By Theola S. Labbe and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
He was the first person to step inside the D.C. Armory yesterday, the tall elderly man who carried all his belongings in a plastic grocery bag and walked with a slight limp. Behind him was a woman in a plaid dress who pushed a walker, a girl with a pink barrette in her hair and a small boy in a lime-green T-shirt who was scooped up into a hug by a D.C. official.
One by one, the New Orleans survivors of Hurricane Katrina arrived in Washington yesterday, welcomed with smiles and applause from emergency workers and District leaders. Some came on stretchers or makeshift wheelchairs. Others could move on their own but looked tired and dazed.
Along with the clothes on their backs and the scraps of their lives stuffed into trash bags, the evacuees brought tales of fear and survival -- and were grateful to finally be able to call someplace home.
"I feel very warm," said Jameila Anderson, 19, until last week a sophomore at Dillard University in New Orleans, who arrived at the shelter with her boyfriend and his mother. "I feel relieved. I feel like everything is going to be all right."
A total of 295 evacuees were flown from New Orleans to Dulles International Airport on two commercial aircraft, and more may arrive here over the next several days. They were taken to the armory on Metrobuses and fed a hearty lunch of meatballs, egg noodles and mixed vegetables with a garden salad.
Workers with the American Red Cross, which is managing the shelter, planned to issue identification cards and assess whether evacuees needed such services as medical treatment, mental health counseling, job referrals or help with school enrollment. They will be able to stay at the armory 30 days, perhaps longer.
"This is Step 1. They're here," said Linda Cropp, chairman of the D.C. Council, who stood with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other city officials shortly before the evacuees arrived. "We now must get them involved in our community."
Although District officials initially had planned to receive a group of hurricane survivors being housed in Arkansas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday night instead arranged the airlift from the New Orleans airport.
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, who met the first plane at Dulles, said that although many people were relieved to reach a well-equipped shelter, others were astonished and dismayed to find themselves in the nation's capital, "thousands of miles from home."
"People were real irritated. 'Why am I in Washington when I wanted to go to Texas?' I heard that on two or three occasions," Bobb said. "No one told them where they were going until they got on the plane."
Three people arrived at the armory only to demand a ride back to the airport so they could travel at their own expense to Texas, Bobb said. Another man asked to go to Alabama.
Other jurisdictions in the region also were making plans to put up evacuees in shelters if needed.
"We will treat them like we treat our sisters and brothers," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) by his side, at a news conference where government and religious leaders pledged help.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said the state has identified temporary living facilities for at least 3,000 evacuees. He said that as many as 1,000 will be housed at Fort Pickett, an Army National Guard facility in central Virginia, and others in 4-H centers run by the state or in private homes identified by churches and synagogues.
During health screenings of the evacuees who arrived in the District, some were suffering from diarrhea and dehydration, but most were in good physical condition, said D.C. Department of Health Director Gregg A. Pane. Sixteen people were taken to a hospital for immediate treatment, he said.
Outside the Stadium-Armory Metro station, a group of people stood in front of the iron fence and waited as evacuees periodically came to talk with them.
"We slept on the roof for three days. We were lucky we had a two-story house," said Cleo Breland, 48, who used to help shampoo hair in New Orleans. "Man, I don't have no ID on me, no nothing."
A rescue boat left him on a highway, he slept on a funeral home floor and then was told to go to the New Orleans convention center.
Now, he said, everybody wanted to help, wanted to treat the evacuees "like movie stars."
"It was weird," he said.
John Vaughn, 42, a New Orleans restaurant worker who was rescued two days ago, flew to Washington with his sister and her three teenage sons. He said he has no money and needs to find work quickly.
Gary Graham, 49, a hospital pharmacist, said he stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane because he was classified as an essential worker. When his house became uninhabitable, he moved into his truck and ate canned food until he was rescued Thursday.
He ended up in the vast sea of humanity at the New Orleans airport and said he was unaware he was coming to Washington until he asked a flight attendant.
Many of the area residents outside the armory hoped to help.
Geraldine Pritchett, president of Labor of Love Homeless Institute in Fairfax County, was offering donations from Costco and Giant in Northern Virginia. "We've got diapers, baby food, children's books and toys," she said, "and we hope to help get people into homes."
Donna Coates, a D.C. resident, wanted to contribute clothing. Elsa Malloy, of Maryland, wanted to help organize apartments. And Meshelle Carter, of Northeast Washington, wanted all 295 evacuees to come to a welcome picnic" at her house Saturday.
Carter, a security officer, said she knew what it meant not to have. "My heart just went out" to the evacuees, she said.
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Lonnae O'Neal Parker, Mary Otto, Sudarsan Raghavan, Michael D. Shear, John Wagner, Eric M. Weiss and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.