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History > 2005 > USA > Natural disasters > Hurricane Katrina > Diaspora (V)

 

 

 

 

A displaced family from Louisiana

looked out on their interim backyard,

in a remote area of eastern Oklahoma.

 

Photograph:

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

8.9.2005

 

Scattered by Storm,

Evacuees Become Nomads in a Strange World

NYT

9.10.2005

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/national/nationalspecial/09Refugee.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tent city in Pass Christian, Miss.,

is home to Robert Trimailo.

 

Photograph:

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

December 19, 2005

 

In Mississippi, Canvas Cities Rise Amid Hurricane's Rubble

NYT

20.12.2005

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/national/nationalspecial/20tent.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Mississippi,

Canvas Cities Rise

Amid Hurricane's Rubble

 

December 20, 2005
The New York Times
By ERIC LIPTON

 

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss., Dec. 18 - From a distance, it looks like an Army base camp, or perhaps the old set from the television series "M*A*S*H." But here, a little more than a stone's throw from the Gulf of Mexico, on a muddy gravel lot that used to be a Little League field, a makeshift village has emerged for some of the many families who, as winter approaches, are still homeless because of Hurricane Katrina.

"Hold it there," one evacuee, Mary Magee, said to her neighbor, as she tacked holiday decorations to the entrance of her family's olive-colored tent. "Just hold it still."

The tent city here is one of three set up in recent weeks along the Mississippi coast, making room for families now that the emergency shelters have closed and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working through a backlog of some 5,000 families still on waiting lists for government-supplied travel trailers or mobile homes.

In Pass Christian, the need is especially dire. The city hall, the two public libraries, the local supermarket, a senior citizens' home and the schools are all either severely damaged or nothing but rubble. All that is left of the town's branch of Peoples Bank is the vault. The police department lost 15 of its 21 patrol cars.

The work of clearing debris and the crushed remains of about 2,000 houses is far short of the halfway mark. As a result, construction of large amounts of new housing is still months off.

With the nighttime temperatures dropping as low as the 30's, local officials are trying to offer an alternative for families who want to stay in the area and would have few choices other than to sleep in cars or unheated camping tents.

"We are doing what we can to help people keep close to home that want to stay close to home," said Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman.

The tents, built by the Navy Seabees at a cost of $1 million, can be heated and cooled, and have plywood floors and walls that create an 18-by-32-foot wooden box inside the exterior fabric. They are set up in long, straight rows and distinguished only by alphanumeric addresses painted on their exteriors.

Free meals, financed by the federal government, are served in a giant white tent. And in Pass Christian, there is a community center with carpeting, comfortable couches, a couple of televisions, and a collection of donated books and toys. The toilets are portable, without running water, and are lined up near a tractor-trailer that serves as a shower house.

A roll-up date for the tent cities has not been set; some may stay open through only part of the winter, while others may be inhabited past the spring, local officials say. When the wind blows in from the Gulf or it rains, there can be no mistaking that despite any effort at niceties, the accommodations are rudimentary.

"It is a bit like a tomb," said Dave Frisby, 55, a handyman whose home and tools were washed away by Hurricane Katrina. "It can be depressing."

So far, the three operating tent cities are home to a total of about 300 residents. There is room for at least 700, although that number would be almost 3,000 if the tents were set up with bunks side by side, military-style. The last of the three opened three weeks ago, and more families move in each day.

Some local officials are frustrated that it took so long to get the encampments built and ready to operate. And now that they are in place, there have been some problems, like a recent series of drug arrests at the tents in D'Iberville, 22 miles east of Pass Christian, said the city manager, Richard Rose.

"I would prefer that it had never existed," Mr. Rose said of the tent city, even though D'Iberville requested that the complex be set up. "The headache has been enormous."

The fear of crime led some homeless residents in the area, like David Stipulkoski, 53, to turn down the offer of a tent in Pass Christian.

"I will never live there; it is a trap," said Mr. Stipulkoski, a carpenter. Instead, he is camping outside his mother's storm-damaged house in Pass Christian, in a tent of his own.

But the families who did move in are appreciative and say they feel reasonably secure. On a recent Sunday, as the mid-December sun was setting, the neighbors were still out and about, the Magee children riding their dirt bikes while their neighbor, Deborah Lewis, laughed with her sister at a picture of her sister's golden retriever, Rosco, dressed as a reindeer.

Tent E10 is occupied by Mary Magee, her 28-year-old daughter, three grandchildren and her 10-year-old adopted son, all of whom once lived in a four-bedroom apartment in Biloxi. The tent, stuffed with clothing and other household items, looks like a cross between a storage closet and a dorm room.

Ms. Magee, 47, has bought a television, a microwave and stuffed animals. As grateful as the family is for the shelter, they still long for their old home, which was destroyed.

"I keep telling myself, one day, I will wake up and everything will be back in the place it was supposed to be," Ms. Magee said. "But it's not happening."

At the Long Beach tent city, five miles east of Pass Christian, the entire inventory of Robert Stover's possessions consists of a mattress on the floor, a Bible, a few donated books and a plastic bucket that he turns upside down and tops with a small pillow to create a chair.

Desperate for work, Mr. Stover, 45, a former plumber at an area hospital, found a job at a cigarette distribution warehouse. But it is in Gulfport, miles away, and he has no car, so he spends three hours each day walking to work. When it rains, his protective gear is two trash bags: one covering his body, the other wrapped around his head.

"When I think about what is before me, I see plenty of pain and problems," said Mr. Stover, whose apartment in Long Beach was destroyed by the storm.

Many residents of the tent city, like the Magee family with their Christmas decorations, have taken small steps to create a sense of normalcy and comfort.

Lydia Tarleton, 68, who lives next door to the Magees in a tent she shares with Ms. Lewis, 50, and Ms. Lewis's mother, Doloris King, 76, has photographs of kittens posted next to her bed, a reminder of her own pets, which somehow survived and are living in the ruins of her nearby home. She walks back to feed them twice a day.

"I am not bitter," Ms. Tarleton said. "I am willing to wait, to work for it."

Boredom is perhaps the biggest problem in the tent cities. There are no electrical outlets in the tents in Long Beach, meaning no television and no way to charge cellphones.

"You can't communicate with the world," said Kenneth Gray, 55, who was a construction worker in Gulfport before Hurricane Katrina. "It is just so isolated."

Ms. Magee says that when aggravation over her plight causes her to argue about insignificant matters, she reminds herself that no matter how tough things are, at least her family is warm, well-fed and alive.

"A lot of people down here are in need," she said. "I know that."

In Mississippi, Canvas Cities Rise Amid Hurricane's Rubble, NYT, 20.12.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/national/nationalspecial/20tent.html

 

 

 

 

 

After 14 Weeks,

Evacuees Settle Into 14th Home

 

December 13, 2005
The New York Times
By JODI WILGOREN

 

BATON ROUGE, La., Dec. 8 - The small room where Tracy Jackson, Jerel Brown and their four young children share a twin bed and thin mattress on the floor is the 14th place they have laid their heads since Hurricane Katrina struck just over 14 weeks ago.

Five shelters. Six hotel rooms. Twelve days in the home of a good Samaritan in a tiny Louisiana town where they were the only black people. Six weeks in Durham, N.C., in the two-bedroom apartment that a church found for Mr. Brown's mother after the storm, where no buses ran nearby and a cab to Wal-Mart cost $10.

And, since shortly before Thanksgiving, this dark room decorated with a Cinderella princess poster in a shotgun shack, where nearly all they have is packed in a plastic tub and several suitcases stacked on top of each other in the cramped closet.

"We don't know when we're going to have to pick up and go again," said Mr. Brown, 24, whose apartment near downtown New Orleans was destroyed by a fire after the hurricane. "It's just surviving, you know. You don't know where your next turn is going to be."

The immediate aftermath of the hurricane exposed the deep divide between New Orleans's haves and have-nots, as middle-class families rushed to hotels while the poorest of the poor suffered in the squalor of the Superdome.

The chasm remains, more than three months later. Thousands of the displaced have taken significant steps to rebuild their lives, returning to surviving sections of the region or finding new jobs, new schools and new homes out of state. But the Jackson-Browns, who are not married and lack high school diplomas, credit cards, even driver's licenses, are among the legions of desperately destitute still lost and in limbo.

Their troubled, directionless odyssey is one of opportunities missed and squandered, of government money and charitable donations spent partly on a stack of DVD's and costume jewelry, of fumbling to find family without phone numbers, of many days doing little more than waiting for help to somehow happen.

Ms. Jackson, 25, long ago applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a travel trailer, but there are 78,000 families waiting with her for the few hundred units opening in Louisiana each day. Mr. Brown longs to return to New Orleans in search of his still-missing brother, but he has no place to stay, no way to make a living, not even a ride into the city 80 miles away.

So they are camped here in a rundown section of Baton Rouge, sharing the three-bedroom house Ms. Jackson's sister, husband and two children - also New Orleans refugees - rent for $600 a month through the federal government's Section 8 voucher program for the poor. Ms. Jackson, still in pajama bottoms in the late afternoon, stirs pork and beans as Mr. Brown arrives, pants painted with dirt, from his new $7.50-an-hour job at a concrete company.

"We're still together, that's the biggest thing, and we're with family - at least we're around people we know," Mr. Brown said. "It ain't feel like home until you got your own. You might feel happy, you might feel wanted, but it ain't nothing like your own."

The two older children, 7 and 5 years old, have spent a scant five weeks in two different schools - Ms. Jackson said she was not enrolling them here because she hoped to soon send them to stay with her mother in Bogalusa, La. The $216.98 paycheck Mr. Brown received Wednesday from GlenCo Wastewater, a small company that makes manhole covers and catch basins, was his first since the hurricane, though he has collected some cash for odd jobs.

The stress is starting to show: little Alexis, 2, was almost potty-trained before Hurricane Katrina and now wears diapers all day. Anthony, the 3-year-old, mumbles in his sleep. Devont'e, 5, woke up the other night screaming, "Mama, I'm dead!" Waynenisha, who is 7 and mentally handicapped, tried to hit her aunt.

"They ain't settling down, they just move them from place to place and that ain't good," Mr. Brown's mother, Darlene, said after the family left her Durham apartment bound for Baton Rouge. "They don't give nothing time to work out."

The Jackson-Browns were first profiled in The New York Times days after the storm, as they pushed the four children on a skycap's cart through a sweltering line at the New Orleans airport. The article contrasted their journey with that of Gaynell Porretto and her middle-class family from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, who was moving, that same day, to a rented house in Arnaudville, in central Louisiana.

Ms. Porretto returned to her roof-damaged home Oct. 10. She is back at her job as a court clerk, though the operations have moved to Gonzalez, La., a 45-minute drive. Her 15-year-old son is back playing football at his Catholic school.

A second article about the Jackson-Browns, in mid-September, found them happily ensconced on the second floor of a converted fishing camp in Pollock, La., population 376, embraced as family by Judy and Jack Delcomyn, a churchgoing couple in their 50's who had been searching for someone to save.

But the situation soon soured. Mrs. Delcomyn said no when Mr. Brown asked to buy beer. One Saturday the couple stayed out all night, leaving their children in the care of a friend who was also living with the Delcomyns, but a misunderstanding over what time they would return blew up into a big fight.

"They started to get restless," Mrs. Delcomyn said after the Jackson-Browns stormed back to the Pineville shelter where she had found them. "They just broke my heart. I don't know what to do with people that don't want to be helped."

Days later, the family was tossed out of the shelter after Mr. Brown yelled at a volunteer who had accidentally thrown out lasagna that he had bought, and erupted in anger upon learning that he would not be paid for work he had done for the city until he filled out an application.

They stayed one night at a church, a few at a junior high school, and several at the Riverfront Center in Alexandria, La., where the couple say much of their donated belongings were stolen and they watched a shelter resident jump off a bridge to her death. Then they bounced around Alexandria hotels, sometimes staying at no charge and sometimes paying $75 a night, before boarding a bus Oct. 8 to North Carolina, with tickets costing $498.86.

They ended up the next night in Charlotte, 150 miles and a $200 cab ride from Mrs. Brown's apartment, where they arrived Oct. 10 about 7:30 p.m. and immediately went to Wal-Mart to buy a television ($109), DVD player ($39) and a pump for an air mattress. "We be safe now," Mr. Brown said that night. "We ain't got to run from pillar to post now. We're with my mama."

Days passed, then weeks. A church volunteer drove Mr. Brown to a job fair but, he said, he could not get hired without an education or driver's license.

"Nothing to do, nowhere to go, nobody to talk to," a bored Mr. Brown said after one of many days passed in front of the television. "It's another never-never land. You need a car to get around, other than that you're just stuck where you are." A week later, Mr. Brown said: "I'm just sitting and waiting. The only thing we can do is sit and wait."

