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1 Million People Can't Go Home for Months

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The vastness of the displacement created by Hurricane Katrina became more clear yesterday as officials struggled to respond to the needs of more than 1 million people who will be out of their Gulf Coast homes for months to come.

So many homeless people flocked to Texas in the past few days that Gov. Rick Perry (R) declared that his state was full and could take no more. Electronic highway signs in Houston directed bus drivers with evacuees to Fort Chaffee, Ark., but that facility quickly filled up as 9,000 people arrived within 16 hours Saturday. Arkansas officials asked for the signs to be removed.

With shelter space in the deep South filling up, the Federal Emergency Management Agency yesterday began to airlift storm survivors to states as far away as Michigan, Utah and California.

FEMA officials said they have secured as many as 50,000 shelter beds in often faraway states, but the flow of people to those states has sometimes been chaotic.

The office of Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) said, for instance, that FEMA officials told them that more than 1,000 people would be flown to Battle Creek by yesterday evening, but 140 arrived. The airlift of 400 Hurricane Katrina evacuees to the D.C. Armory was delayed indefinitely.

In all, FEMA officials said, more than a quarter million people are living in shelters set up by the American Red Cross, the National Guard, local churches and municipal officials in cities from Albuquerque to Memphis.

Most of the homeless are from Louisiana, where officials estimate about 1 million people evacuated before the hurricane, and another 100,000 were evacuated afterward.

FEMA officials said that about 50,000 people are in Louisiana shelters, but Brecke Latham, spokeswoman for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), said that virtually none of the 1 million evacuees have been able to return to their homes. Many are now living in hotels, with family or with friends, but officials said they are preparing for many of them to need help as their money, or their welcome, wears out.

In Mississippi, 15,000 people are in shelters and many more are unable to return home. An official in Gov. Haley Barbour's office said that "several hundred thousand" Mississippians are believed to have been displaced and are living elsewhere.

While FEMA and Red Cross officials praised the outpouring of help and offers of lodging from the states, some voiced concern that evacuees were being moved too far from their homes. Speaking at the Astrodome in Houston, Jesse L. Jackson said it will be a shock for many people to wake up in places like Salt Lake City or Minnesota. "It's a long way from home, from where they lived and acculturated," he said.

The Albuquerque Convention Center was one typical relocation site yesterday, and it received 100 people who had spent much of the past week in the Superdome. Carisa Malanum, sales director of SMG, the company that manages the center, said that 500 to 900 more evacuees are expected.

She said that the people can stay in the center indefinitely, but that officials hope to move them into more permanent lodgings within a few weeks. More than 500 Albuquerque area households have signed up to host a family, she said, and an additional 600 apartment units have been offered.

The new arrivals "seem to be doing fine," Malanum said. "We'll have people to help with psychological and emotional issues."

According to FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney, the agency has been involved in placing more than 229,000 people into shelters. Another 63,000 survivors have been evacuated with unknown destinations. He said a significant number of people in Louisiana and Mississippi are still living in shelters without electricity or running water, and that their relocation out of the area is a top priority. Almost 60 percent of Louisiana and 40 percent of Mississippi remain without power, he said.

Texas officials decided to stop accepting new evacuees after placing almost 130,000 in shelters and providing hotel or family lodging for 100,000 more.

"We are concerned about our capacity to meet this great human need as thousands more arrive by the day," Perry said. "We want to make certain every evacuee has a safe haven where they can receive medical care, water, food and other assistance."

Perry said that some evacuees will be moved to other facilities in Texas, while others will be flown out of state from Houston and Dallas. It was unclear how officials would decide which evacuees would be sent elsewhere, or how much choice they would have on where to go.

"So far, people just seem to be happy to have a place to stay and some food to eat," Kinerney said.

Staff writer Lisa Rein in Houston contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company