More than 500,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina are on the move. It is a storm surge of the dispossessed, an exodus on a historic scale in the USA.
The forced migration from flooded Gulf Coast homes is swamping cities in Louisiana and Texas. The waves are rolling to Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona and as far as Oregon and New York. School officials in many states are cutting red tape to enroll more than 160,000 displaced children.
Federal, state and local officials are grappling with housing the homeless after a stumbling start. Chastened by scenes of chaos last week at New Orleans’ Superdome and convention center, they are running short-term shelters in sites that range from Houston’s Astrodome to three Carnival Cruise Lines ships that will provide berths for about 7,000 evacuees in Galveston, Texas, and Mobile, Ala.
What comes next for governments: Planning longer-term quarters for the most impoverished of the displaced, who may be dispersed to even more disorienting surroundings outside the Deep South.
In sympathy for the homeless, the welcome mat is out. Nationally, charitable donations are breaking records set for the 9/11 terror attacks and December’s Asian tsunami. In Texas, where nearly 250,000 are camping out, emergency shelters have an oversupply of volunteers handing out food and clothes.
Evacuees are taking Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick up on his offer of free hotel rooms for 500 families. The First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles is painting a house donated by comedian Arsenio Hall, preparing to offer a year’s free room and board to a Gulf Coast family.
David Perez, owner of a San Diego oil and gas company, spent $250,000 to charter a jet to Louisiana. At a shelter there, he told reporters, he offered rides to California. He got 80 takers, who were put up at San Diego’s Kearny High School. Perez then turned the jet around and went back for another load of evacuees.
Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Va., likens the generosity to the reception Americans gave South Vietnamese refugees after Saigon fell to communists in 1975. “There’s a tradition in this country of providing safe harbor to those who encounter disaster,” Lang says.
There are signs of local uneasiness, too. Unnerved by TV reports of looting and sniping in New Orleans, some homeowners near the Astrodome hired security guards. In Baton Rouge, the display cases for guns at the Wal-Mart in the Cortana Mall have been empty since Thursday. Sales clerk Damon Cephas, 23, says buyers made a run on the weapons as evacuees began making the 80-mile trip from New Orleans. Wal-Mart stores have since stopped selling guns.
“People act like they are in fear of their lives,” Cephas said. “I think all of that (violence) was being done by a small number of bad people. Not everybody from New Orleans is like that, but all the people saw was the bad stuff.”
No racial violence has been reported in any city, but that remains a potential problem, says Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor of social welfare at UCLA.
If the government doesn’t allocate low-income, black evacuees to cities with federally backed plans for housing and other services, “I don’t think they’re going to be absorbed seamlessly into the fabric of American life,” Leap says. “Whether it’s something as mundane as parking places or seats on a bus in public transportation, competitive pressure on resources will bounce into issues of money and color.”
Leap says evacuees are apt to be psychologically battered by “very nearly the same postwar pattern” she discovered in the 1990s in interviewing refugees in Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia. They’ll pass through successive stages of “protest, despair and detachment,” she says.
If HUD has its way, poorer New Orleans residents who were bused to shelters in Texas will be relocated to every U.S. region. The new quarters may be on military bases or in old hospitals, university dorms, nursing homes, schools and public housing.
Detroit’s Kilpatrick says his city will work with HUD to place evacuees in permanent subsidized housing, getting them out of the rooms that about 60 area hotels are opening for them. “I want them to really be a part of our community,” he says. “I’d say 90% will stay.”