Ms. Jackson dialed the FEMA hot line every few days, trying to find out what had happened to her $2,358 in rental assistance - the check was apparently lost in the mail - and requesting a trailer. Eventually, FEMA booked the family on a Delta Airlines flight here - their first airplane ride, for which Ms. Jackson got a "certificate of bravery."

Her sister, April Roberts, welcomed them with familial teasing, spray-painting "Smell 'Rel" and "Tracy Stinks" on the front windows. Ms. Roberts's husband Ernil, 32, helped Mr. Brown get a job alongside him at GlenCo. Now there are six children squeezed around the dinner table, chewing on fried pork chops.

"We sit up late at night and listen to the men snore," Ms. Jackson said.

Ms. Jackson and Mr. Brown, who consider themselves common-law spouses, said that since the hurricane they had lived off $2,000 from FEMA, $2,000 from a Times reader, $1,500 from the Red Cross and $500 from the Salvation Army, plus their monthly $505 in food stamps and $579 from Social Security for Waynenisha's disability, and occasional handouts from strangers.

When Alexis turned 2 on Nov. 28, Ms. Jackson baked a butter-pecan cake, but there were no presents. The wrapped gifts under the scrawny Christmas tree in the living room here are for the Roberts's children. Ms. Jackson said Devont'e and Anthony had been asking for toys that they saw on television, a racetrack that runs through a monster's mouth and a remote-control car.

"I know it's going to be hard this year," Ms. Jackson said, "but I want to buy them something that will make them happy."

She said once the older children were able to stay with her mother, she planned to apply for a night job as a cook at Avery's Mini-Mart, a place around the corner that serves barbecue. She dreams of going to beauty school, opening a salon, owning a brick home "way above sea level."

"If I could get the travel trailer, that would really help," she said. "But what I really want is my own house, so I could fuss at the neighbor's cat: Get out of my garden."

Mr. Brown, who lies awake some nights until 3:30 a.m. wondering what has happened to his brother, said he was comfortable here, happy to be working, but still "trying to find out where's my place."

"I ask myself sometimes, how did we make it this far?" he said. "Right now is really what they call survival of the fittest. Either you're going to stand up and take care of your family or you're going to sit there. You got to stand up to make change."

    After 14 Weeks, Evacuees Settle Into 14th Home, NYT, 13.12.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/13/national/nationalspecial/13katrina.html

 

 

 

 

 

FEMA Extends

Hotel Program for Evacuees

 

December 11, 2005
The New York Times
By JODI WILGOREN

 

Under pressure from state and local leaders who say they cannot move thousands of hurricane evacuees from hotels into longer-term housing by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Dec. 15 deadline, officials said Saturday that FEMA would continue paying hotel bills, on a case-by-case basis, for at least three more weeks.

The new program, which FEMA plans to announce Monday, will require evacuees to obtain an authorization number by calling 1-800-621-FEMA and explaining why they still need help. Evacuees who have not registered with FEMA or received rental assistance from the agency or who have spent FEMA checks for items other than housing while staying in a hotel will be eligible.

These individual extensions apply to people staying in an estimated 2,400 rooms in 38 states, where FEMA plans to discontinue blanket payments as of Thursday. FEMA already promised to pick up the tab through Jan. 7 for the 10 states with the most evacuees in their hotels.

"This is really creating a safety net," said Donna Dannells, FEMA's acting deputy director of recovery. "There's never been any intent for someone to be left without the resources to pay for the hotel room or to go and find a place to live."

She said the extension program was partly intended to help FEMA better track the hotel residents.

The hotel program, which has cost the federal government $325 million so far and at its peak covered 85,000 rooms, has caused much confusion and controversy for FEMA, which originally said last month that it would cut off financing for most rooms by Dec. 1, only to reverse course a week later and set the Dec. 15 and Jan. 7 deadlines.

FEMA Extends Hotel Program for Evacuees, NYT, 11.12.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/national/nationalspecial/11fema.html

 

 

 

 

 

After Complaints,

FEMA Extends

Deadline for Evacuees in Hotels

 

November 23, 2005
The New York Times
By ERIC LIPTON

 

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22 - Responding to an outpouring of criticism, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on Tuesday that most of the estimated 150,000 hurricane evacuees still living in hotel rooms would have an extra month to find other housing before the federal government stops footing the bill.

A week ago, the agency said it would stop paying most hotel bills as of Dec. 1. The goal was to encourage evacuees to find less expensive and more permanent housing while they awaited the reconstruction of New Orleans and other cities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But the deadline was widely condemned as unreasonable and harsh in Congress, in state capitals and in city halls across the South.

Under the new deadline, evacuees living in hotels in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, California, Tennessee, Arkansas and Nevada will be able to remain, on the government's account, through Jan. 7, the date previously set just for Louisiana and Mississippi. About 35,000 hotel rooms are occupied by evacuees in those states.

For those staying in 3,700 rooms in other states, the new deadline will be Dec. 15 instead of Dec. 1.

"We are not kicking people out into the streets," R. David Paulison, acting director of FEMA, said in announcing the revised deadlines at a news conference here. "We want families in decent housing."

The hotel program, started by the American Red Cross, has already cost the federal government about $300 million, or an average of about $59 a night per room. It was begun after emergency shelters were overwhelmed by the number of people fleeing the coast.

Mayor Bill White of Houston, one of many elected officials to criticize the Dec. 1 deadline, said he was pleased with the agency's response. Texas alone has evacuees in more than 18,100 hotel rooms, the most of any state, and the greatest number of those are in Houston.

Mayor White said FEMA should have realized all along that the Dec. 1 deadline did not make sense, a failure he attributed to excessive levels of bureaucracy between the agency's local representatives in Texas and top officials in Washington.

"Between the local people and the top seem to be about seven or eight layers of people who need to get a life," Mr. White said.

FEMA also agreed on Tuesday to back down temporarily from blocking cities like Houston from signing apartment leases on behalf of hurricane victims, Nicol Andrews, an agency spokeswoman, said. Houston has been moving about 400 people a day into apartments from hotels, offering government-financed housing with one-year leases.

FEMA wants the evacuees to sign their own leases, using federal rent subsidies. But Houston officials said they feared that would slow the pace of movement to apartments. Now, instead of banning new government-sponsored leases as of Dec. 1, Ms. Andrews said, the agency will allow cities to sign leases on behalf of evacuees at least until the federally financed hotel program has ended.

 

 

Maureen M. Balleza

contributed reporting from Houston for this article.

After Complaints, FEMA Extends Deadline for Evacuees in Hotels, NYT, 23.11.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/23/national/nationalspecial/23fema.html

 

 

 

 

 

FEMA Broke Its Promise on Housing,

Houston Mayor Says

 

November 17, 2005
The New York Times
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
and ERIC LIPTON

 

HOUSTON, Nov. 16 - Mayor Bill White of Houston accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday of breaking its promise to Hurricane Katrina evacuees by imposing strict limits on a housing relocation program as it stops thousands of hotel subsidies.

"Great nations, like good people, keep their word," Mr. White wrote in a letter about Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other senior emergency officials.

On Monday, FEMA gave major cities like Houston until Dec. 1 to sign leases for apartments for evacuees under its existing reimbursement program. The agency limited the leases to three months.

On Tuesday, the agency announced that also as of Dec. 1 it would stop paying hotel bills for 50,000 families in hotels around the United States, except in Louisiana and Mississippi, where the cutoff date would be Jan. 7.

Because of the three-month limit on leases, Mr. White said, the leasing for more than 19,000 people who are still in hotel and motel rooms in the Houston area was shutting down. The program, he said, has been placing up to 500 people a day, and he appealed to FEMA to rescind its order.

"We can't get leases for three months," Mr. White told reporters after a City Council meeting. "Landlords won't do that."

Without a program to lease apartments, he added, finding housing would be difficult because of the cutoff of hotel subsidies, an action that would have the greatest effect in Texas.

Many families in Houston hotels learned of the cutoff from fliers slipped under their doors. One guest at a motel in West Houston, 19 miles from downtown, Gwendolyn Kennedy, said she did not know where she would find a bed.

"I don't really want to move again," said Ms. Kennedy, a school bus driver in New Orleans and a part-time worker at a Wal-Mart store. "It's hard. Even though I don't have any furniture or anything, just my personal stuff, it's hard."

FEMA officials said it was time that evacuees moved out of emergency housing like hotels into more permanent homes, even if those would be temporary.

"We want to help people to get back on their feet, to become self-sustaining and to have some control over their destiny," a spokeswoman for the agency, Nicol Andrews, said. "It is just inhumane to leave a family stuck in a hotel room and not offer them an option that exists to move beyond that."

The three-month limit on leases, Ms. Andrews said, is part of an effort to phase out direct government-financed apartment rentals and instead provide evacuees with cash assistance to rent on their own. After the leases signed by the government expire as of March 1, she added, tenants would be able to take over the leases and use the federal aid to pay their rent.

"The occupants should be able to make the rent on their own with the federal assistance that is provided to them by FEMA," Ms. Andrews said, adding that the agency would pay costs associated with ending leases.

In Austin, another FEMA spokesman, Don Jacks, said that stopping the hotel subsidies would not force anyone to become homeless or lose a night sleeping in a bed.

"This is not an ending," Mr. Jacks said. "We're not forcing anyone out of hotels. Yes, we will stop paying for hotel rooms the night of Nov. 30, and on Dec. 1 these people will need to be ready to move."

Those unable to find apartments may be offered other interim accommodations, possibly even another hotel if necessary, he said, adding, "No one will be left on the street."

Since the evacuation of New Orleans, Mayor White, a Democrat overwhelmingly re-elected on Nov. 8, has worked closely with FEMA and the Bush administration to house nearly 250,000 evacuees. In meetings with federal officials, he said, "they never ever told us in hours and hours of discussions they would suspend the apartment-leasing program immediately."

Mr. White called the directive absurd and added, "I'm sure they'll change that today."

Aides said that he later spoke by telephone to a FEMA liaison aide here, Dennis Lee, but that the order remained unchanged.

A neighbor of Ms. Kennedy at the West Houston motel, Sonia Scott, and her fiancé, Philander Harris, along with two children in diapers, share a queen-size bed and cook meals in a microwave oven. They said they worried about finding an apartment.

"We were going to try to stick it out here until we could find something we could afford or get back to New Orleans," Ms. Scott said, "but now we have to find something sooner."

Mr. Harris said, "They gave me a voucher, and I have to find an apartment before the first - if I find an apartment - because not everyone is taking the voucher."

Mr. Jacks said FEMA had 51,000 people in 20,414 hotel and motel rooms at an average cost of $2,100 a month per room in Texas. The allowance for a two-bedroom apartment, he said, is $777 a month.

Some real estate professionals criticized the Nov. 30 cutoff. Doug Culkin, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association, which represents 32,000 builders, owners and developers, said his group had long encouraged FEMA to shift evacuees to apartments.

"They are trying to move 150,000 people in 15 days," Mr. Culkin said. "I don't think it is doable."

Ralph Blumenthal reported from Houston for this article, and Eric Liptonfrom Jackson, Miss. Maureen Balleza contributed reporting from Houston.

    FEMA Broke Its Promise on Housing, Houston Mayor Says, NYT, 17.11.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/17/national/nationalspecial/17hotels.html

 

 

 

 

 

Housing

Hurricane Evacuees

Face Eviction Threats

at Both Their Old Homes and New

 

November 4, 2005
The New York Times
By ERIC LIPTON

 

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 - Warned by angry Texas officials that thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees could soon face eviction from their new homes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is negotiating with officials in Dallas to set up a federally financed housing-voucher program, municipal officials said Thursday.

Texas has the largest single concentration of the 500,000 households displaced by the hurricane.

Gov. Rick Perry wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Tuesday telling him that FEMA, part of the Homeland Security Department, continued to fail to address the evacuees' needs.

"Tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees will soon be evicted with no place to go, because of poor planning for long-term housing," Mr. Perry wrote. "Our communities cannot be expected to support such a large evacuee population on a long-term basis without substantial federal aid."

Under the proposal, Washington would reimburse the Dallas Housing Authority for the cost of placing evacuees, including those in hotels, into apartments, similar to a program in place in Houston, as well as in parts of Arkansas and Tennessee.

"It will happen," Michelle Raglon, a spokeswoman for the housing authority, said, adding that she hoped that the agreement would be settled next week. "It has to happen. There are too many people in hotels that don't have a place to live."

A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Nicol Andrews, disputed statements that mass evictions were an immediate threat anywhere in Texas, saying no one has come forward with evidence of any eviction proceedings.

"Quite frankly," Ms. Andrews said, "scare tactics are hardly what the victims of these disasters need right now."

Housing advocates and real estate figures in Texas, the first to raise the problem, acknowledged in interviews that they could not immediately identify pending eviction cases. But they said the threat of possible evictions appeared to be the greatest in Dallas, because of the large number of evacuees there and the lack of a long-term government-sponsored program for rent-free apartments.

