U.S. Delays Planned Airlift Of Evacuees to D.C. Armory

By Hamil R. Harris and Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The proposed airlift of 400 Hurricane Katrina evacuees to the D.C. Armory yesterday was temporarily delayed by federal officials who sought more time to develop a comprehensive national plan for placing victims across the country, authorities said.

"We temporarily paused some airlifts while we identified cities and states who were ready and willing to receive these evacuees," said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"It is very important that we have an organization in place so that there are city and state officials as well as nonprofit groups ready and willing to receive and care for these individuals," he said.

Knocke said evacuees could be airlifted to the Washington area as early as today.

The postponement frustrated some city officials who had stocked the cavernous D.C. Armory with supplies and hundreds of cots in anticipation of the arrival of evacuees. It also reflected confusion nationwide as federal officials contend with dwindling shelter space in the deep South and a mass movement of displaced people that has sometimes been chaotic.

"There are certain evacuees who have been rescued from their nightmarish scenarios, and they have been taken to certain airports where they are waiting for airlifts and people are able to receive them," Knocke said. "We are working more closely with state and local officials to develop a comprehensive plan while all the while airlifts from the New Orleans airport have continued."

The airlift delay came as District officials were waiting to learn whether the 10 buses they sent to New Orleans on Friday would bring back storm victims. The buses did not take on storm survivors in New Orleans and were rerouted to Baton Rouge and then to other cities. Along the way, survivors who had the chance to board buses reportedly declined. Additionally, city officials confirmed that two bus drivers left the convoy yesterday.

But D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who proposed that the District assist storm victims, said yesterday that the buses had completed part of their mission by delivering food and water, while medical personnel on board treated storm victims in shelters.

Catania said he was disappointed that storm evacuees had not arrived in the District but was confident that they would.

"This is an exercise that requires flexibility and patience," Catania said. "In the next couple of days, we'll have evacuees in Washington. We'll still have them."

On Sunday night, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) arranged with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) to house hurricane evacuees after an Arkansas military base received 9,000 evacuees, twice as many as it had prepared for. Yesterday, the state was sending many of the evacuees at Fort Chaffee to summer church camps that had been empty.

Catania said Barbara Childs-Pair, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, spent the day on the phone with federal officials trying to learn the status of the evacuees. City officials had expected them to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday. Officials at the base told The Post that they had no knowledge of a flight.

"The federal coordination of this disaster is certainly lacking," Catania said. But he added that the additional time would give city officials and nonprofit groups more time to prepare the D.C. Armory. An industrial-size air conditioner is scheduled to arrive today, Catania said.

Meanwhile, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who said she sought a reason for the airlift delay, said she was told that federal officials needed time to start a tracking system to determine the identity of each person taken to a temporary shelter.

She said she was appalled to learn that such a concern could have delayed evacuees' arrival here.

"These evacuees have been waiting to go someplace now for three or four days," Norton said. "If they are just setting up a tracking system four or five days after the disaster, they've added insult to outrage. The only question ought to be is, 'Do you want to go to x?' "

At the armory, where preparations continued throughout the day, volunteers arriving in the late afternoon learned from the American Red Cross, which will manage the shelter, that the evacuees would not arrive as planned.

Gwen Rogers, 36, of Alexandria was hoping to donate two boxes of her daughter Cheyanne's baby clothes and toys, and lend a helping hand.

"I'll be back," Rogers said after signing up on the volunteer sheet.

City officials announced yesterday that they would seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for providing aid. Williams planned to send a letter to the agency requesting reimbursement for costs that the city estimates could run as much as $6 million.

FEMA spokesman Mike Howard said yesterday that 14 states had been approved for federal disaster relief aid and that the agency was considering applications at 100 percent reimbursement.

Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company