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
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.
Meanwhile, charities are groping through an emergency of a
long-lasting kind that they’ve never seen before. "We’re trained to
deal with major evacuations, but not with the thought that people might
never go home again," says Keith Berger, who oversees four shelters as
chairman of volunteers for San Antonio’s Red Cross chapter. "We’re
writing a brand-new book here."
The Red Cross is caring for 142,000 storm victims at 487 shelters in
at least 12 states. Many churches and other private groups are pitching
in to transport, house and feed evacuees.
This country hasn’t seen mass movements of refugees since
Southerners fled Civil War armies. The newly uprooted Americans find
themselves added to the 25 million people worldwide who, the United
Nations says, have at least temporarily lost their homes in
environmental disasters or wars.
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
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."
Houston authorities say there have been some vehicle burglaries and
a few intoxication arrests involving hurricane victims. But the new
arrivals are overwhelmingly law-abiding, no rowdier than the
out-of-towners at "a Super Bowl or an All-Star Game," assistant police
chief Brian Lumpkin says.
Still, police have stepped up patrols in surrounding neighborhoods.
To restrict evacuees from meandering outside the Astrodome and the
adjoining Reliant Arena and Reliant Center, officials are shoring up
perimeter fences. Authorities aren’t using the word "curfew," but
they’re telling the 23,600 people at the Astrodome complex to be inside
by 11 p.m. or they’ll be locked out for the night. On a more welcoming
note, shelter residents are getting invitations to the nearby Six Flags
amusement park, museums and malls.
Many Katrina evacuees are low-income African-Americans. New Orleans
was 67% black, and 35% of the city’s blacks were living below the
poverty line, U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2000 show. That raises a
potential for racial conflict. Leaders of the Congressional Black
Caucus last week advocated placing black families in cities with large
The impact spreads
The evacuees are making other kinds of substantial impact wherever they’ve landed: