First they had to ride out a howling storm. Then find shelter. Then food and water. Now, the thousands of families driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina face the daunting challenge of applying for financial assistance under a dizzying mix of government programs.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the storm wiped out about as many as 400,000 jobs in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, prompting a surge in new claims for unemployment insurance benefits.
Many of the affected workers and their families are also newly eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, subsidized school lunches, emergency cash assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other programs. But many have never received such benefits and will have to navigate through multiple government agencies to find out if they qualify and how to apply.
"The baffling problem is that each of these programs is its own bureaucracy," said Sheila R. Zedlewski, director of Income and Benefits Policy at the Urban Institute. Many poor people who are eligible for these benefits "don't apply because the process is so cumbersome and the system is so difficult to understand."
And that's in normal times -- without a hurricane that has closed many government offices and downed telephone lines in hard-hit areas.
Shelleand Terry, 48, said she and her daughter Erica, 25, had both tried for two weeks to apply for unemployment insurance benefits but were frustrated by long lines and busy signals. They got through by telephone Sunday but were told they still had to drive about an hour from Napoleonville, La., to the Baton Rouge office to activate their benefits in person.
"We are spending all our money on gas, and we still haven't received any benefits," Shelleand Terry said. "This is so frustrating and hard."
Efforts are being made to streamline the process for Katrina survivors. The Red Cross and AFL-CIO have set up emergency centers where evacuees can use computers and telephones and receive guidance on how to apply for various programs. And because many families lost financial records in the storm, several state social-service agencies are asking claimants for documents "if possible" to prove they are eligible for programs.
Due to their evacuee status, people who fled their home states because of Katrina can apply for all federal benefits without having to produce the usual records proving eligibility, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Progress is occurring gradually. Take jobless claims, for example. Last week, the U.S. Labor Department estimated that only 10,000 hurricane survivors had filed new claims for unemployment insurance benefits. By today, more than 200,000 new claims had been filed by residents of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, according to the labor agencies in those states.
In Louisiana and Mississippi, state employees are seeking out workers in their homes and in shelters to help them fill out jobless claims by hand.
"We've gone to virtually every shelter in the state," said Ed Pratt, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Labor.
In Louisiana, union members are "knocking on the doors of residents to reach out to workers about how to register" for the range of available benefits, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in an interview Tuesday.
Adding to the complications, tens of thousands of evacuees are scattered across the country, living with relatives, in church shelters or in facilities such as the Houston Astrodome and the D.C. Armory.
Texas Workforce Commission employees are taking claims from Louisiana evacuees living at the Astrodome. And more than 60,000 displaced Louisiana residents have filed from out of state by telephone or online, Pratt said.
Meanwhile, other unemployed gulf state workers will have to be persistent to file a claim. B.J. Fink, 26, of New Orleans, said he and his girlfriend first tried to apply for unemployment benefits three days after the hurricane hit. They waited in line for more than three hours. When the two finally made it inside to see a counselor, the overworked office computer crashed. They returned today to try to complete their applications. "They got lost in the process, I guess," he said.
Many displaced residents will find that their benefits don't buy as much in the higher-cost communities where they've settled, from California to the Washington area.
"It's hard to imagine how they are going to make ends meet in the cities where they have landed," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on labor issues.
Wherever evacuees have arrived, their unemployment benefit will be based on their previous earnings in the state they've left behind. The amounts are determined by the states according to different income-based formulas and carry maximum amounts; the national average for this cap is $377.18 per week.
Mississippi's maximum unemployment benefit, at $210 per week, is the lowest in the country, according to Department of Labor figures. Alabama's maximum, at $220 per week, is the second lowest. Louisiana's limit, at $258 a week, is the sixth lowest.
Meanwhile, a family of two adults and two children normally needs $715 a week to cover the basic cost of living in Baton Rouge, according to EPI. But many evacuees have moved to areas with much higher living costs. A family of four needs $756 per week to cover living expenses in Houston; that same family needs $1,182 a week to live in the Washington area, according to EPI. The national median cost of living is $769 per week.
Some of the evacuees are going to find jobs in their new communities, many of which will pay higher wages, reflecting the steeper cost of living, Bernstein said. "The people you need to worry about are those who are unemployed in the city where they've landed, trying to get by in a northern city on unemployment benefits from a southern state."
Other benefits are available. FEMA, for example, is offering a lump sum of $2,000 per household in cash assistance. Food-stamp benefits vary slightly by state, due to differences in eligibility rules; the average monthly benefit per person last year was $85.85 in Alabama, $89.03 in Louisiana, and $79.81 in Mississippi.
Other health, housing and welfare programs are funded by the federal government but administered by the states, with benefits reflecting diverse eligibility and participation rules.
The first Louisiana claimants should start receiving their unemployment benefits late this week or early next week, Pratt said.
While the hurricane victims grow frustrated with the application process, the extra efforts being made on their behalf are stirring resentment among some state residents who lost their jobs before the storm. Nataisha Phifer, 34, of north Baton Rouge, hasn't worked since June, when she lost her job as a saleswoman at Dillard's department store. Phifer says that now she has to stand in longer lines and compete for jobs with those who have been displaced by the hurricane.
"I'm very compassionate, and I understand what they're going through," Phifer said. "But it's frustrating. It seems we've been pushed to the back of the line behind them."
Jerry Lee of Gentilly Woods in Orleans Parish waits for his wife as she files for unemployment benefits in Baton Rouge, La. She had worked at Charity Hospital of Louisiana in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Derrick Thomas, foreground, of Port Allen, La., and Kyle Julian, center, check for jobs at a career center in Baton Rouge. Both men lost their jobs after Hurricane Katrina and its associated flooding hit the Gulf Coast.