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Saturday, September 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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America's diaspora: How storm could reshape policy on poverty

Newhouse News Service

America is witnessing the largest instant migration in its history.

In the days and months to come, communities across the nation will attempt to take in more than a quarter-million evacuees from New Orleans, which before Katrina was home to one of the poorest, most insular black populations in the United States.

The resettlement has the makings of a vast and varied social experiment that may try American ideas about race and poverty. And it is likely — after the first flush of relief and goodwill — to tax the patience and understanding of both the newcomers and the welcomers.

"We've evacuated most of a Deep South city, and we haven't the foggiest idea of what's going to happen six months from now," said Steve Suitts, program coordinator for the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, which works on issues of educational equity.

Katrina wreaked most of its havoc in Louisiana and Mississippi, the two blackest, poorest states in the country.

Already a disaster

The largely emptied city of New Orleans was by many measures a socioeconomic disaster area even before the hurricane, a place of danger and dysfunction where many lacked the wherewithal to seek opportunities elsewhere.

And while there were many people of means, both black and white, cast out of the city, it is fair to say those with the fewest resources and connections were least likely to get to safety on their own and most likely to be among the evacuees the Federal Emergency Management Agency now houses in emergency shelters across America.

In the days to come, the Katrina diaspora will encounter Main Street America — in classrooms, emergency rooms and elsewhere — in chance encounters and town meetings. It's an odd-couple relationship sure to be strained as the initial rush of public compassion subsides.

"Always in the immediate aftermath of a disaster we have what is called a therapeutic community, where people want to help," said James Johnson, a geographer who is director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The question is, when does the therapeutic community end and the reality kick back in? Then, what do you do with them?"

It is a problem arriving with speed and magnitude, both without obvious precedent.

New surroundings

Suddenly, said James Elliott, an urban sociologist at Tulane University, people who hadn't ventured a mile beyond their own neighborhoods in decades find themselves swept away to places they may never have heard of before.

Louisiana and Mississippi residents more accustomed to river towns and mangrove swamps have found themselves sheltered far from home in mountainous Colorado or arid New Mexico.

"It's the largest (American) Red Cross response to a natural disaster in the history of our organization," said spokeswoman Devorah Goldberg. "We know it's going to cost in the millions, because we've already sheltered about 160,000 people and we have over 650 (Red Cross) shelters open in 17 states. But we don't have final figures because we're in the midst of trying to respond to this disaster and meet the immediate needs."

Texas housed by far the largest number of evacuees, with 135,000 in shelters, followed by Louisiana itself, with 71,700, according to Homeland Security figures. But numbers were fluctuating by the hour.

In Arkansas, with 15,600 people in shelters, state officials said the actual number of evacuees was as high as 70,000 and growing. And some states not on the federal shelter list, such as Pennsylvania, reported they were housing evacuees in schools and other facilities.

Cooperating agencies

Nationwide, the 800 official shelters affiliated with Homeland Security, FEMA and the Red Cross were working with local governments to care for the displaced.

Some 32,000 Red Cross disaster workers from all 50 states have served 5.5 million hot meals in its shelters, Goldberg said. And they will be doing so for some time.

"We'll be there for them for as long as they need us," she said. "No one knows how long. But we know that because New Orleans is shut down, since they've got this poisonous water, that it could take months."

For many of the children of New Orleans, Elliott said, Katrina was only the latest trauma. The public schools, almost entirely black, were bad by Louisiana's already low standards. So many students could not pass the tests required in the fourth and eighth grades, he said, that the system created what came to be known as grades four-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half — way stations for those not qualified to move to the next grade, but taking up space needed for those coming up.

Starting over

Katrina plunged New Orleans into what writer Donald Henry, 28, described as a state of "chaos, like wild animals." But even before, the poor Lower Ninth Ward, where Henry grew up and lived, was a place of "killing, rape, black-on-black crime, robbery, police brutality."

Now in the Fort Custer Reserve Training Center in Augusta, Mich., Henry and his friend, Sir Anthony Brooks, 19, hope to start new lives in nearby Battle Creek.

At the Wright Beauty Academy in Battle Creek, where some of the evacuees were taken after their arrival, "They basically pampered us," Brooks said. "They barely let us lift a finger. I got my hair done, my toes, got a massage. ... I know it's not always going to be like this, I just want a chance to do my thing."

Brooks plans to enroll in the beauty academy and begin a new career.

Consider how odd this is. Americans, leading with their hearts, are offering — clamoring in some cases — to bring those dislocated by Katrina into their communities. It is probably fair to say that never before in the nation's history have tens of thousands of poor black citizens been offered such invitations and welcomes.

More than that, some are seizing on the hurricane to refocus the national agenda back on poverty, to rescue these folks not just from Katrina but from the desperate lives many had led before the storm.

Writing of "Katrina's silver lining," New York Times columnist David Brooks, a conservative, suggested that Katrina's aftermath could "serve as a spur to antipoverty programs nationwide."

Diffusing a crisis

"What you have here is the nationalization of a problem — poverty — which was sort of out of sight for most people," said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters.

For survivors who had nothing before the storm, Walters said, relocation may prove "a godsend," landing them in places with better housing, schools and job opportunities — safer, more supportive places in which to start over.

For a long time, much social science has suggested that the cure for the debilitating cycle of concentrated poverty is to break it up, distributing its denizens across the more salutary precincts of middle-class America. Can Katrina accomplish what the Ford Foundation could not?

"We ought to give people who don't want to go back to New Orleans the means to disperse into middle-class areas nationwide," David Brooks wrote.

Lingering barriers

But it is unclear how close these newcomers will get to those middle-class areas. Typically, temporary shelter for the poor is in poorer neighborhoods. It is perfectly plausible the evacuees will melt into the places, the schools, the difficulties of pre-existing poor communities — an infusion of poverty where it is least needed.

And opportunities such as those David Brooks advised might come with the resentments of the local poor, who might think themselves more deserving of the same help. They might come with the resistance of middle-class neighbors who prefer their Katrina survivors at a safe distance.

The Oregonian newspaper reported wariness among some residents of Buckman, a working-class neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification in southeast Portland, where evacuees are expected to take shelter in a closed school. "What happens when the warm fuzzy feeling wears off?" asked a man who owns a home a few blocks away.

In the liberal redoubt of Madison, Wis., Rita Adair, a veteran local social worker, wrangled a couple of buses to drive to Texas to bring back evacuee families. She had secured some housing, awaiting redevelopment, in a low-income neighborhood known as Allied Drive.

Fitting in

Thomas Corbett, a professor of social work affiliated with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, said he was a little surprised by the choice of location: Allied Drive is already "one of the more distressed areas of our city."

But, said Johnson from Chapel Hill, "Where you going to take them to, Beverly Hills?"

Battle Creek's Bishop Eugene McCoy, of Faith Assembly Christian Fellowship, believes his city is up to the challenge of generous acceptance, while acknowledging that the place, about 18 percent black, is "a very conservative community."

But he blanched when Gov. Jennifer Granholm mentioned Alpena, Mich., as a potential destination for Katrina's survivors. Only 85 of Alpena's more than 11,000 people are black.

"Oh come on, please," McCoy said. "She knows better than that."

In the end, demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution believes most evacuees who can will return to New Orleans, a place where they chose to stay when so many others, over the years, were leaving.

Statistical information on the evacuees and nationwide facilities addressing their needs was provided by the Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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