DENVER — After sleeping on a bed with shelter over his head for the first time in five nights, Reginald Thibodeaux found himself crying Monday morning when he awoke in a college dorm room in Denver.
He wasn’t sure whether it was knowing his children were safe, being outside of New Orleans for the first time in his life or just having escaped all the water, but the tears were steady and cathartic.
Thibodeaux, his two daughters and about 120 other refugees from Hurricane Katrina were flown in from New Orleans on Sunday to stay at the Colorado Community College System dorms at the former Lowry Air Force Base.
“I’m glad to be alive and my children are safe. Whatever I lost in the house can be replaced, but my children ...” Thibodeaux, 41, said, his voice trailing off as he watched his 4-year-old daughter Rejonae glide up and down the sidewalk on a scooter outside the dorms.
Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced Monday that President Bush approved federal disaster aid for Colorado to supplement its efforts to assist evacuees from areas struck by Hurricane Katrina.
This action provides emergency assistance and funds dating from Aug. 29. All 63 Colorado counties are included in the designation.
Thirteen states are now included in the emergency declarations.
About 1,000 refugees are expected to come to Colorado over the next few days, with three planes scheduled to arrive from Houston at Buckley Air Force Base today, Gov. Bill Owens said. Frontier Airlines was also planning to fly 200 evacuees into Denver on commercial flights throughout the day.
Children living in the dorms, which are across the city line in Aurora, will be able to enroll in schools there Tuesday.
Owens said he was proud of the agencies working to help the refugees, which ranged from the Colorado National Guard, the American Red Cross and the Aurora Fire Department to faith-based charities.
“They’ve stepped up and done what’s right, even when it’s not for Colorado,” he said.
Owens said phone numbers would be set up soon to help evacuees get in touch with their relatives and apply for jobs.
The plan is for the refugees to regroup at Lowry for the next few weeks but then move elsewhere — either to apartments paid for by the federal government or to the homes of family members. Officials believe only about half of the evacuees will stay in Colorado.
The first wave of refugees began Sunday with a hot breakfast of biscuits and gravy, eggs, hashbrowns and bacon from a meal truck parked outside the dorms. After the meal, they could pick up a pair of shoes. They seemed focused on the small details that often go overlooked until one has to go without them.
Thibodeaux sent his daughters with a woman to get their hair washed and combed. Others sought out newspapers to catch up on news of their flooded city.
Unaware of their destination until they were already on the airplane, some of the evacuees were separated from family who thought they were headed to Houston instead of Denver.
Evenia Issac, 57, of New Orleans hasn’t been able to get in touch with her sister, daughter, granddaughter or nephew. They were together when a helicopter rescued them from the roof of a house, but they were on separate airplanes the next day.
“I’m trying to be calm. I don’t want my cholesterol to go up,” said Issac, who was away from New Orleans for the first time in her life and who called her first night in a strange city nerve-wracking.
Missing or separated family members was a common theme among the refugees.
Thibodeaux shares custody of his daughters with their mother, and they happened to be with him when the flooding started. After five days of going from place to place seeking refuge from the rising water and sleeping on cardboard on the sidewalk, they were evacuated to Denver, he said. The girls’ mother ended up in Texas.
“My children are missing their mother. They’re crying for her,” Thibodeaux said.
He’s not sure when or if she’ll be able to get to Denver to be united with her children.
Most of the refugees were too tired, hungry, angry or otherwise drained to think about their next move, but many said they were considering making Denver their permanent home.
“It’s a nice city,” said Linda Selestan, 58, of New Orleans, who came to Denver with 23 of her family members — the largest family in the group. “I’m going to the job fair Wednesday. I can’t sit home like that.”
She too thought she was headed to Houston, but the change of destination didn’t seem to bother her.
“I was away from all that water; dry ground,” she said, shaking her head and recalling the seven feet of water that sent her family scrambling to the roof.
The dorms have room for about 600 evacuees and 400 more will be made available at local hotels, said Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the state Human Services Department.
For now, she said, the state can handle the needs of the refugees. Nobody yet knows, though, what the people might need in the weeks and months to come.
“Obviously we don’t know how many people will be returning to their homes, or what is left of them,” she said. “Determinations will be made case by case as we see how the effort in the Gulf Coast region unfolds.”