of advanced cancer and the other of complications from chest pain, officials said.

Families slept beneath gray blankets, some with babies in their arms. Others played cards with their children. Soap operas blared on televisions where baseball and football games were once broadcast, but most people barely looked up.

"I'm trying to hang in there," said Delores Smith, a diabetic who said she slept two nights on a bridge over a highway overpass. She spread a blanket over two seats in the stands Thursday night, deciding against a cot on the concrete field below. "I can't go down there," she gestured. "Too many people."

After the horrific conditions in the Superdome, many were grateful for some order.

Every few minutes, a man's voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing a hoped-for reunion: "Augustine Arts, meet your party at the message board for pickup."

Houston's humanity appeared on giant boards designed for football and baseball scores. "We are sorry for your loss," read one. "We can imagine how difficult this must be for you."

The Astrodome's turbulence stood in sharp contrast to the more orderly reception many of those fleeing found in the small towns near the border between Texas and Louisiana.

Debora Phillips's flight for life began with a motorboat ride along what used to be the Jeff Davis Parkway in central New Orleans. Over 27 hours, she traveled west, by Army helicopter, by school bus, by pickup truck and, finally, in the back of a Good Samaritan's vintage Cadillac. And then she found an oasis: Orange, the first town on the Texas side of the border.

"This is a wonder to behold," Phillips declared as the Cadillac pulled up Friday morning at the tourist information center here, the first stop on Interstate 10 after the highway enters Texas. "There's food, there's clothes, there are friendly people who just want to help us!"

In the archipelago of small towns along I-10, evacuees were treated as neighbors. "I'm sick of watching all the negative stuff on TV news," said Katherine Frey, a florist in Orange who has spent the past three days at the highway rest stop greeting evacuees. Orange has seen its population of 18,000 grow by 20 percent in three days, town officials say. The refugees live in at least six shelters run by churches or the American Red Cross, and they have filled all the motels.

In Silsbee, a few miles north of here, Proctor's Mortuary turned its chapel into a haven for the living. In Newton, about 250 hurricane survivors camped out at the Baptist Encampment. After all 23,000 tickets to Beaumont's annual Labor Day music festival sold out, organizers printed 7,000 more to accommodate the unexpected newcomers.

In Liberty, refugees from the storm were promised free admission to the central social event of any Texas Friday night: the high school football game.

While they have beds, showers, clothing and food here in their temporary homes, most do not know whether they have houses, cars or jobs back in Louisiana. As a result, thousands are starting to plan an extended stay. The West Orange-Cove School District says it has enrolled about 200 new students in the past two days, from kindergarten through high school, and expects most of them to be here for months. Local job centers have been inundated with applicants.

Williamson reported from Washington. Staff writers T.R. Reid in Orange, Tex., and Ylan Q. Mui and Michael Chandler in Washington contributed to this report.

Angelique Hayes weeps as she holds her baby Terrell Gold. She said children, including her niece, were raped at New Orleans Superdome. About 15,000 evacuees have sought shelter in Houston's Astrodome. Others are being directed elsewhere.