Thursday, September 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Where are evacuees? Staying close to home

Washington had an Air Force base ready to receive as many as 2,000 survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Now they may never come.

Oregon set up several hundred cots outside a vacant Portland high school. They were empty yesterday.

West Virginia sent five planes to ferry evacuees from Texas. They returned without passengers.

Washington, D.C., sent 10 buses for hurricane victims. The convoy found only one person willing to come to the nation's capital.

Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines chartered three festively named ships — the Sensation, the Ecstasy and the Holiday — to the federal government for use as floating shelters for the next six months. No evacuees had boarded them.

And some people who did agree to leave the Gulf Coast didn't end up where they thought they were going.

All over the country yesterday, states that had offered haven to Katrina survivors learned it might not be needed. The reason: Most evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi have already found shelter in surrounding states, and they're reluctant to move out of the area, far from friends and family.

"They may have lost all their material possessions, but there's still a lot of community left," said Althea Cawley-Murphree, a spokeswoman for Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire, who took part in a conference call yesterday with Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

They're not yet ready to come here, Cawley-Murphree said. And they may never be ready.

"There's a reason they don't live here now," she said. "This wasn't their idea of home."

Ed Conley, a liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the agency has no plans to transport more people to shelters in other states.

"There were several states that offered opportunities for people to go via plane and bus," he said. "There just weren't any takers. We can't force people to leave."

Covering a lot of ground

In Washington, Gregoire had publicly offered shelter, promising to let evacuees stay for as long as six months. The first wave of as many as 2,000 evacuees had been expected at McChord Air Force Base as early as today.

The state already is hosting some evacuees, and it's still preparing in case it gets more.

The Seattle office of the Red Cross has reported about 30 cases of people or families arriving from the Gulf states on their own, without the help of the federal government.

The state could still receive as many as 500 evacuees in the coming weeks, said Rob Harper, spokesman for the state's Emergency Management Division. "We may find, because of the scope and size of this, that at a later date, they may want to bring people here, that people may be more willing to go."

So while some of the details have changed, the general plan has stayed the same. From health departments to school districts, the state remains on alert. Public Health — Seattle & King County was mobilized on Saturday to put together five teams staffed with specialized doctors and nurses ready to provide care.

"We've covered a lot of ground in a few days," said Jo Ellen Warner, a Public Health spokeswoman. "The situation is constantly evolving."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson told school districts this week that evacuated children should be classified as "homeless" students, giving them access to free-lunch programs and other classroom support.

Schools will get extra money to provide for any evacuated children, Bergeson said. She also urged schools to enroll the children even if parents cannot supply such things as proof of immunizations or academic transcripts.

"I don't like it here"

Throughout the Gulf Coast region yesterday, people decided they preferred the familiar and the close-to-home — regardless of how awful it had become — to the unknown and the far-away. In some cases, lack of coordination also played a role.

"Once you put yourself in the hands of the government, you could end up in Utah," said Michael O'Donoghue, 64, a holdout in New Orleans' Lower Garden District.

A plane full of evacuees twice failed to materialize at the Charleston International Airport in South Carolina on Tuesday. After local officials were told that the evacuees were there, they learned that the flight had landed in Charleston, W.Va.

"They say, 'It's coming to Charleston, it's coming to Charleston,' " said Ron Osborne, South Carolina's director of emergency management. "Then they say, 'We think it's Charleston, West Virginia.' We're having some problems."

With Louisiana, Texas and other nearby states overwhelmed by nearly a million people displaced by Katrina, officials sought to place the overflow elsewhere — often in states far away, and sometimes without the evacuees knowing where they were going.

In Washington, D.C., about 300 people ended up at the D.C. Armory. Most were happy to be there, but several were surprised, having misunderstood an announcement: They thought their plane was headed to Dallas rather than Washington's Dulles Airport.

"Is there any way to get back?" Melvin Taylor, 53, tears welling in his eyes, asked a reporter. "I've got two aunties, Rosemary Parker and Bernice Taylor, and some cousins I can't find. I don't like it here."

In many cases, relocation managers said, evacuees simply did not want to venture far from home, fearing that distance would further complicate their return to the lives they knew. Most evacuees were relatively poor, experts said, and many may never have left their cities or even their neighborhoods before. The prospect of starting life anew in a distant city was daunting — especially for families that were separated.

Mercelita Plessy of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward lost contact with her four children when they retreated to the Superdome shortly after the storm passed. Now, she's afraid to leave town.

"People say they're sending them to New Mexico, they're sending them to Texas, they're sending them to Georgia, Mississippi," she said. "Lord! How am I going to find my children?"

Seattle Times staff reporter Cara Solomon contributed to this report, which also includes information from Knight-Ridder Newspapers and Reuters.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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