Evacuees, community looking to the future
Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2005
Andre Williams has a million questions, some big, some small &045; and some just practical.
&uot;Who’s going to tighten these?&uot; she asked last week, pointing to her braces. &uot;Who’s going to take these off?&uot;
Even as her family tries to find information about their house back in Jefferson Parish, Williams knows &uot;home&uot; may be an elusive concept for a long time.
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The Williams family has been marooned in Natchez for more than a week. While on vacation visiting Andre’s mother here, they saw the storm coming, rushed back home to pack up more belongings and evacuated.
They have found out bits and pieces about their neighborhood near New Orleans: Water has flooded the house up to the front steps, and there’s a hole in the roof.
The Williams family hopes to return early this week to survey the damage.
&uot;You know, you’ve got to see it for yourself,&uot; Williams said.
But the family is still looking at the possibility of living here permanently. Last week, Williams and her husband filled out employment applications.
&uot;This might be my home permanently,&uot; she said.
For an estimated 6,000 people living in shelters and hotels and with friends and family across the Miss-Lou, the questions are mounting &045; from heart-breaking pleas for information about family and friends to basic queries about everyday life. Where does the mail go? How do we do the laundry?
In the short term, some people are looking for real estate and jobs here. They are enrolling their children in school.
But for most people, short term is going to become long term &045; and maybe even permanent.
Even as Louisiana and coast residents like Williams are working their way through a bewildering process, the Miss-Lou is also coping with massive change.
That realization was dawning by the day last week as the news from New Orleans grew worse and most people realized they would not return home for a long time.
&uot;I think people are just now realizing the magnitude of where we are,&uot; said Kathy Stephens, director of United Way, which has been working with its member agencies in the area &045; most significantly Red Cross, which is manning seven shelters in Natchez.
Shelter &045; and the necessities of life &045; have been the immediate needs, whether that’s shelter at a grandmother’s house or shelter at a church or community facility.
Area agencies continue to meet everyday needs such as food, medicine and personal care items, but they are beginning to look to the future
&uot;We’re just now realizing the impact of what ‘long-term’ means,&uot; Stephens said. &uot;This isn’t going to be over next week.&uot;
The Natchez Chamber of Commerce helped place 80 people in temporary housing last Thursday alone, director Laura Godfrey said.
&uot;We’ve been able to rent a lot of houses and lake places,&uot; she said. &uot;We’ve been very impressed with people responding and giving their houses to get these people places to stay.&uot;
Meanwhile, real estate agents are running ragged trying to keep up with the demand.
&uot;It’s been a crazy week,&uot; said Glenn Green of Paul Green and Associates. &uot;That would be the best way to put it.&uot;
Many people are looking for rental property, but others are looking to buy, agents said.
&uot;I talked to one lady that has me looking for something who said, ‘I’ve run from my last hurricane,’&uot; Realtor Sue Stedman said.
Many people are considering making their homes in Natchez because they have friends or family in the area, Stedman said.
&uot;You’re going to go where you have a support system,&uot; Stedman said.
Green said many people are looking for rental property.
&uot;Rental market was good before this,&uot; he said. &uot;There wasn’t a lot out there. Most was rented even before this. There’s people considering renting property that wasn’t up in the past &045; rooms, lake houses and hunting camps.&uot;
As some people begin to realize they need to make this a long-term home, Louisiana and Mississippi residents are beginning to look for work in the Miss-Lou.
&uot;We have a great deal coming down and putting in applications,&uot; said Beatrice Cummings of Westaff. &uot;Right now we don’t have any jobs. People are coming in because they don’t have any money.&uot;
But Cummings said she expects more employment to come to the area. &uot;We expect things will be picking up real soon,&uot; she said.
She might be right. Godfrey at the Natchez chamber said she has received calls from a number of businesses looking to relocate, including an advertising agency she was able to find space for.
And local officials are working to help let displaced companies know that Natchez has space available so that they can get back up and running. (See story, page XX.)
Even before many families forced to relocate here temporarily find housing or employment, their children will be back in school.
On Tuesday, many of the children will start classes at Natchez-Adams or Concordia Parish schools or at one of the private schools in the area.
All have offered students the chance to enroll in classes, and 500 or more children had enrolled or made inquiries as of Friday.
But parents also want to make sure the community is right for them.
&uot;Most of all we are looking to see if there’s something here,&uot; said Alfred Singleton Jr. of New Orleans, whose family has been living at the Steckler Center shelter. &uot;I want to see the people. See if it fits our needs. Hopefully things will work out good and we can stay here.&uot;
So far, Singleton likes what he sees, thanks to volunteers who have helped at the Steckler Center.
No one wants to think yet about money, but it’s a reality for the city and county, both of which are struggling to put together balanced budgets for the coming year.
Mayor Phillip West said the city has no way of knowing how the storm will affect the city’s budget.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse local governments for the costs they incur
Tracy Floyd of Adams County EMA said that money may come much later, but it will come.
And West said the city will prepare to cope with the changes. For one thing, two city employees &045; the fire department’s Stan Owens and the recreation department’s Ralph Tedder &045; have been working full-time with Red Cross shelters for the past week.
West said the city will look at hiring additional workers if needed to pick up the slack.
&uot;We need to do things beyond what we would normally do,&uot; West said.
Locals’ reactions to the influx of people has been mixed.
One local resident identified only as Frances said she is wary of the potential for increased thefts and fights as tensions rise and financial resources get tight. Inconveniences, she said, range from stores running out of staples such as bread and water and waiting in much longer-than-usual gas lines.
Local law enforcement officials have emphasized that no major problems have resulted from the increased number of people in the area, but they are on the watch just to make sure nothing happens.
Tom Scott of Natchez said he is looking for ways to help evacuees &uot;in any way I can.&uot; For Scott, that has included housing 15 people &045; some relatives, some not &045; at his home.
And as for longer gas lines, he’s philosophical. &uot;They’re trying to get where they need to go,&uot; he said.
And many people have simply rolled up their sleeves and pitched in, whether that’s volunteering at a shelter or making food for people in need.
&uot;We’ve been inundated by casseroles,&uot; Stephens said. &uot;You know Southern women, if there’s a crisis, they make a casserole. But we don’t need casseroles three weeks from now.&uot;
Red Cross, EMA and United Way are looking at other ways to get supplies, including through federal aid.
The EMA’s Floyd has ordered nearly 22,000 MREs to help feed folks in the shelters.
Trucks of supplies arrived on Saturday from a Kentucky group just looking to help out, and more supplies and financial contributions have poured in from the area, including $10,000 from Concordia Bank to the Red Cross and to shelters in the parish.
But the task of helping hundreds of people get back on their feet will be enormous.
&uot;We don’t have property damage, but we have their bodies,&uot; Stephens said. &uot;We are hard hit.&uot;
But many of those involved in work at the shelters and in housing evacuees emphasized that they are the same kind of people already living in our community. Vidalia Fire Chief Jack McLemore noted that residents at a shelter at the town’s First Baptist Church have doing odd jobs there such as painting.
&uot;These are kind, loving people who are in dire need,&uot; Stephens said.
and Christian Schmidt contributed to this report.