5 years after Katrina: Md. company helped some families back to their feet

Maryland family was among several displaced by Hurricane Katrina that were helped by Montgomery County publisher.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When Lydia Thompson first met Nancy Becker five years ago at the D.C. Armory, she didn't believe a word Becker said.

Thompson, a New Orleans high school teacher, and her four children were among the 250 families that had sought shelter at the armory after Hurricane Katrina. In the preceding weeks, she had seen floodwaters obliterate her neighborhood, stood in line for hours to get a few gallons of gasoline and drinkable water, and searched for a hospital that could provide her father with dialysis. An uncle from Maryland finally rescued them after a car accident sidelined them in Mississippi.

That day at the armory, Thompson, 37, had just gotten back after picking up her children from school to learn that she had missed the last bus of the day that was taking families apartment hunting.

Becker, a partner at United Communications Group, a business publisher now based in Gaithersburg, had gone to the armory with a couple of colleagues, looking to help families displaced by the storm. When she assured Thompson that they would get her back on her feet, Thompson wrote them off as well-meaning people who were unlikely to follow through. She had seen one family volunteer to take in a sick man and then take him back the next day because he was more than they could handle.

"I felt cheap and horrible," Thompson said. "A person who has a little pride in yourself doesn't want to be adopted like an animal. I said, 'He is not a dog. You can't just bring him back!' "

The next day, Becker showed Thompson an apartment in Hyattsville and arranged to have a furniture store deliver beds the following day.

Thompson started to cry.

Over the next 10 months, UCG paid Thompson's rent and utilities. It also put up eight other families, some for a few months, some for a year. The firm, which publishes industry-targeted publications such as Funeral Service Insider, paid to fly one family, the Standers of St. Bernard Parish, up from Houston, where they had become stranded in the Astrodome. When members of a third family, the Penningtons, decided they didn't want to stay in Washington, UCG paid its car service $900 to take them to Kentucky, where they had relatives.

UCG had been involved in good works before, but nothing on this scale. Founded in 1977 by Bruce Levenson and Ed Peskowitz, now part owners of the Atlanta Hawks, the company has supported programs for at-risk boys, orphans in Afghanistan and collections for needy families. When Katrina hit, a team of about 10 employees led by Becker spent a few weeks working through government agencies and charities to get access to families displaced by the storm.

They focused on families that had dependents and no place to live other than a shelter. The head of the household could not be employed or have non-emergency benefits but had to be employable and pass a criminal background check. The company was not equipped to address the challenges faced by people who, for example, had been unemployed for years before the storm.

"We're a business. We didn't want to become a social services agency for them," Becker said.

The money came from a foundation funded by UCG and its 1,300 employees around the country. The company spent $80,000 on the entire effort.

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