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Storm's refugees adjust to life in terrible limbo
Knight Ridder Newspapers
PENSACOLA, Fla. — Earl Clark spent yesterday afternoon trying to start a new life in a strange city that was never supposed to become home.
Twenty years of waiting tables — in the French Quarter, no less — should be worth something, he guessed, and so he began applying to restaurants in Pensacola as his son, Earl Jr., approached the post office to see if it had work.
Clark had fled New Orleans grudgingly but with little regret, so confident was he of coming back. But like tens of thousands of fellow evacuees from the drowned city, Clark has been forced to face a harrowing reality: He is no longer an evacuee but a refugee, and there is no home to return to anymore.
"There's nothing to go back to, we'll go back to visit, see if there's something to salvage," said Clark, 45. "It hit me yesterday. We're going to have to relocate. Where? We'll see who gets a job first."
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Thousands of hurricane evacuees from New Orleans and coastal Alabama and Mississippi flooded Pensacola, just east of the Alabama state line, draining its gas stations and filling its hotels, savoring the air conditioning as they await news from home or calls from missing relatives.
Most arrived with overnight bags, figuring they could go back in a few days or a week or so, tops. But those who lived in now-ruined neighborhoods along Mississippi's coast and New Orleans are living in a terrible limbo. Not everyone has resigned themselves, the way Clark has, to not going back, yet hundreds don't know how to proceed.
More than 100,000 people are living in makeshift shelters along the Gulf Coast and must be moved to semipermanent housing as quickly as possible, experts said, to limit the violence, crime and psychological trauma that accompany such groups living among strangers.
More than a million more have fled their homes in the hurricane-ravaged region, according to government estimates, and are seeking refuge with relatives or in hotels. That makes it hard to assess the housing need or to locate those deserving of disaster relief.
Experts are used to tackling this kind of problem in war zones or Third World countries. That these refugees are Americans — even the poorest of whom are used to certain standards of living — complicates the matter enormously.
"We like our air conditioning; we like clean water; we like more sanitary situations," said James Schwab, senior research associate at the American Planning Association, an association for urban planners. "It's awful hard to have patience when somebody else has the bag of ice at the other side of the tent."
Though the cost would be "astronomical," the federal government is considering providing housing assistance to all displaced Gulf Coast residents, regardless of income, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson said.
An "overwhelming" response from private and government officials as far away as Philadelphia and Detroit is expected to open up new housing as early as the middle of next week. The housing would be available for up to a year, Jackson said.
Some refugees such as Yvette and Ronnie Monk, of Ocean Springs, Miss., don't have enough money to stay another night in a hotel and can't find the gas to get back to their heavily damaged — but not ruined — home. The Monks fled with their children, Destiny, 7, and Brandon, 18, but couldn't go to shelters because they brought along their two Pomeranians.
They can't afford another night in at the Howard Johnson just east of Pensacola, which averages $80 a night. Lines at gas stations last hours, and most other pumps are empty, their handles wrapped in plastic bags.
"We're maxed out, we live week to week," said Ronnie Monk, 62, as he sweated in Pensacola's 97-degree heat. "At least we've got our lives, but now we have no choice. We have to try to find gas and get home, even though people's houses are down all around us and we have no water or lights."
Clark, the New Orleans waiter, is taking shelter at the Pensacola Civic Center, which is housing about 250 hurricane victims, most from the ravaged cities Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans. The evacuees fled east ahead of Hurricane Katrina only to discover Pensacola's hotels full or shuttered from Hurricane Ivan, which struck last fall. Highway signs and hotel clerks directed them to the shelter.
The shelter's coordinator, Jo Dee Cattrell of the American Red Cross, expected the influx and said people in Pensacola felt indebted to help neighboring states, which flooded the area with supplies and manpower after Ivan struck.
But as the magnitude of New Orleans' catastrophe became known, Cattrell realized many evacuees no longer needed food or clothes, which arrived by the truckload, but instead needed work.
She put out sheets for evacuees to list their names and trades.
For those who stay, Florida's schools are opening to out-of-state children, and at least 200 will enroll in the Panhandle area.
Paul Reed, 26, is using the shelter as a staging ground to plan the next phase of his life. He worked as an assistant manager at a hotel on New Orleans' Bourbon Street and left the city with eight other family members, including his children, an infant daughter and two school-age kids. He lost his home to "roof-high" water, but he has a brother-in-law who manages a hotel in Chicago and assured Reed of a job. Everything the family has left is in a rented Grand Am, and Reed plans to move to Chicago as soon as he can.
"Of course I want to go home, but the reality is there is no home, there's nothing left," Reed said as he cradled his daughter. "So I have to find it in my heart to find a new home."
Material from Newhouse News Service is part of this report.
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