Hundreds of thousands of people with no homes, no food, no jobs, no money – the reality is staggering. A mass exodus of refugees from Hurricane Katrina has left communities across the nation scrambling to find ways to care for the newly dispossessed.
The hurricane that drowned New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast will pose an unprecedented test for communities, churches and schools that will have to find the space and the dollars to cope with throngs often arriving on their doorsteps with little but the clothes on their backs.
Thousands of storm survivors have already found temporary homes: More than 15,000 people bused from Louisiana have packed into the Houston Astrodome. The city’s convention center and an exhibition hall are expected to house more.
More than 94,000 other hurricane refugees are living in 284 Red Cross shelters in nine states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Florida.
College dormitories, churches, schools and community centers have all been converted into shelters. Other hurricane refugees are holed up in hotels or bunking with families or friends.
“You could call it a mini-diaspora,” says Joanne Nigg, a sociology professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “The people in New Orleans, the people along the Gulf really had a culture. In many ways, they have been thrown out of the Garden of Eden, if you will. It’s a diaspora brought on for people with no resources.”
Nigg says shelter is just one of the problems for Katrina’s survivors. “The federal government must come in and provide funding for food, clothing and medical care in each place they’re going to,” she says.
The hurricane victims also will need money for day-to-day living.
“Most of these people don’t have jobs to go back to because New Orleans is gone,” Nigg says. “They’re going to have to come up with a system to get money coming in so they can maintain themselves.”
But financial pressures haven’t stopped an outpouring of invitations – everything from do-gooders posting offers of a spare room on Internet billboards to states putting out the welcome mat.
In Missouri, some universities announced tuition waivers for students from colleges closed because of the hurricane. Several towns began preparing community centers – and even one former jail complex – to welcome storm survivors if needed.
In Michigan, one state lawmaker plans to bring as many as 125 Louisiana flood victims to the state, where they can live temporarily in schools no longer in use.
In Iowa, the governor announced Friday that preparations have been made to help up to 5,000 hurricane refugees relocate there and said they’ll receive help in finding longer-term housing and jobs.
“At a time like this, it’s not about dollars and cents,” Gov. Tom Vilsack said. “It’s about protecting people. … It’s a matter of making people know they have a safe haven.”
And in Texas, which is expected to welcome at least 75,000 hurricane refugees, the governor declared an emergency disaster for the state, freeing up money to provide services for the needy. The state will open its schools and hospitals and offer low-income housing.
Even with a $10.5 billion disaster aid package passed by Congress, states and cities will feel the financial pinch of having thousands of new residents – especially smaller communities.
“How long are they expected to accommodate people? Many of them (the refugees) probably won’t have any home to go back to,” says Rutherford H. Platt, a geography professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and author of “Disasters and Democracy.”
“It’s almost mind-boggling how these people locally will handle it,” he adds. “Many will try hard – the churches, the schools, the Rotary groups. … But if these people feel this is going to be an open-ended commitment, they may be very leery of getting involved. There’s got to be some incentive beyond being good-spirited people.”
Still, many groups have already stepped forward.
At the Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven, Miss., about 250 refugees – the youngest just 6 days old – are getting meals, showers and a comfortable place to sleep, said Stephen White, the worship leader.
It’s mainly a volunteer effort, and church has been paying for it – up to $6,000 so far – though the Red Cross is expected to cover the costs.
The shelters are just the beginning of a long ordeal for Katrina’s refugees.
No one understands that better than people like Curt Ivy, city manager in Homestead, Fla., a town of 25,000 destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Ivy has watched the horrifying images of New Orleans with great empathy.
“God bless them,” he says. “I think that they’ve got a real job cut out for them.”