Desert Storm

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

Since the hurricane, every day brings new hurdles. There's the Louisiana unemployment office and its always-busy phone line — one week, after a delay in her claim, Williams hit redial hundreds of times, her cell phone in one hand and the house phone in the other. Williams has also spent months trying to get Blake a birth certificate (the Louisiana Office of Vital Statistics hasn't issued any since the storm).

Now the couple's children have been kicked off AHCCCS, Arizona's low-income health plan, because Miles' increased income, from his new job as an airport-shuttle supervisor, was said to exceed the program's limits. That doesn't make sense to Williams; she says Miles' new wages don't seem to exceed AHCCCS' published income ceiling. But she hasn't gotten anyone to reverse that decision yet.

Williams hasn't begun working in Phoenix, because she lacks trusted day care for Blake and for Tyrus, who attends half-day kindergarten. Had she been back home, Blake would've been in day care in January and she would have returned to her job in accounts receivable at the Hilton Garden Hotel.

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 had everything down pat in New Orleans," she says.

As anyone who has searched for day care knows, parents often have to wait months, even years, for slots for their children. Spaces for infants like Blake are even more sought after. Without childcare, no mother can move to "self-sufficient" status, says the University of Missouri's Jacquelyn Litt. "Day care is one of the big, big problems for evacuees," she says. "I don't know that it was ever addressed."

Lori Peek, a sociologist at Colorado State University, specializes in "social vulnerability and social inequality" in disasters.

"We view disasters as acts of God that affect people equally," she says. "But the poorest people tend to live in the most dangerous spots."

Without money, poor people can't adequately prepare for disaster. Without resources, they tend to be the slowest to recover.

Hurricane Katrina was especially cruel to the disadvantaged. The storm struck three of the poorest states in the country — Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The Congressional Research Service found that half of the people displaced by Katrina came from the city of New Orleans. So, any snapshot of evacuees reflects New Orleans' dismal economy: half come from poor or near-poor homes, one-quarter of adults lack a high school diploma.

Peek is interviewing evacuees in Denver, which took in about the same number of evacuees as Phoenix. Typically, she says, depression and PTSD won't surface until six months after a disaster.

Caseworkers did begin to see depression and PTSD cases at the six-month mark. But new cases still surface every week, and they're largely untreated. The level of physical disability is also shocking to Peek — people who are blind, confined to wheelchairs, and suffering severely from chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.

"This is like nothing we've seen before," she says.

This level of disability is common among people who live in chronic poverty, the kind that spans generations. For years, New Orleans and the state of Louisiana as a whole have consistently ranked worst in the nation for poor health, child poverty, violent neighborhoods, and failing schools.

In both Denver and Phoenix, there is concern that people are not getting jobs as fast as hoped. Nationwide, one-quarter of Katrina evacuees who had not returned home were unemployed in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Peek says that illness and mental-health conditions complicate job searches, as does lack of transportation.

"In Denver, like Phoenix, people are meant to have cars. But many evacuees were accustomed to using public transportation or walking anywhere they went. They don't have driver's licenses or automobiles."

What evacuees share is a sense of "disorientation," says Peek. "Everything seems strange. Everyone seems strange." New Orleans is a city with many long-term residents, and that's apparent, she says. About half the evacuees in Denver had never left New Orleans' city limits.

At first, even evacuees who had lived in New Orleans all their lives told Peek that they were going to make the best of their situations. "They would say, 'This is an act of God and I am meant to be here. I was meant to be on the airplane to Denver.'" Now, she says, that optimism has dwindled. "Here's where people are right now: They're figuring out, essentially, how to survive," says Peek. "How to survive having lost everything."

It's a little after 3, on a June afternoon, and Major Dee Webb is expecting two more Katrina evacuees before she closes the doors at the Salvation Army at 4 sharp. They had called ahead, she says, and it seems urgent — "a 'no food for tonight' sort of thing."

Webb is 70, with white hair pulled tightly back into a bun and a crisp Salvation Army shirt with little ornamentation except maroon epaulets at the shoulders. She looks grandmotherly and calls people "dear," but evacuees say not to be fooled, that she's tough.

One skinny man standing outside waiting for a friend says that he had gotten some food cards from Webb and sold them.

"She figured me out," he says, then admits that her keen detective work probably was due to the fact that he showed up a few days later asking for more cards.

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