"All of the apartment owners have a heart and we're not trying to put anyone out by any stretch of the imagination," said Darnell Harris, regional property manager in Dallas for Lincoln Property, which he said had provided apartments for about 36 evacuated families. "We can't continue to extend people rent."

Dallas officials have placed 745 families in apartments for two months using $2.7 million raised in donations. FEMA has provided $2,358 in assistance, intended to cover three months' rent, to evacuees in Dallas, as it has done for 488,000 families nationwide.

The city's charity-based housing program is scheduled to expire soon, and FEMA has warned that families might not have a second installment of the federal housing assistance if they cannot document that they used the first money for rent. The rules prohibited families from using the money to buy food, furniture or other household goods, Ms. Andrews said.

She added that her agency has for two months been willing to reimburse Dallas for a program in which the city pays rents directly to landlords, similar to the Section 8 housing program for low-income residents. Families that moved into those apartments would no longer be eligible for direct rental assistance.

"The offer has been standing since President Bush declared an emergency declaration for Texas," Ms. Andrews said.

In Houston, FEMA agreed this week to participate in a campaign called A Home for the Holidays. Houston officials hope it will accelerate the movement of an estimated 25,000 people in government-financed motel rooms into more permanent and less expensive housing, Frank Michel, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White, said.

A team of local and federal caseworkers is to visit 10 motels a day to try to locate hurricane victims and encourage them to move to apartments or other housing.

Nationally, FEMA cannot provide a solid estimate on the number of displaced families. It has given rental assistance to 488,000 households, but does not know how many families are still looking for housing.

Jodi Wilgoren contributed reporting from Chicago for this article.

    Hurricane Evacuees Face Eviction Threats at Both Their Old Homes and New, NYT, 4.11.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/04/national/nationalspecial/04lodging.html?fta=y

 

 

 

 

 

Housing

Vouchers in Their Pockets,

Evacuees Find It Hard

to Get Keys in Hand

 

October 28, 2005
The New York Times
By JODI WILGOREN

 

HOUSTON - The first complex Robert Evans saw had no four-bedroom apartments, and the next had a four-week waiting list. Though he had a voucher good for a year's free rent, the Boardwalk Apartment Homes - where "quiet elegance awaits you," according to a sign - would not accept it.

"I don't even know where I go from here," said Mr. Evans, 29, as he pulled out of another "Future Resident Parking" spot in this unfamiliar city that is to become home for him, his fiancée and five children. "I guess I can just ride until I see apartment complexes on the street."

Nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina's mass migration, hundreds of thousands of people seeking long-term housing are learning the hard way that resettlement is not as simple as rental assistance. The Federal Management Emergency Agency provides families $2,358 intended to cover three months' rent, but has done virtually nothing to help them actually find permanent housing amid a dwindling supply of low-rent apartments in adopted hometowns across the South.

As a result, many of those struggling to escape emergency shelters and hotel rooms face a patchwork of disparate local programs. Depending on where they landed after the storm, evacuees may encounter useful city agencies readily handing out vouchers and advice, private aid groups of volunteers scrambling to keep up with demand, or little organized assistance whatsoever.

Houston has the most ambitious and generous program. It has already handed out nearly 30,000 yearlong vouchers and expects the housing tab to top $175 million, which it is counting on FEMA to cover. Atlanta, the second capital of the hurricane diaspora, is at the other end of the spectrum. The city simply gave $400,000 to a local homeless-services group, asking it to find housing for 50 families for six months.

James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman, said the agency had no role in this crucial next step in resettlement, except reviewing local expenses for eventual reimbursement. "We present the cities with emergency declarations and let them manage things their way," he said.

In Jackson, Miss., the city has hired two caseworkers to connect evacuees with housing, and the state has a Web site for landlords to post vacancies, but there is no financial help beyond FEMA's subsidy. In Birmingham, Ala., 150 churches calling themselves the "army of compassion" have acted as real estate agents. In Pensacola, Fla., Hurricane Katrina evacuees have to wait in line behind hundreds of survivors of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 who are still living in trailers.

"They are pretty much on their own," Pat Hubbard, Pensacola's director of housing, said of the latest evacuees. "At this point I don't have anything to offer them."

In Texas, San Antonio is also signing leases for evacuees on the promise of reimbursement from FEMA, but only for three months. In Dallas, the mayor and a prominent pastor have raised $2.7 million for Project Exodus, which provides two months' rent and utilities, and 582 families had moved in by mid-October.

"It was uncertain when they would pay and how they would pay and what they would pay," Frank J. Librio, a spokesman for the Dallas mayor, said of FEMA.

"Houston, they went out and signed these leases," Mr. Librio said, and now its taxpayers are responsible for the money. "Have they gotten the government to pay for it yet?"

While FEMA has not formally committed to covering a year's rent for all evacuees, it has sent Houston a check for $39 million and approved a second reimbursement request for $63 million, said John Walsh, coordinator of the city's Hurricane Katrina housing task force.

"We have a commitment to the local taxpayers that they are not going to be footing the bill," said Houston's mayor, Bill White, expressing confidence that an unlimited number of yearlong vouchers would be covered because regional FEMA officials were involved in setting up the program.

"We knew that the country had to do the right thing, and the right thing had to be apartments for people when they couldn't go home," Mr. White said. "People, while they're here, need to get on with their lives."

Low-income evacuees who lived in public housing projects or had Section 8 vouchers before the storm are eligible for 18 months of a comparable subsidy from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For the most part, landlords have not tried to take advantage of the glut of renters, according to two dozen public officials, disaster-relief workers and real estate experts interviewed across the Southeast. They said they had seen few instances of price-gouging and had seen apartment owners waive deposits, allow month-to-month leases without premiums and buy mattresses for new crowds of tenants.

Grant Hedgepeth, the director of consumer protection in Mississippi, said his office had stepped in to stop a few landlords from evicting existing tenants in order to raise rents. His hot line spiked to 1,200 calls daily from 200 in recent weeks, Mr. Hedgepeth said, but most gouging complaints concerned gasoline or hotels and only a handful about apartments.

Rents have risen though. Reis, Inc., a real estate data tracking service, found slight increases in all but one of 17 metropolitan markets in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas over the third quarter. M/PF YieldStar, a real estate information company based in Carrollton, Tex., tracked a jump of 3.3 percent, to an average $680 from $658 for one- to three-bedroom units here in Houston, which is believed to be the new home of perhaps 150,000 evacuees.

An increase of about 4 percent in apartment occupancy since the storm helps explain why people like Mr. Evans - whose voucher for a four-bedroom up to $1,115 a month is a major upgrade from the $550, two-bedroom duplex his family had in Jefferson Parish, La. - are still searching for a spot.

As word of Houston's bountiful vouchers has spread, survivors of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita have flocked here from Nacogdoches and Tyler in Texas, from Atlanta and from Alabama and Arkansas. Their first stop is the Disaster Recovery Center, a 180,000-square-foot abandoned supermarket where more than 500 people hired by a city contractor make about $600 a week handing out vouchers.

While evacuees are grateful for the generosity - and for the efficiency of the operation, which sent most applicants walking with vouchers in under an hour - Houston's program is not without its problems.

Apartment owners have fretted over conducting criminal background checks without access to Louisiana's court records, which have been offline since the storm. They have also kept some units out of the program for fear that vouchers could threaten their federal tax credits.

The newest Houstonians, meanwhile, struggle to read signs of safety or strife on unfamiliar turf; to find vacancies near public transportation or schools; to plant roots before getting jobs; to navigate this sprawling city where the main highway, Interstate 610, is known by several names.

And though colorful balloons and "$0 Move-In Special" banners beckon from rooftops along every roadway here, less than a third of those receiving vouchers, about 8,500 families, have moved in so far. Mr. Walsh said the city still had a list of 1,200 units eligible for vouchers, but that is less than 10 percent of the estimated need, and rising numbers of refugees are returning to the disaster center without having signed a lease before the voucher's seven-day window expired.

"Either they're full, they don't have the apartments available that we're looking for, or they don't accept the vouchers," Jarret Spaulding, 20, said of his unsuccessful search for a one-bedroom among two dozen complexes. Released from a Louisiana hospital after a mild stroke, Shirley Johnigan found that her three teenage grandchildren had used their voucher for a two-bedroom that she said was uninhabitable, despite the city's promise to inspect all units before the lease is activated.

"The sink is all black and crusty, nasty and dirty," Ms. Johnigan said, adding, "How would they give that to somebody to live in?"But Regina Lewis happily traded her voucher one recent afternoon for the key to Apartment 934 at Indigo Falls, a 1,066-unit complex whose 200 vacancies at August's end have all been gobbled up by evacuees. "Ooh, my kitchen!" Ms. Lewis exclaimed as she clanked open cabinets, then crushed a cockroach. "I'm going to get me some pots - I like to cook - some Cajun gumbo, oh yeah."

After weeks on an air mattress in her son's apartment here Ms. Lewis, 48, was thrilled at the plush taupe carpet in the 547-square-foot one-bedroom, which rents for $469 a month. She was impressed by the long, roomy closet and said the beige bathroom tile would match the palm-tree shower curtain she bought at Wal-Mart in anticipation of the move.

"I'm just happy that I got my own," Ms. Lewis said. "For a whole year - and hopefully beyond that."

Gretchen Ruethling contributed reporting from Chicago for this article.

    Vouchers in Their Pockets, Evacuees Find It Hard to Get Keys in Hand, 28.10.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/28/national/nationalspecial/28apartment.html

 

 

 

 

 

Still no plan

for housing Katrina evacuees

 

Thu Oct 20, 2005
11:06 AM ET
Reuters
By Alan Elsner

 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Almost two months after Hurricane Katrina, neither the Bush administration nor Congress have come up with a detailed, long-term strategy for housing the estimated 1 million people made homeless by the storm.

Instead, the administration, lawmakers, state and local governments and private interest groups have been debating a series of issues relating to reconstruction.

These include how much of New Orleans should be rebuilt, whether evacuees should be permanently resettled elsewhere, how much money should be spent on reconstruction, whether the emphasis should be placed on rental housing or home ownership and the extent to which tax credits and incentives should be used to stimulate reconstruction.

"Unfortunately, I haven't seen a broad strategy emerge. The president's initial promises of massive federal spending provoked a huge backlash," said Leslie Parrish of the New American Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank.

In a September 15 speech in New Orleans, President George W. Bush sought to deflect heavy criticism of his administration's handling of the August 29 disaster by promising "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.

"We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," Bush said then.

Bush has continued visiting the area affected by the hurricane about once a week. But recently he has stressed the need to pay for hurricane relief and reconstruction by cutting other spending -- a bow to conservatives in the Republican Party worried about the ever-mounting federal budget deficit.

 

THOUSANDS STILL IN SHELTERS

Meanwhile, at least 20,000 evacuees from Katrina are still living in temporary shelters, around 125,000 people are in hotels and more than 150,000 still living with friends and family across the nation, according to Helena Cunningham, president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.

Louisiana authorities would like all of those evacuees eventually to return home. Others are less concerned about that and advocate helping the evacuees wherever they are, even if that means allowing them to put down roots in new places.

That's a key issue, because it determines whether the bulk of federal money and incentives goes to redevelopment in Louisiana or to people spread around the country.

"There's a real question whether we want to get all those people back into New Orleans. It's more logical that the money should follow the people," said David Boaz of the conservative Cato Institute.

Bush in his September 15 speech proposed an "urban-homesteading act" that would give low-income families in Louisiana a chance to acquire surplus government property free of charge through a lottery.

This is part of Bush's general strategy to create an "ownership society" in the United States, a key theme of his 2004 election campaign. So far, however, the White House has not put forward legislation to authorize homesteading.

In any case, home-ownership alone cannot come close to solving the problem, said Francine Friedman of the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition.

"We should not get caught up in buzzwords like 'ownership society.' In the 9th ward of New Orleans, many people didn't own a car, much less a home, or even have enough to buy a bus ticket to evacuate ahead of the hurricane," she said.

 

STRESS ON RENTAL HOUSING

Friedman would prefer to expand the federal low-income housing-credit program as the most efficient way of encouraging the construction of affordable rental housing for evacuees.

The program gives states the ability to issue tax credits for the purchase, rehabilitation or construction of rental housing targeted to lower-income households.

Efforts are under way in Congress to pass legislation that would double or triple the amount of credit that states affected by the disaster could draw on. But even that would barely make a dent in the problem, Friedman said. Her group has proposed expanding the plan 100-fold for Louisiana.

Meanwhile, the administration seems divided on how far to use tax credits and incentives are an instrument of social policy, said Rick Goldstein, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody LLP who is an expert on housing issues.

"There's clearly a debate within the administration about whether and how far to use the tax code for social purposes, and it's hard to know who's winning right now," he said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is following a scattershot policy so far, trying to help evacuees in various different ways. It has given housing vouchers to some 10,000 families to cover their rents for 18 months wherever they are and sees that program eventually expanding to 50,000 families, said spokeswoman Donna White.

