Room at the Inn
Temporary Shelter For Evacuees From Hurricane Katrina Sits Empty
Before landing in Baltimore, the Harrises bounced from shelter to shelter in different cities along the eastern seaboard, part of the estimated one million people displaced from New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama since Sept. 5. The city of Baltimore set up the “Du” Burns Arena as a sort of one-stop shop for the hurricane evacuees it expected to end up here, complete with information on getting in touch with a host of agencies, such as social services, Social Security, or the Red Cross, and 500 cots set up for potential overnight guests. Earlier this month, the city announced that it was preparing to take up to 1,000 evacuees, but it seems that was an ambitious estimate. So far, organizers of the relief effort in Baltimore say, some 990 people like the Harrises have stopped by the “Du” Burns Arena for information and assistance, but no one at all has yet to sleep in those cots or take shelter in the center. Piles of donated items are stacked on the uninhabited cots around the arena, waiting for someone who needs them.
City officials say they are not exactly sure why so few people have come to Baltimore for housing help. More than 1,400 Baltimoreans offered to open their homes to Katrina evacuees as well, officials say, but only 20 families have been placed in the city.
“We had anticipated that shelter being full down there,” says deputy city housing commissioner Reginald Scriber. “We had anticipated transitioning the people from some shelter into housing, but that is not required at this point.”
One possible explanation, he says, is that people may have been apprehensive about traveling so far north for assistance. However, the state of Maryland reports that more than 3,600 refugees from hurricane-afflicted areas have registered with the Red Cross in Maryland. And the city of Philadelphia, which is two hours north of Baltimore, reports helping about 1,000 evacuees, more than 70 of whom have sought shelter at the city’s Wanamaker School intake center. Washington, D.C. officials say the city has housed 300 evacuees in the D.C. Armory, 88 of which were still residing there as of press time.
City officials also place some of the blame for the empty shelter on the administration of Gov. Robert Ehrlich. They say that his Sept. 14 announcement that Maryland had received a federal declaration of emergency—a federally approved designation that allowed the state to formally assist Katrina victims—came after many hurricane victims had already left the city of New Orleans and settled elsewhere.
According to Raquel Guillory, press secretary for Mayor Martin O’Malley, the state had to apply to the federal government “[to say] we are willing to accept evacuees. The state didn’t do that until a good week-and-a-half after the Katrina event. So until then, we couldn’t get the [evacuees] from the [Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)] folks.”
“We just did not get the declaration early enough, in my opinion,” Scriber agrees. “That may have been the reason [for the empty shelter]. Or it may not have been the reason.”
Jeff Welsh, public information officer for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) says in the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, there are procedures that state and local governments must follow to provide emergency assistance. In this case, he says, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a body that provides structure through which states can provide aid to one another, tracks specific requests from areas affected by disasters. MEMA works with EMAC and FEMA to provide such things as emergency equipment, emergency medical technicians, cadaver dogs, and temporary shelter. In the Katrina situation, Welsh says, FEMA did not want to shift victims from shelter to shelter far from their homes.
“[Evacuees] went from the Superdome to the Astrodome, and then they’re moving again,” he says. “Temporary shelter was not what was needed. And most who did need shelter needed it near their homes in Louisiana. The next largest groups were in the surrounding states, like Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida. There was never a request for temporary shelter in Maryland, and probably never a need.”
In fact, a Sept. 23 press release from MEMA notes flatly that “FEMA did not ask Maryland to accept Katrina refugees.”
When asked whether Baltimore jumped the gun in preparing the shelter at the “Du” Burns Arena, Welsh replied, “It’s not for MEMA to say whether the city’s decision to open a shelter was appropriate or inappropriate. Our role in this process is to work with FEMA and, when FEMA makes a request, to tell them what’s available in the state. But FEMA never made a request.”
Scriber says the city opened the shelter because “we thought there was a need based on what we saw in the Gulf area. Thousands of evacuees were displaced. I think we were so aggressive because the need was so great.”
FEMA spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker confirmed Welsh’s sentiments, noting that there was an “overwhelming response” to requests for assistance, but that many evacuees did not want to pick up and move again by the time Maryland’s declaration of emergency was made. And of the 3,600 estimated people who registered with the Red Cross when they came to Maryland from the Gulf states, Welsh says, the majority went to Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, not Baltimore.
Emergency-relief operations at the “Du” Burns Arena were scheduled to come to an end on Sept. 28, but officials decided to keep them going in light of the newest threats to the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Rita. They say they are preparing to accept New Orleans residents who are being forced to leave the city once again, in addition to refugees from Houston forced to leave their homes and temporary shelters due to Rita. MEMA says Maryland is prepared to take 1,000 Rita refugees statewide. Perhaps Baltimore’s stockpiled donations and empty cots will be put to use yet.
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