Desert Storm

Thousands of Katrina evacuees landed in Phoenix. How long should they get assistance?

Sabrina Williams cringes as she opens her cupboard and pulls out her last pack of Camellia kidney beans, the only brand that cooks down into creamy and smooth New Orleans-style red beans — impossible to find in her adopted hometown, Glendale, Arizona. But Williams' timing is good. Her parents are currently in New Orleans, mucking out their house, and they will soon return to Phoenix, suitcases heavy with Camellia beans.

Twenty blocks to the west, another new Glendale resident isn't doing so well. Arlett Early's blood pressure has been up, leaving her flat on her back, waiting for her medicine to kick in. She is also still reeling from devastating news about her brother, Lloyd Coleman Jr., who had been missing since the hurricane. Red Cross workers told her that they'd seen cases of traumatic amnesia, so she held out hope that he was afflicted with something similar but was still alive. Then, several weeks ago, she was notified that her family's DNA samples matched a body in Louisiana's disaster-response morgue.

Ten minutes up the road to the north, yet another evacuee family is trying to get settled in Glendale. Nelda Millon (pronounced Mih-lawn), at age 58, is the baby sister of her immediate family and the ringleader of her extended family, the person everyone calls when something goes wrong. After the hurricane, Millon arrived here with three of her sisters and a bunch of nieces, nephews, in-laws and grandchildren. She's attending classes at Glendale Community College and has become fond of her surroundings.

Young Min-Moon
Cousins Tikishia Lumar, left, and Sabrina Williams, right, with baby, struggle to herd a total of eight children into two cars after summer camp at Marshall Ranch Elementary School in Glendale.
Peter Scanlon
Cousins Tikishia Lumar, left, and Sabrina Williams, right, with baby, struggle to herd a total of eight children into two cars after summer camp at Marshall Ranch Elementary School in Glendale.

"I like it here," she says in a big, enthusiastic voice — "I like the weather and the city. It's clean." Her older sister, Noela Millon, can't agree. She reaches down and scratches D-Man, the black-and-white Shih Tzu that accompanied them on their long drive to Phoenix. This hurricane has affected her, she says quietly.

"Every time I think it's over, it just comes back all over again."

The members of all three households fled to Phoenix after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last August. They all live in Glendale, in zip code 85301, home to more evacuees than any other Arizona zip code, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data.

Altogether, the Phoenix metro area is home to 1,919 evacuee households, which, according to FEMA estimates, could translate into as many as 6,000 people. Agencies that deal with evacuees put the number lower, maybe about half. But it's hard to know for sure.

"People are moving in and out," says Reverend Stephen Gardner, director at Project Restore, the first stop for Phoenix evacuees seeking assistance.

Among cities with evacuee households, Phoenix ranks far lower than Houston, which took in more than 300,000 households, but far above Albuquerque, which took in only 544. And now, 10 months after the disaster, it's a shock to many locals that thousands of Katrina evacuees now call Phoenix home.

"People say, 'I thought they were all gone,'" says Gardner. "They knew that thousands of evacuees came here right after Katrina, but then they didn't hear anything else." At Project Restore, Gardner sees hundreds of evacuees who have no plans to depart. "The truth is, many of them don't have any place to go back to," he says.

At the end of May, each of Phoenix's evacuee households received a postcard in the mail, with type screaming "Hurricane Evacuee," in big black letters. Underneath an image of an hourglass, red type spells out a clear message: "Time is running out — you must register with us by the deadline to receive assistance now or in the future."

Federal assistance is definitely drying up. One caseworker at Project Restore often greets new applicants with a booming pronouncement:

"To FEMA, Katrina is officially over," he says.

The question on many minds is, "It's been nearly a year since the hurricane. Can evacuees take care of themselves now?"

Most evacuees can survive on their own, given the right tools, says Debra Sheff, who oversees the local Katrina Aid Project, which is spearheaded by St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Social Services, and Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest. The project helps each evacuee plan a path to self-sufficiency. That's not an easy task.

Many cities across the country are asking evacuees to create these long-range plans, says Bill Quigley, who heads up the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. He thinks the cities are too ambitious.

"They're trying to get people to do life plans," he says, "but the ground is not solid for people to make plans."

People cannot keep a job if they don't have reliable childcare or access to medicine for chronic conditions, Quigley continues. And may not be able to work at all if they're elderly, disabled or depressed.

"The truth is, a lot of people needed help to survive in New Orleans," he concludes. "They probably need more help, not less, to survive in Phoenix."


In social-service speak, Phoenix has two groups of Katrina evacuees. There are the "self-evacuees" — people who got here on their own.

"They had at least some resources," says Anthony Cox, of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.

Then there are the "FEMA evacuees," passengers from the two airplanes that FEMA flew into Phoenix after the hurricane. These are the evacuees people watched on the television news, the ones who stayed at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum at the state fairgrounds in downtown Phoenix. Some walked into the Coliseum hours after being plucked off rooftops in New Orleans.

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