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Archive for Saturday, December 24, 2005

Some evacuees still desperate

December 24, 2005

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It is Christmas, three months after the storms. And it is so easy to forget those who fled. But it is not easy for those who escaped Hurricane Katrina's wrath to sit and watch life going on like a show around them.

George West Jr. is one among the half million. He isn't thinking much about Christmas. Recent holidays - Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day - all ran together. Since November, he, his wife and two children, his mother-in-law and father and grandmother have lived in two rooms in the Southfield Hotel & Convention Center in Southfield, Mich., which president Sam Yono opened up to evacuees last fall. About 50 evacuees remain there.

In New Orleans, George West Jr. was an assistant minister at a church where his father, Dr. George West, 65, played the music.

Now, George West Jr., a 47-year-old disabled restaurant worker, and his wife have no jobs, have two teens in school, have three elders to care for and have those two hotel rooms to sleep in. But other than that, they have little else.

When people wonder whatever happened to the evacuees, they may assume that they settled in new communities and built new lives. But this holiday season, some evacuees still live in despair.

The West family's greatest Christmas gift was a federal judge's decision last week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency must pay hotel costs for evacuees through Feb. 7.

When Katrina hit, George West Jr. had rented a car to get his family out of New Orleans. They drove to nearby Monroe, La., and to Jackson, Miss. They eventually drove to Detroit. The final bill for the car was $2,000 and some. They paid the bill with his father's Social Security and retirement benefits.

But their money ran out; now they have no car for job hunts or doctor visits.

It is hard not to be disgusted with FEMA mismanagement. The latest: reports that the agency spent more than $500 million for 20,000 mobile homes for displaced families but used fewer than 1,000. More than 10,000 sat empty in Arkansas last week.

America has spent billions to rebuild foreign cities. But the government wants private interests to play the larger role in helping displaced Americans. If we can rebuild Baghdad's schools and roads, we can rebuild lives that once belonged to the Gulf Coast.

West's wife, Sakina, 43, says that Detroit's Fellowship Church has helped her family with medicine for her mother and a promise of housing for the New Year.

But she doesn't know how she's going to buy Christmas gifts for her children, 15 and 16.

I do. Instead of writing a check, I think I'll eliminate the middleman and watch my own dollars at work.

- Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Her e-mail address is riley@freepress.com.

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