It has also searched its housing stock across the country and identified 46,000 vacant units. Now it is trying to match evacuees with units.

    Still no plan for housing Katrina evacuees, R, 20.10.2005, http://today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=domesticNews&storyID=2005-10-20T150535Z_01_ROB053288_RTRUKOC_0_US-HURRICANES-HOUSING.xml

 

 

 

 

 

The Dislocated

Number Overstated

for Storm Evacuees in Hotels

 

October 19, 2005
The New York Times
By ERIC LIPTON

 

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 - The Red Cross and federal government said Tuesday that they had been significantly overreporting the number of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in hotels. Instead of 600,000 people, 200,000 remain in hotels, the charity said.

Although the lower number means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and cities receiving evacuees will find new housing for far fewer people, the count shows the lack of knowledge that FEMA has about the relocations and its limited oversight over the money it is committed to spend on such housing.

"FEMA still does not know any more about what it was doing last week than it was a month ago," Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said. "It is still, as far as I am concerned, an incompetent agency."

FEMA had reported to Congress that as of last Wednesday, it was housing 576,135 people in 206,564 hotels rooms, with the largest numbers, in order, in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. The New York Times and other news organizations reported the Red Cross and FEMA estimates, which meant that the government would have been spending $11 million a night for hotels and motels. Now, relief officials say, 70,000 rooms are occupied, costing $4 million a night.

A spokeswoman for the emergency agency, Frances Marine, said it had relied on the Red Cross for the estimates that it provided to Congress as its own. "It is unfortunate," Ms. Marine said.

The Red Cross has been operating the hotel program since shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. A FEMA official said Tuesday that the agency did not question the figures because as the population in emergency shelters had dropped, to 11,304 on Monday from a peak of 273,000, it made sense that the number of people in hotels was significantly increasing.

Local officials in cities that included Dallas and Houston, where many evacuees settled, said the Red Cross figures seemed high.

"We kind of looked at those numbers ourselves and thought they were exaggerated," said Frank J. Librio, a spokesman for Mayor Laura Miller of Dallas.

Because of discrepancies between the reported numbers of occupied rooms and billing records, The New York Times raised questions about the figures on Thursday with members of Congress and the inspector general's office of the Homeland Security Department and on Monday with Red Cross officials. The Red Cross and FEMA acknowledged on Tuesday that they had issued inaccurate numbers.

They attributed the error to a "misinterpretation by the Red Cross of data provided to it by the contractor" that ran the motel program, resulting in the publishing of cumulative counts of occupied rooms instead of the actual nightly counts.

"When you are off on any number, it is significant," Armond T. Mascelli, the Red Cross vice president for domestic disaster response, said. "Clearly, we made a mistake."

No refunds are necessary, because the government has not been asked to pay the bills, which total $150 million so far. Even now, the Red Cross cannot precisely estimate how many people are in the government-financed hotel rooms or say definitively that the hotel guests are eligible for their rooms.

That is because the Red Cross and FEMA use unusually informal arrangements to manage the program. Corporate Lodging Consultants of Wichita, Kan., hired by the Red Cross to run the program, learns how many rooms evacuees have occupied after it receives bills, its president, George Hansen, said. That can take two weeks from the stay, Mr. Hansen said. Even then, Corporate Lodging knows only how many rooms it pays for, not the number of occupants. The Red Cross estimates that 3.1 people stay in each room.

Neither the Red Cross nor the government monitors who stays in the hotels, Red Cross officials said. To obtain free rooms, guests were asked to show driver's licenses or other identification that included a ZIP code from areas with widespread storm damage.

Corporate Lodging received bills for 35,000 rooms for Monday night. Mr. Hansen said that after all the bills arrived the likely total room count for this week would be 60,000 to 70,000 rooms. He acknowledged that number was largely a guess.

That is the basis of the new Red Cross estimate of 200,000 people.

If the numbers are accurate, FEMA may have less work to do in finding temporary housing for evacuees than it had anticipated.

Last week, Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, who is in charge of the relief operation for the Homeland Security Department, estimated 200,000 to 250,000 housing units in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast had been lost or were uninhabitable.

The lowered hotel count suggests that many more families than expected may have found temporary housing. Currently, FEMA cannot estimate how many housing units it needs to provide. "I don't have a hard number on that," Ms. Marine, the spokeswoman, said.

Representative Obey said the agency should have more detailed and accurate information for Congress before it asked for more money for hurricane relief.

"I don't think it is appropriate for Congress to appropriate any more money until we know what the hell is going on, and we don't know at this point," he said.

Even with the lower numbers, cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio said they faced huge challenges to find temporary housing for the evacuees they had welcomed. A spokeswoman for the Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force in Houston, Sharon Adams, said the Houston metropolitan region probably had 43,500 evacuees in hotels as of Friday. Robbie Ashe, an aide to Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, said FEMA had to help move families quickly from hotels to apartments.

"However many people are in hotels," Mr. Ashe said, "we could house them much more cheaply and in a superior fashion in an apartment."

    Number Overstated for Storm Evacuees in Hotels, NYT, 19.10.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/19/national/nationalspecial/19housing.html?hp&ex=1129780800&en=8574033cda1fcca1&ei=5094&partner=homepage

 

 

 

 

 

The Charity

Faulty Hotel Tally

Adds to Complaints

Against Red Cross

 

October 19, 2005
The New York Times
By STEPHANIE STROM

 

The Red Cross's failure to provide an accurate tally of the hurricane victims living in hotels, thus grossly overstating the cost to the government, has undercut its efforts to reassure the public that it has adequate systems to account for the $1.2 billion it has collected for the relief effort.

Even before the housing mistake, the organization was struggling to overcome complaints from hurricane victims and its own volunteers working in the Gulf Coast area that it had been slow to respond, bureaucratic and disorganized.

State regulators and the group's former president have also criticized the organization as lacking transparency and accountability.

Red Cross officials "said two or three days ago that they are going to have to redouble their efforts to make their $2 billion target for fund-raising, and this kind of news certainly isn't going to help them with that," said Paul C. Light, a professor at the Robert Wagner School of Public Service at New York University.

The Wagner School does surveys of public confidence in charities, and 43 percent of those who responded in July said they had a great deal of confidence in the Red Cross, while only 6 percent said they had no confidence in it.

In another survey of about 1,000 people completed on Sunday, 38 percent reported a great deal of confidence in the charity, while 10 percent reported none.

Professor Light said that the shift was statistically significant and that confidence in charities over all had remained the same.

The scale of the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina has dwarfed the organization's previous missions.

Among the complaints is that debit cards it distributed were faulty. Long lines formed at its assistance centers, and people reported waiting hours to get through on its toll-free telephone lines. Local officials said it seemed unable to track its own operations.

Vernon Jones, chief executive of DeKalb County, Ga., which became a temporary home for some of the displaced, said the charity needed more automated systems. "It's a matter of using technology to automate their processes," Mr. Jones said, "which would help cut down on fraud and improve their ability to know what they're doing."

Red Cross officials said no amount of technology would have helped avoid the problems. The hotel mistake was a flaw, they said, in a new reporting process required by the government that had to be carried out quickly.

"We ended up miscalculating this one figure," said Armond T. Mascelli, vice president for response operations, "but people across the country still ended up having housing and our other services."

Mr. Mascelli said the Red Cross was installing computer and telecommunications systems that would link all its chapters and other units and allow it to adjust depending on the demands of a disaster. It also uses satellites to broadcast data when telephone and cellular lines are down.

"A lot of difficulty we're now finding in disasters is that when you lose infrastructure, you don't have a lot of things we take for granted in our daily life, like computers," he said.

The disclosure that the Red Cross had overstated the number of people living in hotels came as no surprise to some who have monitored the organization.

"The experience of the New York attorney general's charity bureau with the Red Cross post-9/11 led me to conclude that the organization has serious accountability problems," said William Josephson, a lawyer who led the bureau during that time.

Mr. Josephson faulted the organization's 50-member board. "The nearly 900 chapters, with 30 seats on the board, effectively control it, a classic example of the tail wagging the dog," Mr. Josephson said. "The president of the United States appoints 12 members, 7 of whom are cabinet secretaries, but how much time can they devote?"

By law, the Red Cross files its financial statements with the Department of Defense, which told the New York state attorney general's office that it audits KPMG, the organization's auditor, but not the charity.

Dr. Bernadine Healy, who resigned as president of the Red Cross after 9/11 over policy differences with the board that included her efforts to improve accountability at the chapters, has said that financial mismanagement at the chapters led her to mistrust the organization's internal and external auditors.

"Their approach to disasters has not significantly changed, and they are not prepared for disasters of today and tomorrow," she said. "It's all about cots and food."

Faulty Hotel Tally Adds to Complaints Against Red Cross, NYT, 19.10.2005,
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/19/national/nationalspecial/19cross.html





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

$11 Million a Day Spent on Hotels for Storm Relief        NYT        13.10.2005

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/13/national/nationalspecial/13housing.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



$11 Million a Day

Spent on Hotels for Storm Relief

 

October 13, 2005
The New York Times
By ERIC LIPTON

 

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 - Straining to meet President Bush's mid-October deadline to clear out shelters, the federal government has moved hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina into hotel rooms at a cost of about $11 million a night, a strategy local officials and some members of Congress criticize as incoherent and wasteful.

The number of people in hotels has grown by 60 percent in the past two weeks as some shelters closed, reaching nearly 600,000 as of Tuesday. Even so, relief officials say they cannot meet the deadline, as more than 22,000 people were still in shelters in 14 states on Wednesday.

The reliance on hotels has been necessary, housing advocates say, because the Federal Emergency and Management Agency has had problems installing mobile homes and travel trailers for evacuees and has been slow to place victims in apartments that real estate executives say are available throughout the southeast.

Hotel costs are expected to grow to as much as $425 million by Oct. 24, a large expense never anticipated by the FEMA, which is footing the bill. While the agency cannot say how that number will affect overall spending for storm relief, critics point out that hotel rooms, at an average cost of $59 a night, are significantly more expensive than apartments and are not suitable for months-long stays.

Officials in cities from Dallas to Atlanta, which are accommodating thousands of evacuees, give credit for getting 90 percent of the victims out of shelters. But they say they are frustrated by FEMA's record in helping place people in more adequate housing.

"Deplorable. Disappointing. Outrageous. That is how I feel about it," said the Atlanta mayor, Shirley Franklin, a Democrat, in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "The federal response has just been unacceptable. It is like talking to a brick wall."

Even conservative housing experts have criticized the Bush administration's handling of the temporary housing response. "I am baffled," said Ronald D. Utt, a former senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Reagan administration aide who is now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative research organization. "This is not incompetence. This is willful. That is the only way I can explain it."

Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the federal government was moving as quickly as it could to find temporary housing. But the scale of the catastrophe has made it difficult, she said.

"Clearly we have never encountered the size and scope of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina," she said. "Housing half a million people is a challenge by any standard."

The American Red Cross started the hotel program days after Hurricane Katrina struck, when it became clear that the shelters it had opened were not adequate to deal with the 600,000 to 700,000 families displaced by the storm, a spokeswoman, Carrie Martin, said.

The hotel program was intended to last a couple of weeks but has twice been extended by FEMA. Now Red Cross officials are saying there is no end to the initiative, which pays for 192,424 rooms in 9,606 hotels across the United States, in a range of cities as diverse as Casper, Wyo., and Anchorage, Alaska.

Congress last month appropriated a $62.3 billion for the relief effort, most of it designated for FEMA. The agency had told Congress that it expected to spend more than $2 billion to buy up to 300,000 travel trailers and mobile homes to house displaced residents. The agency also planned to give out $23.2 billion in assistance to victims for emergency needs and for temporary housing and housing repairs.

But the temporary housing program has been troubled since the start, observers say. Instead of setting up as many as 30,000 trailers and mobile homes every two weeks, as of Tuesday, just 7,308 were occupied. Even counting berths on the four ships that FEMA has leased and rooms on military bases and elsewhere, the agency has provided only 10,940 occupied housing units for victims in the three Gulf states.

FEMA, reacting to criticism that it might create super-concentrated slums, has scaled back plans to build so-called FEMAvilles with up to 25,000 trailers.

Even a less ambitious plan - complexes with 200 or so units - has been slow to unfold. FEMA officials cite the reluctance by some rural parishes or landowners to welcome evacuees.

But landowners and some state officials in Louisiana blame bureaucratic fumbles by FEMA. Bill Bacqué, co-owner of a trailer park in Lafayette, La., said he offered property for 45 trailers within days of the storm. Negotiations with FEMA were still under way this week, he said. "Things do not move fast," Mr. Bacqué said.

Late last month, FEMA began handing out $2,358 for three months so that families in shelters or hotels could rent apartments.

