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Sept. 14, 2005

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Harris County residents are split on whether the local government could handle a major disaster like Hurricane Katrina, a new Houston Chronicle/KHOU (Channel 11) poll shows.

The ambivalence about preparedness contrasts with an overwhelming opinion that local officials were correct in their response to the influx of Katrina evacuees, which included establishing shelters for thousands of them at Reliant Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Forty-five percent of the respondents said local officials aren't prepared for a major disaster here, and 41 percent believe the opposite. Fourteen percent said they weren't sure or couldn't answer.

Susie Gonzales, 30, of Houston, reflects the split.

"I would be in between: 50 percent would say, 'yes,' and 50 percent would say, 'no, '" said Gonzales, one of 501 Harris County residents who participated in the poll. "I still think the government has more work to do."

County Judge Robert Eckels said the divided opinion reflects reality.

"We're prepared," he said, noting that local leaders are revising some emergency plans because of what they've learned from Katrina. "But we can always be better prepared."

A slight majority of respondents said they were prepared personally for a major disaster in Houston, though 44 percent said they weren't.

Respondents also were divided on whether Katrina evacuees would have a favorable local effect if they stay in Houston for the "long run."

Twenty-eight percent said that would be good for the area, and 31 percent said it would be bad. Another 18 percent said the new residents wouldn't have much effect, and about a quarter said they don't know yet.

Droxie Francis, 63, of Missouri City, said she's in the final category. "Houston is already so overcrowded, really, but what can the city do? You can't just turn the people away," she said.

Political scientists Richard Murray of the University of Houston and Bob Stein of Rice University conducted the phone survey Friday-Sunday for the Houston Chronicle and KHOU. It has a sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

The poll showed that Hispanics, particularly low- or middle-income ones, were slightly more likely to fear a negative effect than whites or blacks. But generally, responses were consistent across ethnic lines.

Contrasting with some national surveys indicating that Americans aren't pleased with the federal response, the poll also showed that most Harris County residents — 83 percent — believe the local government effort to help those evacuees has been "about right."

"I can't imagine what would be too much for those poor people," said poll respondent, Linda Ayers of Houston, praising local leaders for setting up shelters and moving evacuees into housing. "The fact that they've been able to do what they have is phenomenal."

Told of the poll results, Mayor Bill White said he sought to react with "compassion" and "efficiency" for the evacuees while not forgetting Houstonians' needs. He praised Harris County residents' response to the influx of evacuees.

"We're a city with a big hearts and this will change our identity," he said.

"Houston has always been a city of opportunity and now we're also a city of hope."

Chronicle reporter Kristen Mack contributed to this story.