-- Houston's newest neighborhood has its own Zip code, hospital, ATMs and a playground with swing sets and slides. There's a government and, already, opposition leaders. Sunday, the archbishop led Catholic Mass.
They've named the neighborhood Reliant City, after the sports and convention complex that includes the Astrodome and that has sheltered the largest number of hurricane evacuees. The "Town Square," complete with ribbon-cutting, went up this weekend -- a collection of basketball hoops, washers and dryers, and air-conditioned tents with game rooms and lounges on a lot where Astros fans used to park for baseball games.
A team of health inspectors tests the food that is delivered around the clock on flatbed trucks -- buns, barbecue, chicken sandwiches, apples, grits. Antique brown trolley cars evoking simpler times have turned from tourist buses into shuttles for stranded survivors. And yellow school buses pull up at 7 a.m. to bring Louisiana's children to new classrooms where they may not sit tomorrow. By 4 p.m. they are dropped off back at their current address, Reliant Park, Zip code 77230.
Thirteen days ago, this was an aging sports stadium and convention center in semi-retirement, hosting the occasional rodeo, car show and high school football game. Now it is an encampment that has sheltered, fed, and arranged aid and services for more than 24,000 people -- the largest in Red Cross history, officials with the relief organization say. Thousands more are staying in smaller shelters scattered across the suburbs of this sprawling oil city.
Life here is a mix of organization and improvisation, kindness and false starts. Parents stand in lines for food, donated clothing and other pieces of their new lives, from food stamps to Section 8 housing vouchers. Then they wait. Others sit on plastic crates on a sidewalk outside the Astrodome and stare into the crowd of people walking purposefully by.
Adolphe Lamothe Jr. inhaled his cigarette and rested his swollen ankles on the curb. "It's the best that can be done right now," he said of his Texas home, a cot surrounded by other cots. "I'm used to being relaxed in drawers and an undershirt. I don't take too well to strangers.
"I just try to keep busy trying to take care of things," the taxi driver added.
Lamothe, 50, held a working cell phone, retrieved from a plastic bag in which he also sealed his charger and $240 in cash before jumping into the floodwaters from his roof in New Orleans. Now he was waiting for a call from Verizon to pay his bill.
Two men took a water break a few feet away, a maintenance crew working double shifts. Their job was to unclog dozens of stopped-up toilets and showers, and refill bathroom soap dispensers. "Everything that can break is breaking," one said. "It's like a Super Bowl every day, but that's one actual event. This keeps going."
The population here has thinned from its peak over Labor Day weekend to about 6,000 Sunday, as families move to hotels, temporary apartments and private homes. Officials say their goal is to close the shelter in a week, but they acknowledge that, as with so much of the relief effort, plans to "demobilize" might need to be put off a few days.
There is an increasing sense of permanence here. The post office, which dispenses envelopes and stamps from the stadium's old ticket windows, received its first letters to evacuees last week. The mail was quickly sorted, and a list of lucky people was taped to the window: Harold Cordes; May Della Guidry; Janika Polk; Tia Marie Nellum; "Fraise, Russell, Shellie or Demitriss."
On the Astrodome floor, the rows of cots where strangers slept next to other strangers have become neighborhood blocks, the beds now moved into squares of reunited families and new friends. "This is my house," said Raymond Grant, 41, gesturing to a clump of cots where, he, his wife and five children were sleeping last week.
Each bed was neatly made with a gray blanket on top and donated teddy bears resting on the children's pillows. "We've met a lot of people," said Grant, a pastor in New Orleans. "We ask, 'What church are you from?' Then we share stories. Every day, we say good morning."
A few feet away, a woman swept her little corner, a Bible resting on the pillow of her cot.
For all the efforts of a relief staff now 400 strong, many staying here have complained of inaccurate information on services available to them, busy phone lines and a sense that they are not in control of what happens to them. Last Wednesday, 20 evacuees calling themselves the Survivor Leadership Group stood with some Houston area clergy at a news conference outside the Astrodome and demanded more help.
By Friday, organizers said, they had collected about 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for faster cash assistance, a public database of hurricane survivors and a quicker transition out of the shelter into homes.
"It's paper, paper, paper but no action," said Linda Jeffers, who was a community activist in New Orleans. "We don't want to live in the Astrodome for another week."
The mini-city swarms with volunteers, who are quickly screened and put to work. A group in yellow T-shirts that read "Scientology Volunteers" helps unload trucks. Under the rules, no proselytizing is allowed. A group from Wisconsin arrived to find families to adopt and give jobs.
Dave Albins, a retired businessman from Prescott, Ariz., drove his van here and waited for his assignment. A Red Cross volunteer walked up holding a freshly dry-cleaned suit on a hanger. "This is going to Reginald Brown," she told Albins. "That way, he has some real nice clothes when he gets to Dallas to look for a job."
From the day the first evacuees tumbled out of crowded buses from New Orleans, the goal here has been order, to assure the survivors and the outside world that the Astrodome would not repeat the nightmare inside the Louisiana Superdome. Cleaning crews walk around with brooms and dustpans, sweeping the floors inside and the concrete outside.
Barricades and security checkpoints still block the three gates to the complex. But police have made surprisingly few arrests, for offenses that range from marijuana possession to indecent exposure.
For security reasons, everyone must be identified. Pink wristbands for Astrodome residents. Blue for the convention center. Yellow for the other convention hall downtown. At first, anyone looking for food and help could get in. But police locked down the area last week after lines for assistance got out of control, and a promised distribution of debit cards was delayed, then canceled.
"We're making this up as we go along," acknowledged Joe Leonard, the Coast Guard lieutenant in charge of the operation, leaving for another meeting with his commanders.