To date, more than 415,000 households have been approved for that aid, totaling $979 million. But FEMA officials cannot say how many families have used the money for apartments, or simply spent it on expenses while also living in a government-financed hotel room.

David Degruy, his wife, Debra, and their six children, of New Orleans, have done just that while staying in two rooms paid for by FEMA at the Greenway Inn and Suites in Houston.

"We're trying to save the money so that when do get in a house we'll be able to buy things," Mr. Degruy said. "We eat out sometimes, we buy clothes, personal hygiene things."

Some officials criticize FEMA for a passive approach in dealing with cities and hurricane evacuees.

Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who sits on a House panel that helps oversee the housing effort, complained that it was unreasonable for the federal government to expect that a family led by jobless parents, with no car, little savings and little familiarity with a new city could independently find an apartment.

"The administration's policy is incoherent and socially seriously flawed," he said in an interview.

Real estate officials say that although there are few available apartments in Louisiana, there are many vacancies in apartment buildings across the South, including perhaps 300,000 in Texas alone.

"What are these guys doing?" Jim Arbury, an official with the National Multi Housing Council, a group of building owners and managers, said of FEMA. "All of this housing is available now."

Some housing experts say the Bush administration should follow the approach taken after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, when displaced residents were given prepaid housing vouchers instead of having to negotiate and pay a lease on their own.

"We are wasting money hand over fist because we did not deploy the right policy tools," said Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, a liberal research group in Washington. "We could have thousands, if not tens of thousands of families, in stable permanent housing right now. And we would not have to turn to these costly measures, like hotels, motels and cruise ships."

Ms. Andrews, the FEMA spokeswoman, defended the housing policy. "The program is designed to give those who it affects the most the control over their own lives," she said.

Some cities, including Houston and San Antonio, have taken an active role in helping families find housing by creating their own voucher program, identifying vacant units, paying for six-month leases and then turning over the unit to the evacuees. FEMA has promised to reimburse the cities for the housing costs.

"You can't just give people a check and say, 'Good luck, we will see you,' " said San Antonio's assistant city manager, Christopher J. Brady. "It would not be a sufficient solution."

FEMA officials said other cities can set up similar programs. But Mayor Franklin of Atlanta and Mayor Laura Miller of Dallas have said they cannot do so without being paid in advance by the federal government.

Expressing frustration that she could not offer more help to the 39,000 displaced people who have come to Georgia, Mayor Franklin said FEMA's expectations that her city could advance housing money were unrealistic.

"Our government is not large enough to do that," she said. "We can't absorb the costs."

Thayer Evans contributed reporting from Houston for this article, Lily Koppel from Baton Rouge, and Andy Lehren from New York.

$11 Million a Day Spent on Hotels for Storm Relief, NYT, 13.10.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/13/national/nationalspecial/13housing.html

 

 

 

 

 


The Displaced

Budget Hotels

Provide a Few Simple Pleasures

 

The New York Times
By JODI WILGOREN
[ October 13, 2005 ]


SOUTHFIELD, Mich., Oct. 11 - For Felice Pittman and her eight children, checking into the Ramada Inn here on Friday after weeks at a shelter in Memphis meant no more showering on someone else's schedule and the boys on their own in a crowded locker room.

"We've got our own bathroom now," Ms. Pittman said, reveling in the simple pleasure. "We can take an actual bath, in the tub. We can close the door."

But after 34 days in Room 1401, Berkeley R. Smith Jr. longs to close a door behind his 4-year-old twins so they can play by themselves while he checks his e-mail. Instead, he clears leftover French fries from their Happy Meals off the bedspread and replaces them with preschool worksheets as a scented candle burns on a side table in an effort to make the generic four walls feel like home.

"Four people in this one room; it gets old quick," said Mr. Smith, who landed here with his girlfriend after Hurricane Katrina flooded their two-bedroom apartment in Gulfport, Miss. "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here."

With the Red Cross shutting emergency shelters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency lagging on building trailer parks, nearly 600,000 evacuees are living in nearly 10,000 hotels across the country in a program that costs the government more than $11 million a day.

Low-budget hotels have transformed from anonymous truck stops into unlikely community centers, as church groups deliver hot meals, donated toiletries overflow ballrooms and guests seek housing or jobs on borrowed computers and cellphones.

At the Columbiana Hotel in Columbia, S.C., photographers took pictures of children whose family albums were lost in the storm, and a team of 10 volunteers washes the 68 evacuees' laundry daily. Church services are conducted in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn in Huntsville, Ala., where grief counselors are available every day to 52 rooms of evacuees.

Another La Quinta, in Austin, Tex., has relaxed rules for the new guests, allowing shorts and shirts, not just swimsuits, at the pool. But the motel also held a "dos and don'ts" meeting to admonish the evacuees for yelling across the courtyard.

At the North Airport Days Inn in Hazelwood, Mo., the hallways have hushed as the number of evacuees dwindled, to 100 from 250. But a local beauty school still offers free haircuts, shaves and facials on Mondays.

"Now it's more of, 'This is what I've got to do,' 'I can't stay here forever,' 'It's time to wake up in the mornings and not sleep until 2,' " the Days Inn's general manager, Rebecca Stamer, said. "I think two months in a hotel is enough for anybody."

At the Ramada, on a strip of office buildings in this city of 78,000 northwest of Detroit, mothers pad down to the lobby in slippers, sleep rags still covering their coifs, to load their babies onto school buses before the darkness lifts. Teenage boys pass afternoons playing X-Box games on a donated big screen. Last week, there was a balloon-festooned baby shower for Latasha Wooten - "the mayor gave me a big old teddy bear full of Pampers" - after the birth of her daughter, Charleah, on Sept. 28.

There have been outings to plays, movies and baseball games. Picnics in the park and skating parties. Free manicures and massages. Job fairs. But only a handful of evacuees turned up for résumé-writing workshops and pet therapy sessions this week. Most of the adults spend most of their time in their rooms, mostly doing not much at all.

"The worst thing is you're bored," said Shandrinette Julien, whose son Jason, 4, played on a luggage cart and flipped through tourism brochures as he waited for a ride to preschool. "I'm just in my room sleeping or watching TV."

On Monday, Anna Smith took her son Sam Wells at T.G.I. Friday's restaurant to celebrate his 28th birthday and then stopped at a Walgreen's store to pick up a "Best Friends" wall calendar of puppy pictures.

"We didn't even know what day it was," said Ms. Smith, who arrived here in a four-car caravan of 27 family members from New Orleans on Sept. 3, the Saturday after the storm.

Sam Yono, owner of the Southfield Ramada - which left the chain, but did not remove the name from signs and stationery - said he opened 200 of his 416 rooms after the hurricane in part because a brother, Dominick, was killed in a flash flood in 1949 in their former home in Telkaif, Iraq. The hotel calculates it has provided $376,000 in free rooms and meals to 267 evacuees. The government, which covers the $79 nightly rate and no extras, has not reimbursed him. On Monday, 57 rooms had evacuees, most drawn because a relative, a friend's relative or a relative's friend lives here, now expecting to settle in for the foreseeable future.

Grappling with their new homelessness, people like Karen and Ronnie Kendall, who spent three weeks sleeping in their 1990 Ford Tempo before arriving at the motel last week, are grateful for the soft beds, the locked doors, television set, telephone and shower. But it is hardly a vacation. No room service or in-room movies - they were shut off on Monday after six evacuees' rooms racked up hundreds of dollars in unauthorized charges - and housekeeping three times a week, if that.

"I vacuumed my own room, changed my own sheets on the bed," said Ms. Kendall, 42, a truck driver from Mobile, Ala., explaining that she stopped a housekeeper to borrow equipment after having been told that her room would not be serviced for several more days. "Just give me the supplies, I'll do it myself."

Complaints are whispered, for fear of being evicted. There is a foul smell on the 14th floor that one evacuee tries to mask with air freshener. The fourth-floor rooms with donated computers are open erratic hours, depending on available volunteers. And though they are grateful for the free food, it is bland to Southern palates, and they are tired of having to tromp to the restaurant three times a day, at set hours, and not being able to choose their fare.

Over a dinner of dry pork chops and canned beans on Monday night, Ms. Julien, Ms. Smith and the Kendalls traded sumptuous stories of collard greens and crayfish soufflé past. At breakfast the next morning, Mr. Smith explained that his allergy to cheese meant that he often had to eat out because the hotel vouchers, which evacuees have to pick up on the fourth floor before each meal, do not count toward alternative menu items.

"I get so tired of being fed like cattle," Mr. Smith's girlfriend, Deborah Ernst, said as she traded a voucher for a plastic takeout box of eggs and sausage on Tuesday. "I feel like we should be branded.

"Put it this way, it would take a long time for me to go on vacation and stay in a hotel after this experience."

Gretchen Ruethling contributed reporting from Chicago for this article, and Nathan Levy from Austin, Tex.

Budget Hotels Provide a Few Simple Pleasures, article non daté, mis en ligne par le NYT le 13.10.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/13/national/nationalspecial/13hotel.html

 

 

 

 

 

Forced From New Orleans,

but Neighbors Still

 

October 12, 2005
The New York Times
By DEBORAH SONTAG

 

Charles Reddick of New Orleans is a big man, and he exudes the physical authority of a big man. He wraps his barrel chest in bold colors, projects his voice to the stars, and laughs with a reverberating, slightly diabolical wa-hah-hah.

To the residents of Delery Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, however, Mr. Reddick, 45, is now and forever Little Charles. His late father was Charles. His 21-year-old son is Baby Charles. His mother is Miss Lvinia. His neighbor, Willie Calhoun, 55, is Junior. Mr. Calhoun's mother is Miss Gloria. And so on.

The old-fashioned sense of community on Delery Street - with its bedrock values of pool your resources, respect your mama and praise your Lord - is fixed in time. But Delery Street itself is not. It has a past, a rich past that is an integral part of African-American history, but whether it has a future after Hurricane Katrina is any longtime resident's guess and every longtime resident's concern.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin said last week that there was "no ulterior plan to go in and mass demolish the Lower Ninth Ward." But Shantel Reddick, 28, a third-generation resident and Mr. Reddick's niece, said she could not help wondering whether "they're going to turn Delery Street back into a swamp."

In the eyes of many New Orleanians, the Lower Ninth Ward is a blighted, poverty-ridden, crime-addled place, a backwater situated in a particularly flood-prone part of the city. To many who grew up there, though, the predominantly black neighborhood is "our home, our culture and our own little city within the city," as Ms. Reddick, an Orleans Parish deputy sheriff, put it.

Before the storm, the 2100 block of Delery Street (pronounced DELL-uh-ree), home to the Reddicks and the Calhouns, featured compact houses on tidy tracts divided by chain-link fences. Property had not changed hands there for several decades, and families made up of tradesmen, professionals, retirees and students were linked by a shared history that began around the time the last storm, ravaged their neighborhood, Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

The political battle over whether and how to redevelop the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina should prove to be a fierce one. For the moment, though, the residents of Delery Street, scattered but connected by cellphones, are consumed by the daily struggle to regain their equilibrium.

This is especially difficult because most of them have not yet stared reality in the face. Even though other New Orleanians have returned home, the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, to their increasing frustration, have been denied access to their neighborhood, although the city announced yesterday that it would allow residents of some areas to return briefly today to take a look around.

Mr. Reddick, a contractor who fled to Houston before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, knew that his neighborhood had taken on serious water. Having worked on hurricane reconstruction in Florida last year, he figured he faced a huge renovation project. But he did not know just how badly his block had suffered until a month after the hurricane, when he finally saw pictures.

At that point, the street, where waters rose to 12 feet after the storm, looked like a primeval swampland with misplaced objects: a boat nestled in the upper branches of a bare tree; a mattress slept on a tilted roof; a neighbor's shingled house, relocated by the rushing water, straddled the street.

"Man, man, man," Mr. Reddick said. He placed his hands over his face, lowered them to look again, then closed his eyes. "This house of ours is about to fall over. I can't save this. It is devastated. That's my daddy's house. That's my past. Damn! How am I going to tell mama we ain't got nothing left?"

He picked up the phone and dialed. "Ma," he said, "it's gone. The house is gone." He listened. "Ma, do you think I'm going to play with you about something like this?" He listened again, whispering that she did not want to believe him, then inhaling, blowing out hard and puffing himself up.

"It's no problem," he told Lvinia Slack Reddick, 68, a retired seamstress, widow, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. "It can be rebuilt. It can all be rebuilt."

That has been Mr. Reddick's mantra ever since. And it did not waver even yesterday when, talking his way past soldiers blocking access, he finally made his way home and discovered that it "really, really" was not there anymore.

 

'The Backbone of the City'

The Lower Ninth Ward started life as a marshy swampland, home to cypress stumps and white egrets. In the 1800's, a few poor blacks and white immigrant laborers began populating the muddy land downriver from the French Quarter, and in the 1920's the development of the Industrial Canal made the area both more habitable and more isolated.

