A planeload of hurricane survivors will arrive in the District today and take shelter at a transformed D.C. Armory, with many more still expected to arrive by bus, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams disclosed last night.
Amid rapid changes in the nation's plans for coping with the storm's aftermath, the airlift came at the request of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who has found his state overwhelmed by displaced Gulf Coast residents and who "has just asked that the District help out," said the mayor's spokesman, Vince Morris. Williams (D) said he expected about 400 people to arrive today.
The airlift, Morris said, would be in addition to the city's efforts to bring people here in the caravan of buses that left Friday for the storm-battered Gulf area.
"We are trying to be as accommodating as possible," he said.
Williams said last night at Metropolitan Baptist Church that the city ultimately could accept up to 1,000 evacuees. It was unclear when the others might arrive, but Morris said that "the first group will definitely go right to the armory."
That cavernous building was being transformed yesterday from a military drill space into an emergency shelter as dozens of volunteers set up cots, folded towels and carried crates of water.
The desire to help brought out secretaries, mothers, college students and even the famous: Washington Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas hand-delivered an $18,000 bounty of brand-name provisions he purchased at Costco.
It was also made clear yesterday that the armory is to serve as short-term shelter for many of those brought there, preparing them to move into the community and take advantage of services and opportunities offered by public and private entities.
Meanwhile, the 10 buses that the District sent to bring back displaced residents found no one waiting near New Orleans's convention center and too many buses crowding the airport, D.C. officials said. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials then dispatched the caravan to Baton Rouge, La., to pick up evacuees there.
Last night, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said last night that he expected the buses to remain in the Gulf area until they are filled with evacuees.
The outpouring of assistance and supplies at the armory was perhaps the most visible example of the generosity that has spread through the Washington region in the days after Hurricane Katrina, with churches and neighbors taking in relatives and offering their homes to strangers.
"This region has been amazing," Morris said last night, reeling off the many offers of help that have come in to city offices just yesterday.
A Catholic church in Rockville said yesterday that it would charter a bus to Houston, bring back 50 displaced people and house them in parishioners' homes for as long as a year. Great Falls neighbors used their community listserv to help load a truck with diapers, hand wipes, flashlights and can openers, items that rescue workers have requested. Howard University, in addition to opening classes to displaced students, said yesterday that it will offer medical, legal and psychological services.
The armory's role as emergency shelter represented one more milestone in the history of the drill shed, which over the years has hosted sports events, circuses and speeches beneath its barrel-vaulted roof. City officials said the shelter would remain open as long as needed, perhaps 90 days.
"These are not refugees," Williams said while inspecting the armory preparations during the day. "These are Americans, and they need our help."
At the scene yesterday, beeping trucks delivered boxes of toilet paper while an American Red Cross worker barked directions over a megaphone. City employees wheeled in hundreds of folding chairs, and phone technicians set up a bank of 30 pay phones that will be toll free for the storm survivors.
In addition to sleeping quarters, the evacuees will find that the 64,000-square-foot space features a feeding station for meals and an area away from their cots for children to play and adults to gather. Portable showers and restrooms are available, and two rows of thin, white curtains separate the three sleeping quarters for women, men and families.
"We are putting together a mini city," said Brian B. Hubbard, director of operations for the city's Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the effort. "We want to make these people feel like guests of the District of Columbia."
City officials said they no longer need contributions of goods and directed those wanting to help to the mayor's citywide call center at 202-727-1000.
The American Red Cross of the National Capital Area will manage the shelter, at 2001 E. Capitol St. SE near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Public access will be limited for privacy and security reasons once the evacuees arrive, but relatives searching for loved ones may call the Red Cross Family Link service, a database of people staying at Red Cross shelters, at 1-877-LOVED-1S or go to www.redcross.org.
Each family and individual will be assigned a Red Cross caseworker to provide assistance, with the goal of moving them out of the temporary shelter, said Linda C. Mathes, chief executive of the Red Cross of the National Capital Area.
"No one wants to live in a shelter very long," she said. "The goal is to integrate and rebuild their lives."
So many volunteers showed up at the armory yesterday that by the afternoon, some were being turned away.
Carol Rubin, 52, of Chevy Chase came with husband Ken, 53, and son Michael, 17. She had donated to relief efforts this week, but that didn't feel like enough, she said. Seeing the storm's damage touched her so deeply that she thought, perhaps, that she should deprive herself of the comforts she takes for granted, such as driving in her car with air conditioning.
But when the Rubins arrived, they were told that only volunteers with disaster training were being accepted. Unbowed, the family is considering taking in a storm survivor.
"I knew I would feel not quite so helpless if I am able to assist in any way at all," Carol Rubin said.
Barbara Geiger, 43, refused to leave the armory yesterday after she arrived at 8 a.m. from her Woodbridge home and was told that her services weren't needed. She waited and waited until 1 p.m., when she and other volunteers finally were let inside. She took her place among the strangers who worked to assemble cots and fluff pillows.
After the main hall was set up, Geiger said she planned to return for as long as she could to talk to families and try to make them feel less alone.
"They need people to hold their hand, to play with their children. You've got to make them feel human," she said.
Staff writers Nancy Trejos and Martin Weil contributed to this report.
Verizon employee Trevor Brooks of Fort Washington helps set up phone service in the D.C. Armory's main hall. A bank of 30 pay phones will be toll free.Red Cross volunteers Christine Albert, left, and Melissa de Beer, both of the District, post a sign for the shelter's expected residents on the front door.