The first trickle of Hurricane Katrina evacuees began moving out of the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum and into transitional homes in the Valley on Wednesday, starting life over in a dry new world.
"Somebody pinch me, it's real," said New Orleans evacuee Doyle Smith, surveying a five-bedroom home that was donated rent-free to his family for the next six months. "This is going to be the beginning of a beautiful start. It really is."
His 6-year-old daughter, Annalyce, hauled a new Barbie doll from room to room, her eyes wide with joy: "I love it," she said. "I haven't been in a big house like this."
The Smiths are among about 500 hurricane victims flown to the Valley from Louisiana by relief workers. At least 140 more escaped the flood zone without help and migrated to Arizona.
As of Wednesday morning, 457 refugees remained at the Coliseum in central Phoenix, and about one-third of those had decided to make a permanent home in the Grand Canyon State.
Jeff Gray, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Housing, said plenty of subsidized housing units are available for the 150 families and individuals seeking assistance. Most hurricane refugees will get one month rent-free thanks to subsidy payments from the Red Cross. After that, Gray said, discounts may be available depending on family circumstances and finances.
Under the president's declaration of a national catastrophe, some evacuees are expected to get federally subsidized Section 8 housing even though Arizona suffers a severe shortage of public residences for the impoverished.
Hurricane refugees at the Coliseum were filled with anticipation Wednesday after filing applications and talking with housing specialists.
"They just want something dry," said Sheila Harris, director of the Department of Housing. "Some just say, 'Get me in anywhere.' "
Nina Green, 41, arrived from New Orleans with three daughters and is awaiting a reunion with three sons who were staying with their grandmother when Katrina struck. Green said she has no complaints about life in the Coliseum but can't wait for a real home. "Everything's perfect," she said. "We just need a house and a job. They told me I'll have to wait a few days."
Meanwhile, relief workers have been inundated with offers from Valley residents and church groups willing to provide rooms, houses or apartments. Similar offers appear online at a number of Internet sites.
Gray applauded Arizona's generous spirit but warned that accepting hurricane refugees into homes is a long-term commitment with concerns about security for residents and guests.
Nevertheless, some private offers were accepted immediately. Several families were adopted this week by congregants of a south Phoenix church. And a 39-year-old cook named Doyle Smith moved to Goodyear.
Ten days ago, Smith escaped floodwaters by climbing into an attic with girlfriend Lois Thomas and their six children ages 4 to 15. The family members were stranded 12 hours before Smith flagged down a rescue boat. They spent several days holed up at a senior center, then caught a ride in a truck to Gonzales, La. The truck ran out of gas. Smith's mother picked them up and drove to her home in Avondale, La., until it, too, was evacuated. They wound up boarding a U.S. marshal's prisoner plane at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
"We didn't know actually where we were going until we were on the runway," Smith recalls. "They said, 'Arizona.' OK, Arizona. Everybody has been wonderful here."
While that was going on, Goodyear resident Jeff Whiting, who was in the process of buying a guest house, saw a TV news show about www.katrinahousing.org
, the Internet site that matches evacuees with homes.
"I felt a voice saying, 'Hey, I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,' " Jeff said, quoting Jesus Christ from Scripture. "And he probably said, 'I need a house, too.' "
"Most people think we're nuts," added his wife, Marie. "We are so excited, and so are the neighbors. So many have said this is something we can feel and touch and do. We are actually making a difference. If we reach across America and touch each other's hands, we can meet needs."
The Whitings asked neighbors to help "adopt" a family. Some signed up to pay utilities. One woman agreed to provide transportation until the evacuees got a car.
On Monday, the Whitings posted an Internet ad offering to let a family use their new home before the sale even closed.
Someone at the Coliseum saw the offer and made the matchup.
Two hours before the move-in, neighbors showed up with beds, blinds, sheets, towels, couches - everything needed to furnish a new home. The refrigerator and pantry were stocked. There were even job leads for Smith.
The family arrived at dusk, greeted by a crowd of neighbors with pizza and applause. Marie Whiting gave Lois Thomas a hug and said, "Welcome home, sweetheart. We're going to take good care of you."
Touring the house, Smith lifted his daughter in wonder: "Do you see what they did for us?"
Thomas walked from room to room in a daze, saying, "This is unbelievable. This is unbelievable."
After taking it all in, she sighed. "Life feels normal again. I'm just so grateful. We lost everything. This is a new start. It's a new life."