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More Katrina Victims Coming to Santa Monica

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

September 22 -- With the nation still reeling from Katrina and another hurricane looming ominously on the horizon, Santa Monica relief agencies are struggling to help the victims who are finding their way here from the battered Gulf Coast.

Local aid workers warn we may be seeing the beginning of a mass migration.

It’s too early to predict, but relief workers say it will take months or even years before the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of displaced Southerners get back on their feet -- wherever they may land.

“This is a milestone in American history,” Bill Bauer, spokesman for the Santa Monica chapter of the Red Cross told the Lookout. “The political ramifications are just starting to be felt.”

While the National Red Cross isn’t directing people to Santa Monica, families and individuals are “trickling in” at an increasing rate, Bauer said.

A week ago, the Santa Monica chapter was handling 25 cases when “all of a sudden, boom” 80 new “cases” showed up at their door, representing 150 individuals all told, Bauer said.

As the number of evacuees coming to town grows, Bauer hopes Santa Monica has the resources to assist them.

Earlier this month, the County asked for help in making a list of “non school shelters” in the region. Santa Monica replied that it didn’t have any.

“The only non-school shelters in town are already at capacity, with homeless people, as I know you are aware….” City spokesperson Judy Rambeau explained in an email that went out to interested parties in early September.

But Bauer doesn’t expect that to stop the hurricane victims from coming.

“They’re going to be coming, whether we want them or not,” he said. “We just want to do the best for them.”

Two of their most recent clients were “a couple of guys” who drove across the country, stopping to see friends in Texas before making their way to the west coast.

“Now that they’re here, they’re looking for services,” Bauer said.

People are arriving with only the clothes on their backs, he said. They use their $500 FEMA credit cards to buy gas to get out here.

Once they get here, many are likely to stay, Bauer said. “It’s a clean slate. It’s time to start over.”

“About 90% of the victims being serviced by the Santa Monica (Red Cross) chapter plan to permanently relocate to the Los Angeles area if they can find affordable housing and jobs,” said John Pacheco, executive director of the local Red Cross.

Those familiar with the plight of the victims say many are suffering “sticker shock” once they get out here.

“They’re all just flabbergasted by the cost of housing,” Bauer observed, adding that “some of them are going to need public housing.”

And now that Hurricane Rita is winding its way towards the Texas border, Red Cross officials are worrying about the fate of Katrina evacuees housed in that state.

“Rita’s headed directly towards Houston, but it could veer north to the Gulf Coast,” Bauer said. “We’re watching that very closely.”

“The National Red Cross may have to clear out shelters in Texas,” he said, adding that the Red Cross is considering airlifting people out of the danger zone, some of whom might be directed to Los Angeles.

“It’s very fluid,” he said. “It could change twice a day.”

The local Red Cross and Salvation Army chapters are splitting the job of providing the first level of service to evacuees who come here.

The Red Cross provides temporary housing and help in navigating the maze of county and state services while the Salvation Army hands out food and clothing vouchers.

“In addition to financial aid, we are providing referrals, helping to locate permanent housing, providing mental health services to those traumatized by the event, aiding in finding employment and doing all we can to render aid and comfort to help our clients return to a normal life,” Red Cross volunteer Frank Vidrio said.

The Salvation Army has teamed up with Los Angeles City and County officials and a host of building trades have volunteered to convert a warehouse in Bell into a temporary shelter, Captain Eric Bradley of the Santa Monica Salvation Army chapter said.

The shelter is called “Operation Angel Island,” and volunteers will be working around the clock seven days a week to help the refugees with shelter, employment, housing and education.

Both organizations continue to train volunteers to go back east.

The Red Cross has sent 45 volunteers already, and has trained 700 more to work in shelters and service centers.

The Salvation Army expects to send out its own officers as they are needed. “We’re on standby,” Bradley said. “As they exhaust their officers, they’ll send us out.”
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