As Hurricane Katrina roared toward the Gulf Coast on Aug. 28, Linda Zech Jones put her three boys, the German shepherd, clothes for three days, dog food and a box of important papers into the car and hit the road. She was headed west out of New Orleans.
Three hours later, at 7:30 a.m., in a massive traffic jam, she had gone one mile. Jones turned around and headed east, driving nine hours to stay with friends in Alabama.
Her husband, Bruce Jones, is a Coast Guard captain and commander of the service's air station in New Orleans. He remained in New Orleans, helping batten down the station before flying out with other pilots to Lake Charles, La., and Houston to wait for Katrina, which swirled ashore Aug. 29.
Three days later, Linda Jones and her children left Alabama to stay with her sister in Indiana, then moved again to settle in Traverse City, Mich., where the family previously lived, for the school year. Jones calls her family "most fortunate. Bruce has a job. We are safe. That's about as good as it gets."
The Joneses are among thousands of federal families who have had their lives disrupted by the hurricane. Many of the families in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast lost their homes and belongings, and some government employees are still missing more than a week after Katrina.
The U.S. Postal Service, for example, said yesterday that 2,000 of 6,000 employees in areas ravaged by Katrina have not been heard from, perhaps because they are without telephone service. Thomas G. Day, a senior vice president for the Postal Service, urged employees to call as soon as possible. "We want to know that you are alive and okay," he said.
Despite worries over missing employees and destroyed or damaged buildings, federal workers in the Gulf Coast area have continued to provide services and maintain operations as best they can.
Day said the Postal Service began diverting mail from the hurricane zone Aug. 26 in an effort to minimize loss and, in New Orleans, moved mail to the upper floors of post offices to avoid flood damage. The agency has set up temporary post offices and pickup points for people who need their Social Security checks.
Prior to Katrina's strike on the Gulf Coast, the Veterans Affairs Department evacuated about 140 patients from its hospitals in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. When the levees broke in New Orleans, the department evacuated more than 750 people from its medical center in the city -- 252 patients were flown out, and about 500 employees and family members were taken out by bus.
VA spokesman Phil Budahn said about 1,600 VA employees have volunteered for deployment to the disaster area, including 340 medical personnel.
Kimberly Pyle, a congressional communications manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, said FAA employees camped out at airports so they could provide air traffic control service to relief flights and worked extra hours to repair airports and equipment. "Without them, there would have been no evacuation flights," she wrote in an e-mail.
Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, had 379 employees in the Gulf Coast region and 291 were listed as displaced employees Tuesday, CBP spokeswoman Kristi Clemens said.
More than 600 CBP personnel are in the region providing recovery and law enforcement services, with operations coordinated from a command center in Hammond, La. Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said hundreds of CBP employees have volunteered for Katrina duty -- more than the agency can deploy, she noted.
Bruce Jones, the Coast Guard air station commander in New Orleans, said his station had helicopters flying over the city about two hours after the hurricane hit. By his count, the Coast Guard has saved 6,468 lives over the last seven days.
He and his wife grew up in the Fort Hunt area, south of Alexandria, and started dating when they were in college (Bruce at Washington & Lee and Linda at James Madison). Since Katrina hit, they have talked "very briefly" three times, Linda Jones said.
Bruce Jones said yesterday that his next goal is to give Coast Guard pilots and employees some time off to deal with family issues -- some employees are single parents -- and prepare insurance claims. "Many of our people have lost their homes," he said.
"We will be staying here and working here for the next year," Jones said, "but our spouses and children are in other places."