Starting in World War II, shipbuilding and heightened port activity created jobs, and the Lower Ninth became a hub for dockworkers, as well as for the laborers who kept the glass factories, aluminum plants and sugar refineries buzzing. Among them, Charles Reddick Sr. worked at the Owen-Illinois Glass Company until a bad back and asbestosis disabled him; Willie Calhoun Sr. and Howard Bryant Sr., another Delery Street neighbor, were longshoremen.

"Those Ninth Ward men were the backbone of the city," said Keith Calhoun, 50, a photographer born and raised on Delery Street who has spent much of his life chronicling the Lower Ninth. "It was their sweat that made New Orleans. "

The neighborhood's isolation fostered the development of local institutions, from innumerable churches to civic groups, backyard sweet shops and social clubs. According to Juliette Landphair, a historian at the University of Richmond, the persistent neglect of the area also gave birth to political activism; the fight to improve streets, drains, sewers and schools came to define the Lower Ninth as a place that stood up for itself.

A Ninth Ward resident, frustrated with his children's education, took the initial steps that eventually made New Orleans, in 1960, the first school district in the Deep South to open its all-white schools to blacks. White flight from the Lower Ninth began then.

According to the 2000 Census, the Lower Ninth, with about 14,000 residents, was 98.3 percent black. It had serious urban problems, yet it retained the feel of a small town.

"The Lower Ninth Ward was like the rural South," said Keith Calhoun, Willie Calhoun's younger brother. "It was behind times. But it was also a sharing community. If I went fishing, my neighbors had fish."

Howard Bryant Jr. said Mr. Reddick's father used to take the boys to Saints football games, and they played touch football games in the street, overseen by Miss Evelyn, a neighbor who was authorized by their parents to administer "chastisements and whuppings." Everybody raised everybody's children, and, Shantel Reddick said, everybody knew everybody's business, too.

The neighborhood's quirkiness was apparent in the census statistics. More than a third of its residents were living in poverty - the containerization of the port and a downturn in manufacturing had cost the neighborhood jobs - and yet nearly 60 percent of the residents owned their homes. There were crime-infested pockets of instability, but there was also an entrenched cultural stability that kept people there when they could have moved up and out.

Willie Calhoun, an engineer who also serves as a Baptist minister, had the means to abandon the Ninth Ward for uptown. But he chose to raise his own family a few doors down from his mother's home on Delery Street.

"These were the people I knew and trusted," he said.

One afternoon a couple weeks ago, Lvinia Reddick welcomed visitors to her new white-walled, beige-carpeted townhouse in Houston. She shares the house with her sister, Celestine Lockley, and her friend, Barbara Slaughter - "the golden girls," as the family calls them.

"Let me tell you a little story," Mrs. Reddick said, her eyes sparkling beneath a wondrously immobile hairdo, her speech slightly slurred by recent strokes. "When Betsy hit, soon after we moved to Delery Street, I had to run with the one pair of drawers I was wearing."

"So," she said, giggling and wiggling her toes in furry pink slippers, "I promised myself that I would never leave home without my extra drawers ever again!"

 

A New Home in Houston

As Mrs. Reddick spoke, Hurricane Rita was heading toward Houston. But while many Houstonians had hit the highway, the Reddicks were planning to hunker down. "I'm not paying her no mind," Mrs. Reddick said, dismissing the storm with a wave. "Did y'all get something to eat?" (That question is Mrs. Reddick's refrain.)

The Sunday before Hurricane Katrina hit, Mrs. Reddick had not wanted to evacuate, either, and she and the two other ladies set off for church. During the service, her sister's cellphone rang. Deborah Wilkes, her niece, could not believe "the aunties" were going about their business when a Category 5 storm was bearing down on them. She yelled. They hung up on her and took communion.

Ms. Wilkes, 47, a physics teacher who has lived in Houston for 25 years, then called Mr. Reddick. "I said, 'Charles, there is a time in life when we become the parents, and this is it,' " she said. " 'Get those women in a vehicle and get them out of there.' "

Mr. Reddick's clan, with its various branches, in-laws and honorary members, is a kind of "mini-nation," said Marna David, his employer.

"They are like a capsule of New Orleans - proud, hardworking people with huge extended families," said Ms. David, who moved to New Orleans from Seattle, devoted herself to restoring old homes, hired Mr. Reddick as a contractor and befriended his family.

It is a logistical challenge to evacuate a mini-nation, especially when one assumes the role of maximum leader, as Mr. Reddick did. "I lost my dad two years ago, and I'm kind of like trying to step up to the plate," Mr. Reddick said. "I used to run the streets. But I got myself together. I could never be the man my daddy was, but I'm trying. My family sticks to me. They stuck to me all the way to Texas."

Several dozen family members drove to Houston in a caravan, with Mr. Reddick at the helm in his red truck. They ended up at Ms. Wilkes's townhouse, squeezing onto every inch of floor space. Ms. Wilkes put her church to work finding apartments for them.

From Atlanta, Ms. David, seeing the Reddicks as "the face of this disaster," marshaled her resources to find homes, raise money and collect goods for them. She called Mr. Reddick and told him that friends in Seattle wanted to "adopt" his family.

"That's when I broke down," Mr. Reddick said. "It hit me. We are charity cases." On the positive side, Mr. Reddick said, "Who needs FEMA? We got Marna."

Mr. Reddick said that he made a good living in New Orleans but that he did not have a financial cushion. Because of his expertise as a builder, he believes that it is only a matter of time before he will return to Louisiana to earn the money to repay what he considers loans.

Over 100 members of Mr. Reddick's extended family regrouped in Houston. They divided themselves among a handful of apartments. Some of the housing looked to them like the projects back home. But they were places to stay - "blessings," said Mr. Reddick's wife, Jacqueline, a sentiment that her brother, Troy Journee, found a bit saccharine.

"It ain't home," said Mr. Journee, 35, who wears a gold "9" around his neck that advertises his loyalty to the Lower Ninth Ward. "The food is nasty out here. We like ourselves some Cajun food, spicy shrimp, red beans, pig tails. And we're outside people, but everybody stays indoors here. The place is, like, dull."

Mr. Reddick made a face at Mr. Journee, a welder who found a job in Houston shortly after arriving. "Man, what crazy stuff are you spouting?" he said. "You have people out here in pretty bad shape, really poor people. We're in pretty good shape."

At that point, about two weeks ago, Mr. Reddick's chief concern was the family's failure to locate a particularly vulnerable relative: Keith Theard, his 43-year-old cousin who has Down syndrome and is dependent on a ventilator. Transferred to a hospital from a nursing home just before Hurricane Katrina, he had vanished.

Jacqueline Reddick teared up at the thought. After arriving in Houston, she said, she felt lost and weepy all the time. Then, among the donated goods, she discovered brand new versions of the same towels and sheets, festooned with palm trees, that she had back home.

She began decorating, adding navy curtains, a vase of cloth roses. She enrolled her boys in school, and they began adapting. She was starting to feel settled when Hurricane Rita appeared on the horizon, souring her mood.

After seeing the photographs of Delery Street, Mr. Reddick's spirits went south, too, and he briefly lost the buoyancy that those around him depend on. "You might be in Texas for another two years, babe," he said to his wife. She, in turn, addressed the baby niece in her lap: "Tell Mr. Charles that we say, 'No! No way!' "

 

Riding Out the Second Storm

At the housing complex in Houston where the Reddicks and the Journees gathered to ride out Hurricane Rita on Sept. 23, there was a pool. And in the twilight before the storm, when a curfew had driven the remaining residents of Houston indoors, the pool beckoned. The trees creaked in the wind, an inky knot of clouds skidded through the sky, and the children peeled down to their underwear and jumped in.

Leaning over the railing of a stairway above them, Mr. Reddick nursed a beer and some bitterness. He had not boarded up the windows of the apartment where scores of relatives were going to spend the night. Instinct told him that it would not be necessary, and he had just heard on television that the Lower Ninth Ward had flooded again.

"I'm sorry to say, but I'm not worrying about Texas right now," he said. "I'm thinking about my city and myself. Who put the double whammy on us?"

Several family members said they believed that the hurricanes were God's way of cleansing New Orleans of its crime, its corruption and its inequalities. But Mr. Reddick would have none of that. That kind of thinking, he said, could make people passive.

Earlier that day, he had called Willie Calhoun. "Junior," he said, "it's time for us to put our heads together and figure out how to fix our neighborhood." He also conferred with Mr. Bryant, an interior design architect who lives in California but still considered his father's house on Delery Street, which floated away during Hurricane Katrina, to be home.

"We all want our family's futures there," Mr. Bryant said by phone. "Me, Willie and Little Charles, we envision getting everyone back to Delery Street and making it like a unified community. You can create some sense of an identity with, like, wrought-iron fencing instead of chain links."

That idea seemed a little ethereal to Mr. Reddick after he heard about the second flooding of the Lower Ninth. His house had edged off its foundation in the first wave of water. When would he be able to get in to see what Hurricane Rita had wrought? When could he return there to make some money?

"Now it's going to be another three, four weeks," he said. "I can't stand being idle like this. We need to get back to work. We got all the skills right in this family. We got roofers, welders, electricians, carpenters. I lost $20,000 worth of tools and equipment. But I got energy."

Demitris Benard, an honorary family member, did not share his good friend's burning desire to return. "There are only three things that I want from New Orleans right now: my truck, some clothes and my mother's body," he said.

Mr. Benard's mother, Alma Benard, died in a nursing home right before Hurricane Katrina hit, and Mr. Benard has been unable to get through to the coroner's office to retrieve her body for burial.

Mr. Benard's girlfriend, Chantel Hodges, said the pastor of her church conducted a conference call with about 100 parishioners that morning. He told them they might not be returning home any time soon.

"He told us that they're honestly thinking about turning the Ninth Ward into part of Lake Pontchartrain," Ms. Hodges said.

Mr. Reddick took a long swig of his beer, then tucked the bottle behind his back when his mother appeared beside him. "I'll be dead and gone by the time I get that house on Delery back, Little Charles," she said. He put his big arm around her shoulders.

The night passed relatively uneventfully, and the family even got good news when Hurricane Rita was behind them. Mr. Reddick's disabled cousin was found at a nursing home near Baton Rouge, where he had been listed as a white man with the last name of Heard, not Theard.

A week later, however, the family found out that Hurricane Rita had washed the Reddick house clear off its foundation, up and away. By last weekend, Mr. Reddick had to see for himself.

He secured a couple of reconstruction jobs, climbed into his truck with relatives and drove east. At an approach to the Lower Ninth Ward, he convinced the troops that he was reporting to a work site and they waved him in. Finally on Delery Street, he faced the bald reality: "There is nothing to salvage," he said.

Somehow, though, the destruction bolstered his determination to make it all whole again. "Oh, yeah," he said, "I'm going back now more than ever."

    Forced From New Orleans, but Neighbors Still, NYT, 12.10.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/12/national/nationalspecial/12block.html?pagewanted=1&hp

 

 

 

 

 

Scattered by Storm,

Evacuees Become Nomads

in a Strange World

 

October 9, 2005
The New York Times
By ISABEL WILKERSON

 

SALLISAW, Okla. - Word spread fast after the evacuees arrived. Everyone wanted to see one up close. Soon, the gravel driveways wending through the grounds of the old church mission were backed up with trucks and minivans filled with locals bearing bottled water or leftover clothes or just wanting to talk to the Louisiana people, tell them how sorry they were for what had happened to them.

The Methodists brought cribs. A dentist sent a box of toothbrushes. A Presbyterian was recruiting for the choir. Members of the Sequoyah Memorial Hospital Auxiliary showed up to take the evacuees shopping at Wal-Mart. A beautician wanted to do their hair. And someone donated a box of formal wear that, the volunteer sorters noted, the evacuees were not likely to need anytime soon.

In the beginning, it seemed that wherever the Louisianans went, people stopped them on the street, figuring that because they were black, they must be from the hurricane. A man went up to one of them, Gerald Cooper, a former merchant mariner, and said, "Here, put this in your pocket," as he stuffed a $20 bill into Mr. Cooper's hand.

"It was like we were a fad," Mr. Cooper said.

In the chaotic first weeks after Hurricane Katrina, several vanloads of Louisiana exiles, including Mr. Cooper, arrived disheveled and sleep-deprived at the old mission grounds here, miles from the edge of nowhere in the middle of eastern Oklahoma.

They were among the tens of thousands of people forced out of the Gulf Coast and into unaccustomed holding places where no one knew quite what to make of them. They had suddenly become nomads in their own country - pitied, gawked at and shuffled from place to place, stuck in the middle of a long journey that would take them through several states merely to get to this way station from which to plot the rest of their lives.

