Desert Storm

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

It's clear that many evacuees had no idea that the $2,358 was for rent. For some, it may have paid a deposit and first month's rent. For others, drinks flowed, people paid bills, bought computers and clothes-shopped at the mall; and kids finally got PlayStations.

"If it eased my situation, FEMA should be okay with it," says one evacuee who bought groceries but also a new laptop to communicate with her scattered family.

Seeing New Orleans had been traumatic for her children, says one Phoenix evacuee. So she felt good buying them big-ticket toys and some nice clothes.

Katrina evacuee Nelda Millon stands in front of her Phoenix home with some of her extended family. From left to right, Jara Brown, Greiana Marchand, Reginald Millon, Randy Marchand and Karen Marchand.
Peter Scanlon
Katrina evacuee Nelda Millon stands in front of her Phoenix home with some of her extended family. From left to right, Jara Brown, Greiana Marchand, Reginald Millon, Randy Marchand and Karen Marchand.
Salvation Army Major Dee Webb: "Every bucket has a bottom."
Peter Scanlon
Salvation Army Major Dee Webb: "Every bucket has a bottom."

"They felt like it was Christmas," she says. For years, she explains, she has put her kids' Christmas presents on layaway starting in July and then made payments each month. This time, the money came easier. But in December, the children's presents were small, about $20 each, she estimates. All future Christmases may be small now, she says, because she's making monthly payments to replace everything she had owned — it was all ruined in eight feet of water.

An audit released in early June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office made big headlines because it found that some FEMA registrants used expedited assistance to purchase diamond jewelry, a Caribbean vacation, pro football season tickets, Girls Gone Wild videos, and the services of a divorce lawyer.

Arizona evacuees may have been part of the GAO's random sample. But none of the fraudulent or improper purchases cited by the GAO happened in Phoenix.

Sheff says it's clear that money was spent unwisely here. Those same evacuees then required help from local agencies in order to pay their rent, she says.

"They were given money [from FEMA] when they first came and they didn't know to use it for rent or utilities, so they spent that first or second allotment from FEMA incorrectly — they'd never been taught how to use it," she says.

On Sunday, August 28, 2005, the day before the hurricane, Sabrina Williams carried her 3-day-old son, Blake, out of Touro Infirmary in New Orleans and hopped into a car with her fiancé, city bus driver Paul Miles, and their 6-year-old son Tyrus. They evacuated to an aunt's house about 200 miles away.

"We thought we'd be back home in two or three days, like all of the other times we'd left," Williams says. So they didn't think twice about leaving behind their family photos and all the gifts she'd received at her baby shower. They also left Miles' truck, parked in their driveway.

Neighbors who stayed through the hurricane looked out their windows and timed how long it took the floodwater to completely cover Miles' truck — seven minutes, they said. For a few weeks, Williams asked about her block; she asked soldiers who'd been stationed there and anyone else who had gotten into the city. Then she picked up the newspaper and saw a familiar photo on its front page.

"It was the corner store down the block from us, and it had water up to its roof," she says. "And this was two weeks after the hurricane hit."

At that point, in mid-September, Williams couldn't even mourn her apartment, which took in 20 feet of water. She had much bigger worries: Her parents and uncle had stayed in New Orleans, and no one had heard from them since the day before the storm. "They're older, and a lot of old people didn't want to leave out," Williams says.

As it turns out, Williams' parents and uncle climbed to their attic to escape the rising water and ended up getting a ride to Mississippi on a truck bed. But no one could reach them, and they couldn't reach anyone, because New Orleans' area code — 504 — was jammed for weeks. (It's still not uncommon to dial a 504 number and receive the message "all circuits are busy now.")

Once family members reunited, they headed to Phoenix, now home to Williams, her parents, and "about nine carloads" of her family. The 32 evacuees had first landed in other places, but they headed here because of cousin Natasha Williams, a New Orleans native who was already living here, managing Paradise Vista apartments near 43rd Avenue and Glendale.

Sociologists are now trying to track these "chain migrations," says the University of Missouri's Jacquelyn Litt. "People think that evacuees moved once. A lot of people did. But some people moved two and three times, and they're still moving."

These moves may increase as outside assistance diminishes, says Quigley, from the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic. "Every time the government or private organizations fail, people go back to their most basic community — family and friends," he says. Despite the fact that some evacuees have left to go home or to another city, the overall number of FEMA-registered people in the Phoenix area has actually increased by 113 households during the past few months. Social-service workers say that the newcomers they see now are traveling to Phoenix to meet up with other family members.

Last fall, Williams and Miles lived in Paradise Vista for a few months, then moved 20 blocks west to a Section 8 apartment in Glendale. They're in good company, according to the City of Glendale's housing department, which reports that nearly 10 percent of its 1,054 Section 8 vouchers now go to Katrina evacuees. (The city received an increased number of federally funded vouchers to handle them, so the evacuees are not taking vouchers meant for Glendale residents, says city spokeswoman Diana Whittle.)

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