HOUSTON - I had heard stories of National Guard troops starving at a football stadium near my home, so I decided to check it out today (9/18/08). As I arrived, it brought back memories since it is the football stadium where I graduated from High School. I was met at the gate by two National Guard members who declined to talk with me when I showed them my press pass. They directed me to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and pointed towards an athletic field house. The Guardsmen were polite and courteous but had obviously been told not to talk to the press.
I drove in and parked my car across from a large number of DPS vehicles. When I approached a DPS officer, he literally ran from me. He was a big guy and I am rather small in stature, so this was a new experience for me.
Since there were no DPS officials available to give me permission, I commenced to talk with the people milling around.
I found out that the people who were available to talk were motor coach operators. Russell Howell from Miami, Florida told me that there were hundreds of buses involved in the evacuation effort. He works for Classie Lines and indicated they had 8 buses involved in the project. He said he had been at the stadium for four days and was not allowed to leave the grounds. Bus drivers are still being made to sleep on their buses and he complained, "My back is killing me, my legs are swelling and I don't have my medication…can't get any."
Mr. Howell was angry that no information was available as to the plan to deploy the buses or send them back home. The DPS officers were in charge and were supposed to be the source of information about the plan to deploy evacuation buses. I heard other bus drivers complaining about the "Know nothing green shirts", i.e. DPS officers. Mr. Howell was only involved in one evacuation. When released, he will have to go to San Antonio to be released to return to Miami. He has been in the area since Hurricane Gustav and he indicated that was August 27.
Larry Fantroy, another motor coach operator, expressed the joy he felt at being able to help others in need. He is in Houston from Detroit, Michigan. He helped evacuate people out of Palacios and Texas City after the storm and added, "we even take the dogs." He declared, "It's a good feeling…to help them to get to safety…I saw people scared to death. One lady we had to carry her on the bus. I made her talk to me all the way. There are still people in Galveston and Texas City. I've been here since September 8."
Mr. Fantroy indicates he has been forced to sleep on his bus as well. Recently the athletic field house was opened so that now they have showers. Before that they had to use "baby wipes." He also indicated they, along with the National Guard members, had nothing to eat for two days. Remember, they were not allowed off the grounds. Mr. Fantroy said they were starving, "Until the volunteers came. God bless the people of Houston. They cooked for us. They've been out here serving us breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. They've really been good to us." The stadium is located in a working class neighborhood in West Houston.
He compared this to their treatment in San Antonio. "We were treated like doo doo in San Antonio. We couldn't get an answer. Nobody cared. They had EMS there and they had a buffet in the same area where we were." He indicated the bus operators were excluded from the food lines. "We couldn't get no food. We couldn't leave the area. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were there, but what they had was very skimpy."
A family man, Mr. Fantroy misses his grandchildren and states, "they are my life."
When asked where the bus operators were deployed during the storm, he stated, "We went to San Antonio. We were sent out after that.
Ms. J, a motor coach operator from Austin, Texas, indicated the bus operators were stationed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio before coming to Houston. She said, "We weren't told anything. Food and accommodations were the biggest problems. The majority had to sleep on the buses." The food is still forthcoming from the working people, but not from the authorities. She concluded, "We feel like we're hostages."
Mr. Fantroy noted, "The good side is that we helped a lot of people. The bad side is the way we were treated."
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