Community continues reaching out to evacuees|[9/27/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A month after Hurricane Katrina, the sheltering of those displaced by the storm continues.

“It’s just really begun,” said the Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya of Christ Episcopal Church, who helped organize what has become known as the Hurricane Katrina Community Transition Team of the Vicksburg Faith Community.

The team’s first base was in the Vicksburg Convention Center where American Red Cross shelter operations were centered until it closed as a shelter Friday. On Monday, a base was being established at Living Word Baptist Church, 260 Mississippi 27.

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During the first two or three days after the storm the number of those taking shelter here reportedly peaked at about 1,100. That count remained above about 500 for about two weeks following the storm and then began dropping rapidly.

The number of evacuees staying in Vicksburg hotel rooms peaked at nearly 550 but has since dropped to below 200, said the president of the Vicksburg chapter of the Mississippi Hotel and Lodging Association. Those who moved out were generally going one of three places, Tim Darden said.

“A lot elected to move in with family members,” Darden said. “Some were going back (home) and some were moving into permanent residences here.”

Wind or water from the storm destroyed or heavily damaged so many evacuees’ homes that many continue to await decisions from local authorities in their home areas or insurance companies on whether they will be able to return.

“The hurricane has put people in a position where they have no control over what their tomorrow is,” said Joseph Simmons of New Orleans, who evacuated to Vicksburg with his wife, Dell. The Simmonses’said their two homes in New Orleans were flooded. They evacuated to Vicksburg, rented a room at the Dixiana Motel, 4041 Washington St., and were biding their time while waiting for word from Joseph’s employer, Entergy, on when it would provide its displaced employees temporary housing so they could return to work, he said.

Hurricane Rita, rain from which caused levees broken during Katrina to re-flood New Orleans Friday morning, may have delayed the Simmonses’ plans.

“We’ve got to recognize that because of the re-flooding of New Orleans Katrina evacuees’ needs will continue for quite some time,” said Petesy Smith, who coordinated logistics for the Red Cross shelter operation at the convention center.

Joseph Simmons is among those who still have a job to return to, but even most of those who don’t still want to go home, said the Rev. Barbara Hite of the United Methodist Churches of Redwood and Eagle Lake.

“Most of these people that we’ve talked to harbor the hope to go home,” Hite said of the transition team, adding that team members were trying to help get the evacuees into more-permanent situations with jobs and housing, here or elsewhere if they would go.

“We’ve given out several bus tickets and money for people to drive to Columbia, S.C., Dallas, other states,” Hite said of other communities where people have offered to sponsor evacuee families. Still other sponsorship offers had been received from elsewhere in the country, but “we can’t find people willing to go to those places,” Hite said.

The owner of employment agency Staffing Solutions Ltd., 2566 S. Frontage Road, and the president of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, Mike Smith, said his company had received about 20 applications from evacuees who were looking for work here – from professional or semi-professional jobs to unskilled laborers. Most evacuees he spoke with were taking a wait-and-see attitude toward beginning new jobs here because they were trying to “first, take care of what’s left,” Smith said.

“It’s going to vary because it depends on being able to close out” insurance and cleanup at home, Smith said of the demand for jobs here.

Since most of the evacuees have no ties to the Vicksburg area even many of those who plan to resettle are casting their job-search nets over wide areas, Smith said. He cited as an example one man who accepted a job in Tunica before he could consider a Vicksburg offer that came within a few days.

“I had him an opportunity but couldn’t get him still long enough” to consider taking it, Smith said of the man.

And evacuees in industries like construction know “so much is going to be happening” on the coast that they are not interested in starting jobs here, Smith added.

Hite said she was “amazed and impressed with the ingenuity and aggressiveness of some of these people who have gone out and found jobs.”

That evacuees were choosing to settle where they found jobs was also reflected in school enrollment numbers as they continued to fluctuate here. The number of evacuee children in the Vicksburg Warren School District peaked at about 280 but since has dropped as low as about 246, said Debra Hullum of the district administrative office.

Monday’s total was 252, reflecting a net drop of seven from Friday but including the additions of seven students whose evacuee parents had just moved from Brandon and three from Clinton for job opportunities here, Hullum said.

Hotel space was believed to have remained practically full here and in Jackson late last week as Rita evacuees searched for rooms, said manager Velda Buchanan of the Best Western Inn of Vicksburg, 2445 N. Frontage Road.

“Most have children and are looking for a larger place,” Buchanan said of the evacuee families who remained in the hotel.

About 350 of the evacuee hotel rooms were being billed to the American Red Cross, which extended until early- to mid-October its offer to pay for hotel space for evacuees.

Many were searching for apartments but the local apartment market was also believed to be practically saturated, manager Kelly Copes of The Crossings, 2160 S. Frontage Road, said.

“We’ve definitely been extremely busy this week,” said Copes, whose complex has 144 units, including two-bedroom apartments renting for $749 a month.

Also contributing to the increase in demand for apartments were local residents whose homes had been damaged by trees that fell due to Katrina’s winds, Copes said.

Apartments in a downtown landmark that had units unprepared for residents were rushed into service for evacuees. Mike Davis, owner of The Vicksburg, 801 Clay St., said units there were furnished using furniture loaned from sources including donations from other building residents, items he bought from pawn shops the week after the storm and furniture he borrowed from his office to accommodate evacuees.

“Everybody got going and brought in what they could,” said Davis, adding that 11 of the building’s apartments have been furnished and are being rented by evacuees. Some of them were among 30 people plus dogs of theirs who took shelter in the building’s apartments on his invitation to the Mississippi Welcome Center the two nights surrounding Katrina’s landfall, Davis said.

And homes to buy here were also becoming scarce with evacuees purchasing or preparing to purchase them, said loan officer Barbara Walker of Regions Mortgage, 2566 S. Frontage Road. Walker said her business is up about 20 to 30 percent since Katrina hit, mainly with evacuees seeking pre-approval for home mortgages.

Walker said she’s working weekends for the first time in about two years to keep up with the demand for pre-approvals but she’s not sure whether those approved will be able to find homes in Vicksburg they can afford.

“It’s kind of scary because we don’t have housing for all these people,” Walker said.

Many of those applying for the pre-approvals have been able to transfer their work locations to here with their employers and others working out of their homes, she said.

Public housing here has 430 homes and apartments and they were all full with a waiting list of nearly 1,200 before the storm hit, said Vicksburg Housing Authority Director Jim Stirgus Sr.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has encouraged all those displaced by hurricanes to register with it through its Web site or tele-registration system and has offered each household displaced by the storm $2,000 to help with essential expenses. At least three of those who evacuated here have taken advantage of that offer, having the amount electronically transferred to bank accounts, they said.

Further financial benefits may be available to those who need them, FEMA public-information officer Eugene Brezany said Monday by telephone from Jackson. No FEMA office is open in Warren County.

“We can continue to work with people and provide rental assistance for up to 18 months,” said Brezany, adding that the process requires those seeking such benefits to use the Internet or telephone to keep the agency informed of their status.

The pastor of Living Word Baptist Church, the Rev. Steve Duncan, said computers that would be offered to evacuees who may need to use the Internet were being set up at the transition team’s new headquarters at the church. He and Anaya said more sponsors from the community will likely be needed to help Katrina evacuees – especially those with special needs – as they continue with their transitions in their new surroundings.

Evacuees needing help or those interested in sponsoring an evacuee may call Living Word Baptist Church at 601-661-0680. Office hours are 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. and the line is connected to an answering service after hours.

“Our goal is to help you help yourself in starting a new opportunity in this phase of your life and with God’s help we will make it together,” a team release announcing the relocations of its headquarters says.