Jammed into leaky shelter, evacuees complain of fights, aggressive police

As Hurricane Ike blew through Texas, a different kind of storm was brewing inside an old Wal-Mart hastily converted into a shelter for evacuees.

The building, vacant for two years, quickly became a cauldron of tension, with 1,600 people crammed into a structure with a leaky roof, few indoor bathrooms and almost no privacy. Fights soon broke out, and one ended after police allegedly used pepper spray on dozens of evacuees and a Taser on a 15-year-old boy.

Accounts of what happened in the Wal-Mart, drawn from interviews and public records obtained by The Associated Press, raise questions about the soundness of the state's evacuation plan.

Days before Ike hit the Gulf Coast on Sept. 13, more than 3,000 Beaumont residents were taken by bus to Tyler even though the city had told the state it could accommodate only about half that number. The result was a chaotic experience that many won't soon forget.

“I thought, ‘Oh Lord, just get us out of here,'” said Verlinda Antoine, 52. “The conditions were too bad for anyone, and they treated us like they didn't want us there. It was a nightmare.”

Many claimed that the building was unsanitary and that fear of crime and violence was constant.

When a fight between two women in a smoking area attracted numerous onlookers on the second night, police swarmed. Four people, including two juveniles, were arrested on charges that included disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.

“People refused to move out of the way and wouldn't stop fighting,” Tyler Police Chief Gary Swindle said. The Taser was used after a couple of people threatened an officer with a chair, he said.

But some evacuees tell a different story, saying police were overly aggressive and used racial slurs.

“It was terrible,” said Nicholas Harris, 23. “People were just trying to get out, but police blocked the door and used the n-word. People were pushed down. It wasn't right.”

Witnesses said the pepper spray was so thick that some bystanders, including a baby and an elderly woman, required medical treatment.

Police reports indicate a Taser was used during the melee to subdue a 17-year-old. But relatives said the device was actually used on his mentally ill 15-year-old cousin as he wiped pepper spray from his eyes. Five days after the incident, the youth showed an AP reporter welts on his back he said were caused by the Taser.

The boy's mother, Felice Wright, said her son, a high school freshman, suffers from bipolar disorder. She said she told police that her son had “mental problems” just before he was shocked with the Taser.

“I think what they did was wrong, and I told them so that night,” she said.

Tyler City Manager Bob Turner confirmed that some bystanders were inadvertently sprayed, but said police acted properly. “In my opinion, the appropriate amount of force was used to bring a very volatile situation quickly to a calm,” he said.

Conditions at the shelter improved the day after the storm, when about half the evacuees were moved to other places.

Still, questions remain about whether Tyler was capable of hosting thousands of evacuees and whether the shelter where most of them were sent should have been used.

Less than two weeks earlier, Louisiana officials were criticized for placing thousands of Hurricane Gustav evacuees from New Orleans in a vacant Sam's Club in Shreveport, La., and an abandoned Wal-Mart in Bastrop, La. A top state official resigned in the aftermath.