In time, they found themselves caught in a web of red tape and cultural miscues, clashing with locals over the tiniest of things, like how to cook grits or season meat, or over the life-and-death question of why they did not get out of harm's way in time.

Tensions rose, and by the end of the month, the Louisianans, grateful though they were, could not wait to get out. And the local people, well-meaning and overwhelmed, were just as relieved to see them go.

 

An Odyssey Begins

Their time at the mission would become both an object lesson in the psychic strains of disaster recovery and a laboratory for the challenges of sheltering victims so different from their caregivers.

This particular colony of exiles, thrown together at random, was first delivered by bus and military cargo plane to Fort Chaffee, an old Army base in westernmost Arkansas, which became a kind of Ellis Island, some 9,000 evacuees passing through its gates the first week after Hurricane Katrina. There, Red Cross workers assigned them to vans that would spirit them even farther away.

It was as if they had been hurled into another galaxy, a stubbled land of raccoon woods and Andy Griffith towns, Indian smoke shops and creased-faced cowboys in pickup trucks.

As they passed from Arkansas into Oklahoma, the evacuees made little comment to their cheerful Presbyterian drivers, too exhausted to register an opinion. The convoy exited the highway at the billboard that said "Jesus" in big cursive letters. It passed Hog Creek and the tractor supply shop and rumbled along unmarked roads.

The land was becoming sparser and drier. They had passed the last traffic light miles ago. There were no other cars on the road and no more stops signs or signs of life other than cows resting under the locust trees. They had seen no other black people since leaving Arkansas. Now they saw no people at all. Some of the evacuees began to grow fearful.

"Where is they taking us?" Nitayu Johnson, a hotel maid with a young daughter, remembered thinking. "They trying to slave us. They going to make us pick cotton. We gon' die."

In fact, they were bound for Dwight Mission, an old church outpost whose log cabins and stone dormitories were used as a boarding school for Indian children decades ago, and which now serves mainly as a campsite for local church groups.

There were 19 people in the first wave of arrivals, dominated by a blustery clan whose patriarch, Louis Green, a widower, was once a pool shark who had made a living breaking players with more money than sense in the pool halls of Louisiana.

Mr. Green, 65, arrived with 5 of his 19 children, 5 of his 29 grandchildren and four smaller households who had banded together with his family for protection in a fetid school gymnasium outside New Orleans in the darkest days during and after the storm.

Soon afterward, Eugene and Helen Johnson arrived, a retired couple, unrelated to Nitayu Johnson, who had lost each other at the Superdome when Mrs. Johnson, in the early stages of dementia, never made it back from a trip to the restroom.

For four days Mr. Johnson searched for her in vain. In the chaos of the evacuation, she was airlifted to Arkansas, and he to San Antonio. They were reunited at the mission in Oklahoma after the Red Cross, along with their grandson Charles, located Mrs. Johnson in Arkansas.

"Money couldn't buy that when I seen her," Mr. Johnson said. "After all what we went through, I said, 'Bring me to a dry place.' "

Among the other arrivals were the wife of Mr. Cooper, Antionette McNeely, a frail diabetic who was hospitalized upon landing in Arkansas; Dejawhn Riggs, a college student in wire-rimmed glasses and a polo shirt, who had attached himself to the Green family but stayed to himself and rarely looked up from his single hot rod magazine; Mr. Green's father-in-law, Richard Harris, a gaunt, mysterious figure who preferred to sit in a metal folding chair with a cigarette rather than speak of whatever he had seen at the Convention Center in New Orleans; Corille Johnson, Nitayu Johnson's pigtailed, 10-year-old daughter, who talked about rapes and dead bodies over Jell-O at dinner; and Charles Johnson, the elder Johnsons' 20-year-old grandson, who was counting the minutes until he could get out.

The first night, people either slept better than they had in days (the elder Mr. Johnson said anything was better than sitting upright at the Superdome) or could not sleep at all. Bats circled the night sky beating their wings, coyotes howled in the woods by the creek, turkey vultures and chicken hawks cawed in the distance, and inside the dormitory, coughs and footfalls echoed down the bare wood corridors.

Charles Johnson, who had been a hotel clerk on Bourbon Street, could not rest knowing that the dormitory's front doors were not locked. The doors to the rooms weren't locked either; they did not even have doorknobs. Mr. Riggs, the reclusive college student, locked his door with a spoon.

"We out here in the woods," the younger Mr. Johnson said, "and anybody could get in."

The staff assured their guests that they were perfectly safe. "We are providing a sanctuary for God's people," Haan Phelps, the director of the mission, said. "You don't hear sirens and police cars going up and down around here."

 

An Irregular Routine

Because of the complexity of the lives that had to be sorted out, what was supposed to be a three- to five-day stay turned into weeks. Everyone settled into a routine that no one seemed especially happy with but was the best anyone could do under the circumstances. It made for testiness on all sides.

The three mission staff members - trained not as the social workers, job counselors or triage nurses the catastrophe called upon them to be but rather as camp directors - decided to treat the visitors as they would summer campers. They set out a schedule of breakfast at 8:00, lunch at noon and so on, allowing about half an hour per meal.

But many of the evacuees chafed under the rules. They were exhausted, some were sick, and they wanted to sleep late and move about in their own time. They were working people - hotel maids, maintenance men, cashiers and nursing assistants - who were used to cooking for themselves on their own schedule and did not like being told what to do and when to do it.

But if they failed to make it to a meal in time, there was nowhere else to go.

In the initial euphoria, there were grilled steaks and potatoes, pancakes at breakfast, hot meals three times a day. But the staff, stretched thin, could not keep it up and never expected it would have to.

Breakfast became cold cereal, packets of instant oatmeal that nobody seemed to open, see-through coffee and the occasional bowl of grits. Lunch was cold cuts on white bread. And dinner, the only hot meal, might be sausages and rice or canned spaghetti.

If the evacuees had come from any other city in the country, it might not have mattered so much. But food became the topic of every day's conversation and the cause of many rolled eyes. The blander the food got, the fewer people showed up and the less they ate, and the more disillusioned the staff got.

"I don't like to throw food away," Mr. Phelps said. "It's frustrating when somebody takes three biscuits and only eats two."

He took to going table to table, chiding the children to eat all their food, which only irritated the parents and made them less likely to come and eat.

"This is not a restaurant," Mr. Phelps said. "They can't come in here and order New Orleans shrimp, because I don't know I'm going to get reimbursed for it."

Homesick, Mr. Green's daughter Serrita picked at her cornflakes, while her 2-year-old son, Terrell, splashed milk out of his Cheerios. Charles Johnson stabbed at his dry sausage and rice over dinner. They were missing sweet cornbread, stuffed bell peppers, gumbo, pickled pigs' lips.

It was all some of them could do to sit on the other side of the kitchen and watch what was coming out without getting an apron and a skillet themselves. Someone found them hot sauce, and nearly a month into their stay, the cook finally got the hang of the red pepper requirements and made some faux jambalaya with a gallon of hot sauce that nobody but a Louisianan could eat. But few were around to try it because they had already given up.

Mr. Johnson told his wife not to meddle. "That's they kitchen," he said. "What they doing is all right."

For her part, the cook, Maxine Moore, was doing the best she could. She could work only part time and only on certain days. She was a single mother raising three disabled children, holding down another full-time job and driving 300 miles round trip to get there from her hometown, Possum Holler.

Oklahomans just eat differently from Louisianans, Ms. Moore said: "Rednecks and cowboys are meat and potatoes people."

Meanwhile, Mr. Riggs, the college student, was missing not just the food. "I hate not being able to get me a shot every now and then," he said.

Somehow, the visitors had to find a way to coexist until they could figure out where to go next. The quieter people sequestered themselves on the more secluded second floor. They took rooms at opposite ends from one another for privacy's sake.

They did not all get along and did not pretend to. The upstairs people had little patience for the spirited cacophony of the extended Green family, whose sniffling little ones skittered down the corridors, dodging piles of donated clothes and accumulated trash while a mix of Ashanti and Ray Charles bounced between multiple boomboxes.

Mr. Cooper and Ms. McNeely kept their distance, and the elder Mr. Johnson made a point of letting Mr. Phelps, the mission director, know he was not raised like the Green children.

As for the Greens, they were a world unto themselves, and took pains to make it clear that they were working people who were accustomed to doing as they pleased.

"I had money in the bank and a big-screen TV," Mr. Green said. "I didn't wear nothing but Austin Reeds."

He walked with a limp owing to a fall he took at the race track, and slept on a brown plaid sofa in his street clothes in the dormitory's living room. His room was where the building's only television was. He did not want anyone to sit on his bed, meaning the sofa, so most residents did not feel comfortable going in there. It was hard for anyone to watch the grainy images of Dr. Phil or college football, knowing Mr. Green was sitting there feeling invaded.

"Whose name it is on the door?" he would ask anyone who took liberties in his space.

With his gray stubble and baseball cap, he made it his business to root out slovenly habits and had regular run-ins with the people on the second floor.

"You done left your trash by the stairs," Mr. Green once said to Nitayu Johnson, a second-floor resident.

"You a damn lie," she shot back at him.

They had all become an accidental family, and everyone was going stir crazy. One day ran into another.

"After we eat," Mr. Cooper said, describing his day, "we go straight up our room and lay across the bed. We be looking at the clock and say, man, it's just seven o'clock. We trying to figure out how to go to sleep at seven o'clock. You read, you talk, you thinking you burned off an hour, and it's just 15 minutes."

Mr. Cooper was dying for a newspaper to know what was going on in the world since he could not watch the news in the living room. In the next room, Charles Johnson was arguing with his grandfather over the date.

"We don't know what day it is," the younger Mr. Johnson said. "We don't know what time it is. We don't know nothing."

"They do so tell us the time," the elder Mr. Johnson said, defending the mission. "And I got a calendar in my bag somewhere to look up the day it is."

Everyone was trying to figure out the next step, hoping it would be permanent or at least the last stop before their return to New Orleans. They had to think about where they knew people, where they could get work, where relatives and friends were going. Some were stuck in their decision-making because they had not yet heard what had become of certain loved ones.

The elder Mr. Johnson still had not reached his sons. Nitayu Johnson had an aunt who had been airlifted to Texas. But the aunt was in a shelter, too, and did not know where she was going next. So Ms. Johnson did not know whether to join her aunt in Texas or wait for her to get settled somewhere else. All she knew was she was not staying in Oklahoma.

The Greens were trying to make the best of it in the area. They had decided to settle in Arkansas, in Fort Smith, the biggest town near the mission, about an hour's drive east, partly because of the complexities of moving so many people somewhere else at once. But they were having a hard time finding a place to live. The sheer number of evacuees who had come through Fort Chaffee after the storm meant a lot of competition and red tape.

Meanwhile, the Green daughters were hearing that evacuees were getting all kinds of help in Atlanta. Their older sister, Phoebe, had fled there with her family before the storm and had already settled in a house in the suburbs.

Suddenly, the decisions people had made in the fateful hours before and after the storm, which shelter they had happened upon to ride it out, who had happened to pick them up from their rooftop and the destination of a bus or plane they had happened to be shuffled onto, began to hit them, and the Greens began to feel they were in a less fortunate position. Whenever a lead in Arkansas fell through, as was often the case, all they could talk about was getting to Atlanta.

The elder Johnsons were more determined than anyone to get back to their home in the engulfed Lower Ninth Ward. They never once considered not going back. They did not let other cities or states distract them. They never veered from a decision to get to San Antonio, near some of Mrs. Johnson's relatives, and to plot a course home from there.

Mr. Cooper and Ms. McNeely, both in their 50's, were equally focused. They were talking about going to New York. A place called Schenectady. Somewhere near Albany, Mr. Cooper said. He had a contact there and knew he would be able to find work.

It was a purely practical choice, and he was grateful to have it. But he was grieving the loss of the familiar.

"You were in your little world," said Mr. Cooper, a lean man with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper beard. "You know where to go and what to watch out for. You know the people you can count on and the people to leave alone.

"Now you got to make new friends, build up new trusts, learn to blend in," he continued. "If I was a young man, I would never go back. But we just young enough to where we can start over and just old enough to where a few more years down the road we couldn't adjust."

He did not arrive in Oklahoma with Schenectady on his mind. "You uprooted," Mr. Cooper said. "It takes you a while to figure out what the hell happened to you. It's going to take months to realize, My life was wiped out."

But after a few days, he had had a chance to think. He remembered the Episcopal priest he had worked for in New Orleans who had moved to Schenectady years ago. The priest said he would always have a job there if he wanted to come.

One day, he was sorting through some scraps of papers in his room at the mission. "I said, 'I wish I could find his number,' " Mr. Cooper recalled. "As I was dumping some trash out, a piece of paper with his phone number fell out. It was telling me to go to Schenectady."

He paused and looked down. "We was comfortable," he said. "My little job was right up the street. We were around friends. We had family. In Schenectady, there's no family, only one friend. But Schenectady is just slow enough to where we can be comfortable and fast enough to where we can be happy."

