Bay Area hurricane evacuees still need help

OAKLAND, Calif. — More than four months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, hundreds of evacuees continue to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some plan to return home as soon as possible, while others struggle to put down roots in a very different area.

Governmental, religious, community and social service organizations have joined with the Red Cross to build networks providing short-term and long-term help. But many evacuees face major hurdles as they work to rebuild their lives.

Housing is among the biggest ongoing problems. FEMA’s rental assistance of $2,300 for three months proved grossly inadequate in the expensive Bay Area. Most coverage under its hotel/motel direct bill program is now slated to end in early February.

At its December meetings the Oakland City Council heard reports that some 1,200 people had come to the city as a result of Katrina and Rita, and nearly 150 were still living in hotels or motels. City Councilmember Desley Brooks urged the city to extend aid beyond the $250,000 already allocated, which she said could only help 10 families.

“We’ve taken people far from their comfort zone to a totally new place and expect them to survive,” Brooks said in a telephone interview. “All of us need to come together to assist them with dignity. It is distressing that people are still living in hotels.”

While about half the evacuees receive some support from their families, “people are often reluctant to impose on family members,” said Dean Chambers, Alameda County’s Disaster Coordinator for Mental Health. He said as many as half had arrived without knowing anyone in the area.

On top of the trauma of suddenly losing everything at home, “lack of housing and the stress associated with that” has caused many to have continuing high levels of anxiety, Chambers said. He added that jobs evacuees have been able to find have often not been comparable to the work they did at home.

Chambers said many mental health workers have volunteered free care for temporarily distressed evacuees.

The American Red Cross–Bay Area has aided nearly 2,200 Gulf Coast residents as it participated in the largest domestic disaster response the national organization has ever mounted, said spokesman Bruce Burtch.

Burtch said the Red Cross is working with faith, community, social service and governmental organizations to provide help for as long as needed.

“I’m really proud of our community. I’ve never seen this magnitude of response to a disaster of this sort,” said Vivian Frelix Hart, San Jose’s policy and planning administrator. Hart said of the 124 families who initially came to San Jose, half had found permanent homes, a quarter were still in temporary housing, while 17 had returned to the Gulf Coast.

In an end-of-the-year op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates called on the Bush administration to provide additional, more flexible forms of housing aid. Pointing out that Berkeley had spent nearly $100,000 aiding evacuees with housing, food, job assistance, counseling and other services, Bates added, “We can’t turn back the clock on the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. But the Bush administration can, at the very least, try not to make things worse than they already are.”