Clarification to This Article
A Sept. 2 article describing the huge number of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina should have included a comparison with the 1927 flooding of the southern Mississippi River, which drove 325,000 to Red Cross shelters and may have uprooted as many as 700,000 altogether. This is the closest parallel to Katrina's impact.
The Refugees

Displacement Of Historic Proportions

Thousands gather at a evacuation staging area along Interstate 10 in Metairie, La. Katrina has uprooted more than half a million people.
Thousands gather at a evacuation staging area along Interstate 10 in Metairie, La. Katrina has uprooted more than half a million people. (By Dave Martin -- Associated Press)
By David Von Drehle and Jacqueline Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005

The largest displacement of Americans since the Civil War reverberated across the country from its starting point in New Orleans yesterday, as more than half a million people uprooted by Hurricane Katrina sought shelter, sustenance and the semblance of new lives.

Storm refugees overwhelmed the state of Louisiana and poured into cities from coast to coast, crowding sports arenas, convention centers, schools, churches and the homes of friends, relatives and even strangers. Red Cross officials reported that every shelter in a seven-state region was already full -- 76,000 people in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Hundreds of miles from New Orleans, hotels were jammed or quickly filling.

Rich and poor alike, they found themselves starting over. The former began buying new houses and leasing new office space. The latter waited in lines for a bar of soap or a peanut butter sandwich.

Katrina has scattered more than twice as many people as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and unmoored more people in a few days than fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Estimating from census data, about 150,000 of the displaced lived below the poverty line even before they lost everything. Far more than 50,000 of them are past retirement age.

Cities and hamlets, charities and individuals stepped up to help. In Washington, District officials made plans to open a shelter in the D.C. Armory, and 415 retired veterans were moved from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., to a similar facility here.

"The biggest issue we're faced with is handling the volume of people," said Margaret O'Brien Molina, a spokesman for the Southwest region of the American Red Cross. "Just identifying their needs is so complex."

In Baton Rouge and other Louisiana cities, the influx was dangerously straining services, officials warned. Armed guards were stationed at food distribution sites, and Baton Rouge police chief Jeff LeDuff said the city's hospitals might have to be barricaded to prevent desperate storm victims from continuing to swamp emergency rooms. The city's sanitation system is overloaded, garbage collection has soared, gasoline is scarce.

"Instead of water flooding in, we've got people flooding in," said Mike Walker of the East Baton Rouge Parish Council. "The levee of people broke."

Where to go? What to do? They needed food, water, medicine, beds, showers, toilets, clothing, jobs, schools, friends, diversions. Where to begin?

For many of the impoverished refugees from the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the first step into the future led to a strip mall near the Astrodome, which transformed into a bazaar of free ham sandwiches, water, diapers, baby formula and other supplies brought by volunteers.

Gaynell Warden, 46, stood in her pajamas, 350 miles from home -- make that former home. For now and the knowable future, she lives in a new town of 25,000 made up of cots in an old stadium. "My son is missing. I don't know if he's dead or alive," she said.

Allen Porter, 18, sat in a hotel lobby in Hot Springs, Ark., 530 miles from his former home. His parents were out looking for a condominium while their son tried to sort out the confused picture that had seemed so clear and glittering just days before. Senior year, top of his class at Jesuit High in New Orleans, Porter was a bit annoyed when his mother insisted on evacuating. He packed his iPod, "Wuthering Heights," and his applications to places such as Princeton, Yale and Virginia. Now his high school was reportedly under 13 feet of water, deep enough to drown his transcripts, and his khaki-clad buddies were scattered to the winds.

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