Evacuees begin to arrive in Arizona

PHOENIX (AP)The first of what are expected to be hundreds of Gulf Coast evacuees taking shelter in Arizona filed slowly into a Phoenix arena Sunday, hauling their few possessions in backpacks and plastic bags.

Relief workers greeted a group of about 130 with hugs and handshakes at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which was set up to hold about 1,000 people.

"People are treating us just like we're kings here, cheering us in, waving us on," said Melvin May, who was rescued in New Orleans on Saturday.

May said he spent five days with his ailing father on a highway overpass after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. May said they survived on cookies and candy, and that he was uncertain whether he would ever get out.

"I didn't think so at the time," May said during an interview outside the coliseum. "But if it weren't for the Lord (and) thinking of my mother and my daddy ­ I thought about them all the time ­ that's what got me out of there."

Roughly 150 evacuees arrived late Sunday morning at Sky Harbor International Airport. Gov. Janet Napolitano said another 300 evacuees were expected to arrive Sunday night.

Those who were too ill to go to the shelter were sent on to a hospital, including May's father. The rest boarded buses bound for the coliseum that will be their home for an indefinite period.

"There were a lot smiles ­ and tears too," said the Rev. David Sanfilippo, a Catholic priest who was among those greeting people. "But inside when you talk with them, there were a lot of tears and a lot of suffering."

Relief worker K.T. Campbell said one evacuee had been on a rooftop as late as Saturday afternoon. "It's very humbling," Campbell said. "We had a few people that are just so glad that they are on dry ground."

During a morning tour, reporters saw cots lined up all along the arena's main floor area, each with a blanket on top. Banks of phones were set up in side rooms, with makeshift dividers set up for privacy. Tables were laden with water bottles, juice and snacks, including doughnuts.

Reporters were asked to leave the coliseum after the tour and weren't allowed back inside.

Napolitano said it was unclear how long people would stay at the shelter but that the state was trying to coordinate transitional housing. "These folks are going to be around for a while," she said.

May said he didn't know if he would go back to New Orleans. "I'm going to see how it feels right here," he said. "I might make me a little home right here. You can never tell."

May's first priority is to get his father out of the hospital. He said he thought his mother and other family members might be in Texas but wasn't sure.

Estimates on the number of Gulf Coast refugees who could be brought to Arizona range from 500 to 2,500, said Jeanine L'Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Napolitano. It was unclear how many people would actually be sent here, however.

Andrew Greenhill, chief of staff to Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, said that his city was prepared to receive up to 800 people at the Tucson Convention Center.

The state was prepared to help address the needs of refugees, including making arrangements for health care, assistance in seeking federal welfare benefits and placing children in schools, L'Ecuyer said.

Napolitano said education officials would meet Tuesday to discuss educating any children brought to Arizona.

Cathy Tisdale, chief executive of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the American Red Cross, said church groups had offered to adopt evacuee families and take them into their homes, and that some apartment managers were willing to offer up apartments.

The Red Cross in Arizona is prepared to shelter or otherwise assist the evacuees for three to six months, Tisdale said.