His face brightened, as if he was trying to make himself feel better about the move.

But he was worried about Ms. McNeely. She was so frail that she was having trouble getting up the steps. Diabetes had taken all her teeth. "She can't take too much cold," he said, "but I guess she gon' have to learn to live with it."

 

The Hunt for a Home

In time, two groups formed at the mission: those who were looking to stay in the area, and those who were not. Those who were staying had first dibs at getting into Fort Smith whenever a van showed up.

One morning as the van prepared to leave, Charles Johnson climbed aboard. He said he wanted to go into town with the group looking at houses. He was not looking at houses. He was biding his time until he could get to Texas. On this day, he just wanted to see traffic and people again. He wanted to go for the ride.

Mr. Green hit the ceiling. "Go for a ride?" he said. "This ain't no excursion. This ain't no picnic. We going to do business."

Marquita Carter, an evacuee whom the Greens had taken under their wing during the storm, looked down her handwritten list of rentals in the dog-eared folder she carried with her everywhere. "Here's a triplex with a washer and dryer hookup that's newly renovated," Ms. Carter told Kandice Green, one of Mr. Green's daughters, who was reserving judgment.

Somewhere between the abandoned Texaco station and the battered sign to Badger Lee Baptist Church, spontaneous chirping broke out all over the van. The cell phones were in receiving range again.

"We back in civilization!" Ms. Carter said.

Day after day, armed with the federal Section 8 vouchers given to hurricane victims, the Greens went searching for apartments. Some places looked to be falling apart. Some looked fine but had a deposit already or did not take Section 8. One day, they found the perfect arrangement: a brick duplex, newer construction, with plenty of space.

"Daddy, this is beautiful," the Green daughters said as they picked out rooms.

"I finally feel hopeful," Ms. Carter said.

Mr. Green said he would take it. His voucher would cover the $750 rent for his unit, and his daughters' vouchers would take care of theirs.

But the next day, they found out the vouchers were of little use. The local housing authority would not permit the Greens to use the vouchers to rent the duplex because it said the units were overpriced. With the arrival of several thousand evacuees to a town of 80,000, landlords were jacking up the rents all over town, the authorities said.

"They think just because these people have vouchers, they can charge New Orleans prices," said Michael Fuchtman, a counselor at the Fort Smith-Sebastian County Housing Authority. "We had a lady charging $980 for a three-bedroom house that would normally go for half that. That was a total no way."

Later that day, Kandice Green and Ms. Carter ran into trouble with two apartments they thought were theirs.

"We'll need a credit check and a criminal background check," Cyndi Glass, the resident manager, said. "Any felonies, we can't rent to you. It's going to take three days to get that information back from Louisiana."

With the stacks of other applications on Ms. Glass's desk, the apartments would probably be rented by then.

"Well, it's not my fault," Ms. Glass said. "It's not your fault. It's nobody's fault. We've been told not to veer from the policy."

Ms. Carter got up and left. She was insulted at the very suggestion that she was a felon. "I wanted to climb behind that desk and knock that woman out," she said.

After so many near misses, the two women were heartbroken.

On the ride back to the mission, they sat slumped in their seats, quiet. Ms. Carter rubbed her eyes. Kandice Green stared out the window at the cows and hay bales in the pasture.

The happiest evacuees at the mission were the Johnsons - Mr. Johnson, in particular. A slightly built man of 72, he was so happy to have found his wife and to have a bed to sleep in, it did not much matter where it was so long as it was not his house in the Ninth Ward.

"This is my world right in here," Mr. Johnson said of his corner of a dorm room, a double mattress on the bottom bunk with donated suitcases filled with donated clothes neatly stacked in the corner.

But when he rested his eyes during breaks in the day, he relived his regrets, second-guessing himself on the minutest decisions.

Perhaps they could have fled sooner if he had not set the radio on the dresser. It ran on batteries, and they were depending on it for news after the television went out. But the dresser tilted over, and the radio fell in the water. They ended up being rescued through a vent in the roof.

Then he "misplaced" his wife, as he put it. When the Superdome was emptied, he had no choice but to do as he was told: board the plane to San Antonio and hope she made it there, too. But she didn't.

Their eventual reunion did not quiet his mind. "I be laying here 'fore I fall asleep," he said. "I be thinking about things. You think about little things, what I have to do when I get back. What I'm gon' find. I think about my sons. I haven't talked to them, but I know they safe."

"My mind is on what I'm gon' do when I get back," he continued. "I want to find her wedding band. I had some silver dimes I want to find."

"And my mink coat," Mrs. Johnson interjected.

"Oh, you can forget about that," he said. "You can just put that out your mind."

 

A New Subject Matter

Life began to stir every morning at 6:00 when the five little girls in the group roused themselves to go to school. They got up in the dark, hours before they would have back home, to board a yellow bus to a little country school in Marble City, Okla., about five miles down the road.

The teachers and principal were overjoyed at their arrival. The school had lost half its student population in the last generation as people had left the strip-mining and cattle country for better jobs elsewhere.

The school had been hoping for maybe a hundred new students from the storm, but fate had brought them only five. They arrived a month into the school year, and there was no telling how long they would attend. Still, there was an assembly to announce that children from Louisiana were arriving. Teachers warned their students not to talk about the hurricane unless the new students brought it up first.

The children piled quarters and nickels on the new students' desks for them to buy soda pop with. Despite the warnings, one student could not hold back from asking Corille Johnson if she had come from the "tsunami."

Corille did not talk much about the hurricane in class or with other students. She clung to her teacher, Amy Blalock, and sat in the third row right next to the teacher's desk.

When the math lesson rolled around, it was as if everything was normal again. Corille was good in math and became one of the children, like Sam and Winter and Dakota, who kept their hands in the air when numbers were on the blackboard.

"Ooh, I know, I know!" she said, her arm stretched high.

Things were different in reading.

They were studying nouns. The children were to give examples of nouns. The other children said "school" or "gym."

"Her nouns were 'Convention Center' and 'Superdome,' " Mrs. Blalock said.

In art, Corille drew pictures of a tornado and said, "This is what happened to New Orleans."

"And every once in a while, out of the blue," Mrs. Blalock said, "she'll blurt out, 'We don't know where my brother is.' "

By late September, Mr. Green was rethinking his game plan. He was coming off another empty-handed day of looking. He had tried to make himself feel better about Arkansas, but things were not working out.

"I'm thinking about New York," he said. "Or California. Or Indiana. I'll just get me a ticket and get on out of here. This always was a rotten state for blacks. I remember when old Orval Faubus blocked the school doors in Little Rock."

A white Arkansan sitting on a nearby bench overheard his ranting. "I think Fort Smith is one of the best places you could live in this country," he said.

"Yeah?" Mr. Green said. "What factories they got here?"

"Whirlpool," the man said. "Planters Peanuts."

Mr. Green, still steaming, seemed not to hear him. "I knew this was a rotten state," he said.

The local man got up. "We've treated those people terrific over here," he said, and walked away.

With each passing day, Mr. Green could feel the sympathy draining away. His daughter Serrita had a run-in at the bus station when she went to pick up her two oldest children, who were with their father during the storm. A man looked at them and said, loud enough for them to hear, "Why didn't they just get out?"

Serrita had to keep from cursing the man. Her family had done exactly what the authorities had told them to do. They rode out the hurricane in a school gymnasium and still found themselves vagabonds. "We would love nothing more than to go back to our homes," she said.

They were beginning to feel that because of the growing impatience of the locals, the conflicting government relief rules and the competition from other evacuees, everything was conspiring against them. To add to their anger and disappointment, they were hearing rumors that the governor and the president had told businesses to do everything they could to help them get situated, but they did not see where that call was being lived up to.

Kandice Green called her sister Phoebe in Atlanta. "They straight up look you in the face," she began, "and say, 'I don't care what the governor say, I don't care what the president say, you not getting it.' "

Each day, as he rustled up church vans to get them into town or made canned spaghetti they chose not to eat, Mr. Phelps, the mission director, had mainly one thing on his mind: how much this was costing and how he would get reimbursed for it from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross or whoever had the authority.

The electric bill for running the dormitory in September would be $400 or $500. And his wife, Sue, the part-time office manager, had been putting in 30 extra hours a week. "That's a cost I hope we can recoup," he said.

There was also the cost of the part-time cook and the salary and benefits for Allison Beavers, the program director, who seemingly took care of everything, including holding the babies and helping to navigate the housing bureaucracy.

"It's a real energy taker," Mr. Phelps said. "It's not our job to do this. It's not that we don't want to do it, but it's also important to get a thank you back. All it would take would be one thank you."

Everything had taken up more of his time than he had anticipated. "I spent four hours trying to coordinate transportation for Serrita's two children from Louisiana on the Greyhound bus," he said. "Four hours. That's not in my schedule."

 

Generosity Wearing Thin

Just as the needs grew more complex, the help began to wane. "Everybody was pumped up the first week," Mr. Phelps said. "We had lots of volunteers in the beginning. Now the sense of dropping everything to come help is not as great as at the beginning. Volunteers are driving great distances and having to pay their own gas and tolls. I don't think it's our responsibility to give, give, give and not see motivation on the evacuees' level."

Every so often, the frustration on both sides came to a boil.

Mr. Phelps approached Mr. Green in the cafeteria one morning after a typically low turnout and asked if his daughters were up at the dorm. They needed to get into town for their children's immunization shots.

"I don't know," Mr. Green said. "I'm here and they're there. They grown. I don't tell them what to do. They got minds of their own."

"Well, they're your relatives," Mr. Phelps said, "not mine."

Mr. Phelps walked back to the kitchen, and Mr. Green rolled his eyes.

It was clear as the fourth week approached that the arrangement could not last much longer. "We want to get them placed so they can go on with their lives," Mr. Phelps said, "and we can go on with ours."

He said as much to Mr. Green when he asked what he was doing to find an apartment. To Mr. Phelps, the Greens were not looking hard enough, and the options were becoming fewer because other evacuees were taking what was left.

"Why are you waiting?" Mr. Phelps asked. "You have to be out there looking. If you're sitting there waiting for something to be handed to you, it's not going to happen."

"Look," Mr. Green told him, "I want to get out of here just as bad as you want me out of here."

Later that week, after another discouraging visit to the housing authority, Mr. Green was so fed up, he told Mr. Phelps, "If I'm not out of here by Wednesday, get me a bus ticket anywhere."

It was going on an entire month since the day they had arrived. Pressure was brewing on the Gulf Coast from a new wave of evacuees from Hurricane Rita. Those at the mission who had figured out where they were going next began peeling off.

The Johnsons were told that the Red Cross was arranging for them to fly to San Antonio. Word came that Mr. Cooper and Ms. McNeely were going to have to travel to Schenectady by bus. It could take a day and a half, they were told. There was a question as to whether Ms. McNeely could make it and how to keep her insulin refrigerated all that time.

"It's 26 stops," Ms. McNeely said. "But to get up out of here, I'll get my insulin and I'll chance it."

The Johnsons had to leave the mission in a hurry. They would be staying in a Motel 6 off the expressway in Fort Smith. With more evacuees headed their way, Mr. Phelps said, there was a fear they might not get a room close to the airport if they waited too much longer.

When it was time, Jim Potts, a volunteer in a T-shirt with the letters "CIA" printed on it, for "Christ Is Alive," drove up to take them away.

"Oh lord, this is a mess," Mrs. Johnson said as her husband wound down the steps loaded with donated luggage to yet another temporary destination not of their choosing and still not home.

Mr. Cooper, baseball cap on backward, lit a cigarette and stood watching them load up the red church van, which said "New Beginnings."

Mr. Johnson went from person to person on the porch and hugged everyone. His eyes welled up.

"All right, brother, you be good," Mr. Cooper said.

"I'm a miss you, man," Mr. Johnson said to his floor mate. "I'm a miss all of y'all."

He turned to Nitayu, who lived at the opposite end of the hall. "I'll see you, babe," he said. "I'll see you again."

He walked across the porch. "Take it easy," he told Mr. Harris, Mr. Green's wordless father-in-law, who barely looked up.

As the driver turned on the engine, Charles Johnson blew Corille, Nitayu's daughter, a kiss. Nitayu did not turn in her seat. Mr. Harris just sat hunched over in his metal folding chair, a cigarette burning between his fingers.

"I'll see you, man," Mr. Cooper said. "I'll see you when we get home."

Corille went running alongside the van. She waved both arms in the air as it rolled along the dirt path and onto the concrete road beyond. She slumped as she walked away and headed back to the dorm, neither she nor anyone else knowing when their turns would come or where they might lead, or, more important, when Mr. Cooper's words might be true for them all.

Scattered by Storm, Evacuees Become Nomads in a Strange World, NYT, 9.10.2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/national/nationalspecial/09Refugee.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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