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Thursday, January 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Help, hope begin to run dry for Hurricane Katrina survivors

Seattle Times staff reporter

Help for Katrina survivors


Statewide: Washington Emergency Management Division, 800-688-3469.

In Pierce County: Operation Hands-On, 253-273-9616.

In King County: Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which runs Operation Helping Hand, 800-368-1455.

In Snohomish County: Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, 425-355-9871.

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Pierce County —

It is Patricia Eli's job to help these families with a new life: to take them around Operation Hands-On, to show them the racks of coats, the rows of couches, the piles of plates they can choose from, courtesy of strangers in this new state.

But Eli is also one of them. So she gets to talking about the old life, the life they all had, before Hurricane Katrina left them homeless. "They seem happy," said Eli, 63, a native of New Orleans. "But I can see in their eyes the same look that I have in mine."

Four months after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, nearly 6,000 evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi are still living in Washington, supported largely by the government and through the generosity of others. Their gratitude is great.

But as shock has given way to reality, some survivors are struggling. They are losing sleep. They are crying behind closed doors. They are wondering when they will go home. Or if they will find the jobs, the housing, the security they need to stay.

The state set up a robust emergency response for them in September. But there is no long-term plan to help this many people. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency's temporary program to house Katrina survivors is scheduled to end Feb. 28, though some may be eligible for continued help. Like many grass-roots groups, Operation Hands-On in University Place is picking up the slack. The project started small, on the strength of one woman, Christie Bazar, whose goal was to get her hometown to "adopt" a few families. Months later, it has provided 94 families with everything from clothing to cars.

It has also managed to settle 20 families into rent-free housing. Eli is one of those tenants, volunteering at Operation Hands-On while she looks for a job. Another is Gloria Chapman, a single mother of three, currently finishing a trade course in the health-care industry. This month, their rent-free arrangement from Hands-On comes to an end.

Thousands came

After Katrina hit in late August, the state set up Operation Evergreen, expecting about 2,000 evacuees from the Gulf Coast. More than three times that many have come, most of them to King County, according to state officials.

Over the months, the state Department of Social and Health Services has helped about 1,240 people find resources from food stamps to medical care. The Red Cross handed out food and clothing vouchers to more than 3,800 people. It also paid for some evacuees to stay in hotels until the federal government took over that responsibility in November.

It is unclear now exactly how well the evacuees are faring, including how many have jobs or even places to stay. They are hard to track, state officials say; there is no requirement that they check in. And some may be slow to connect with the resources they need.

"If you've lost everything, it takes a while to realize where you are, what your circumstances are, and go to the various agencies that can help," said Rob Harper of the state's Emergency Management division.

Losing sleep

Several days before Christmas, the dinner table was dressed up in red cloth and lace. Chapman was doing her best.

Her first holiday in University Place had been mostly an ache. No peach cobbler. No banana pudding. Chapman cooked what she could for the children, but there was nothing of home in that Thanksgiving dinner. Her mother was not there.

Chapman came to the Northwest on the advice of a friend. It seemed like a reasonable choice.

The hurricane had flooded her apartment building in Ocean Springs, Miss. The casino where she worked was destroyed.

"I wanted to stay, but I was thinking: I've got three mouths to feed," said Chapman, 42.

"If I had to work two jobs, I would do it, to start over for me and the kids," she said.

Within a week, Chapman, her 7-year-old daughter, her 8-year-old son and her 12-year-old daughter were living in a spacious apartment in University Place, courtesy of Operation Hands-On. She was given furniture, including a buttercream leather couch and matching pink comforters for the girls. The family has a TV now, a stereo, an imitation Renoir for the living-room wall.

She even took a course in health-information systems through a program called Work Source. People told her it was an investment, the start of what could be a new career.

Chapman was so grateful she could not stop crying.

"I just never anticipated," she said. "I just never thought."

