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Tuesday, September 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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200 evacuees arrive Thursday at McChord base

Seattle Times staff reporter

About 200 evacuees from hurricane-hit Louisiana are expected to arrive at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma on Thursday, Gov. Christine Gregoire announced yesterday.

The evacuees are the first of up to 2,000 that Washington state will be welcoming.

Gregoire said she expects President Bush to approve today her request for $5 million in federal emergency funds. She proclaimed a state of emergency yesterday to qualify for the federal money, which will reimburse the state for costs associated with aiding evacuees.

"Some are very literally coming with nothing more than the shirts on their backs," Gregoire said at Camp Murray, south of Tacoma. "What they have witnessed and been through is unimaginable."

Called Operation Evergreen, the state effort will send evacuees to the base to be evaluated for immediate medical needs before they are transferred to temporary housing at Fort Lewis for two to four weeks.

After that, they may be moved to other temporary housing such as hotels, motels, housing-authority homes or private homes provided through religious organizations working with the Red Cross.

"There may be 200 [evacuees] Thursday, 200 the next day and 400 after that up to 2,000. They may come in the hundreds over the next several days, but we don't know for sure," the governor said, adding that the decision rests with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

While it is unclear how long the evacuees will be in Washington, the state is preparing for as long as six months.

State officials have talked with counterparts in Utah and Arizona who took in evacuees over the weekend to find out what to expect here, said Robin Arnold-Williams, secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services. Immediate health care and crisis counseling have been the main needs, she said.

"Things like chronic illnesses, people who have been unable to get to their meds, missing eyeglasses, hearing aids and wheelchairs," Arnold-Williams said. "With the trauma they've been through, there is also a big need to have crisis counseling available."

Should the evacuees remain in the state for months, long-term medical aid will be available through Medicaid, she added.

The evacuees likely will be coming from temporary housing in Louisiana, Gregoire said. It's not clear whether they will be able to choose which state they are sent to, though Gregoire said her staff has told FEMA that ideally the evacuees should have a choice.

"Some individuals have been loaded into airplanes and don't know where they will land," Gregoire said. "The climate here is not the same as Louisiana, and there will be clothing needs. We also have a different culture here, different food and lifestyles. There will be some adjustments for them."

That evacuees will be traveling as far as Washington only reinforces how devastating the hurricane has been, Gregoire said. She said McChord pilots reported seeing devastation similar to what they saw when they flew over tsunami-devastated Thailand.

King, Pierce and Snohomish counties will play major roles in Operation Evergreen, officials said. All three county executives and the Seattle, Tacoma and Everett mayors are involved in planning.

King County Executive Ron Sims said he convened an emergency meeting with officials last week to determine how King County would resettle people.

"It's going to be an enormous task," he said.

The Red Cross will be planning housing needs for the evacuees after their stay at Fort Lewis, said Larry Petry, CEO of the Red Cross in King and Kitsap counties.

"Our job is to give them a better future," he said.

Gregoire urged people to donate to established organizations such as the Red Cross, Goodwill and the Salvation Army. She also highlighted her "Washington Cares" fund; monetary donations to it can be made at all Washington Mutual locations.

Additional federal funding may be possible through an act of Congress, Gregoire said.

"We want them to remember Washington state as a state that embraced them and helped them in their time of need," Gregoire said. "It's the right thing to do."

Lisa Chiu: 425-745-7804

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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