But Chapman is still losing sleep. She worries about her frail mother, back in Mississippi. She worries about finding a job here, and a new home for the family. She does not want to move her children elsewhere, put them in a new school where they'd have to answer questions about the hurricane again.

At night, when the children are asleep, Chapman sometimes cries. And really, she wishes she could scream.

"It feels like there's something inside you that needs to come out," she said.

It would hurt to walk away from all that she has been given here. But her hope is to go home, just as soon as she can.

"What have I done?"

They call it the giddy time, those first few weeks in September when everything fell into place. There was the proclamation from the city declaring Operation Hands-On its partner. The donation campaign at the local high school. And all those goods that people dropped off, from winter boots to boxes of plates.

At first, Christie Bazar and her husband, Larry Nelthropp, could not find even a few families to help. Then came a steady stream of people, and the goal suddenly shifted, from nurturing a few to feeding, clothing and housing dozens.

"It was exhilarating," said Bazar, 51. "We were ecstatic to have people needing us that first month."

Bazar cried with some people. She talked for hours with others. She felt a kind of kinship with these families. She had not been left homeless by a hurricane. But when she was a single mother, she sometimes waited in food lines, two children by her side. She understood what it felt like to lose.

Evacuees came in angry, and she was not surprised.

"When you're down and out, you've got nothing but anger," said Bazar.

The volunteers at Operation Hands-On try their best to calm it. They give out helpful phone numbers. They post job announcements; about 20 percent of the visitors have found work with their help.

They guide the evacuees through the boutiques they have set up in a retail mall. Clothing hangs neatly on racks. Dinette sets are lined up. Household items are arranged on walls and tables — a "Welcome" sign, a set of dishes, a vase of artificial flowers.

Volunteers staff the rooms three days a week, four hours a day. There are lines sometimes when they arrive in the morning, and boxes of donations left at night after they leave.

As the project closed for the holidays, there was some question about when it would open again, and with whose strength. Bazar has a back injury that has worsened over the months. Her husband, a 65-year-old professor at Pierce College, spends much of his free time now unpacking, sorting and tagging goods. Day and night, the phone calls come to their home.

"I'm watching him get beyond tired," said Bazar. "And I'm thinking to myself: What have I done?"

The work is still inspiring. But Bazar does not cry as often now. She does not trust as easily. Some evacuees have sold items they have been given. Others have gathered as much as they can — bars of soap, television sets — leaving nothing for other families.

It's only natural, Bazar said. These are people who have lost everything, trying to hold on to whatever they can.

"Give me a chance"

Patricia Eli thought she had a good shot at the job. What a nice phone conversation she had. She went to the second interview all confident in her new clothes from Fred Meyer.

But as soon as she walked into the plastic surgeon's office, Eli noticed it: Everyone was so young. During the interview, Eli could see the woman digesting the dates on her résumé, calculating her age at 63.

"At least give me a chance," said Eli. "I get along very well with young people." She didn't get the job.

She never should have left Hawaii, Eli keeps thinking, now that she is forced to start over. In Hawaii, she had a solid job, never had to ask for a thing. But she went back to her hometown of New Orleans last spring to care for her sister who had suffered a stroke. Now Eli has decided to stay in Washington. She has some family here. And this state is better suited to her soul. As a woman of mixed race, she said, she has found more peace here than she did in the South.

The generosity has been such a blessing, she said. Though sometimes it can feel like a burden. Everything she owns came from Operation Hands-On: the furniture, the food, the Christmas presents. She earned none of it herself.

"I don't talk about that," she said, starting to cry.

Her friends at Operation Hands-On are nudging Eli to find a job, and an apartment, before her rent-free time runs out. She tries, but she gets stuck sometimes, thinking of all that she has lost.

And the volunteer work at Hands-On feels so good. What a relief to help other people, rather than asking for help. The other day, a patio chair arrived at Eli's doorstep, with a note saying, "Good luck."

She wanted so badly to tell the stranger who left it: "Thank you kindly, but my needs are met."

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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