City shifts Katrina response

With local officials more aware of the changing needs of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, New Haven and Connecticut’s efforts to assist evacuees are evolving, and the city is changing its focus from planning for an incorrectly anticipated mass airlift of evacuees to working with the few who are traveling up the coast on their own.

New Haven’s plan to offer housing and services to 100 displaced families, as announced by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Sept. 5, has not yet been fully carried out, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was responsible for relocating evacuees, never directed any towards Connecticut. The city is currently trying to assess the needs of the few evacuees in the area in order to determine how to allocate the $500,000 set aside by the Board of Alderman — as well as the $80,000 and plethora of goods donated by private citizens to a fund set up to aid arriving families.

Alderman Carl Goldfield said it was still very early in the recovery process, too early to decide what to do with all of the $500,000, or whether all the money will even be necessary. The board had allocated the funds shortly after the hurricane in order to manage an anticipated 100 families, who, according to the mayor, would require approximately $80,000 each in assistance.

“It’s just the beginning – there are a lot of people still down there making decisions about where to go,” Goldfield said. “It will be a while before we can determine how many families we will have.”

He said if no families relocate to New Haven, the half a million dollars will be returned to the Board of Aldermen’s “Rainy Day Fund,” an emergency spending fund made up of past surpluses.

Initially the city had been anticipating a flood of airlifted families straight from the devastated areas, instead of the current trickle of self-evacuated families.

“We were expecting a plane of folks from FEMA,” said Sheila Allen-Bell, director of community services for New Haven. “What we’re doing now is working with families who have self-evacuated because they have friends, families here.”

FEMA stopped airlifting evacuees Sept. 13, after delivering displaced persons to 21 host states, according to a FEMA press release. Most of the states that are hosting evacuees are in the south or west.

Allen-Bell, who is responsible for overseeing case management for arriving families, said that the city has just begun the intake process for those who self-evacuated and is beginning to learn exactly what their needs are. She said she did not know the exact number of individuals or families that the city is in contact with at the moment, though she said many of them in the area are families with school-aged children.

“I’m sure they will be contacting us if they need services. As many of those that need help, we’re here to assist them,” Allen-Bell said. “They’re calling us, so I think they’re aware [of the resources the city can offer].”

She said the decision of how to allocate the $80,000 in private donations is the responsibility of a committee chaired by Community Foundation President William Ginsberg. Calls to the Community Foundation were not returned

Data from the Red Cross indicates that approximately 132 individual evacuees were in the New Haven area as of early last week, according to a release from Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Current data from the Red Cross accurate to last Friday indicates that there are now 298 families in the state as a whole, said Paul Shipman, director of external relations for the Farmington, Conn. chapter of the Red Cross.

Although the Red Cross is focused on those in the disaster area, it has been helping local evacuees with a range of services, from health care to locating housing and employment. Additionally, he said, the Red Cross is trying to recruit and train volunteers who can travel to Louisiana and Mississippi and assist with relief efforts there. As of last week, 158 volunteers had been deployed from the state’s 13 Red Cross chapters.

“It’s a difficult situation to assess. People are making their way on their own so people trickle up as they connect with family or friends or are able to get transportation,” Shipman said. “There are a variety of circumstances that have brought them here and that will continue to bring people here.”

Other local officials are still anticipating the arrival of more evacuees as those who were displaced gradually make sense of their situation and begin thinking about their long-term plans. Meghan Collins, the director of government relations for the Connecticut Community Colleges, said she is anticipating that as students pull together their paperwork, some will likely decide to come to Connecticut and take advantage of the state’s decision to waive tuition to students displaced by the hurricane.

“Most are only now just thinking, ‘What am I going to do about college?’” Collins said. “They may not be willing to go until next semester.”

Although Gateway Community College in New Haven has not yet enrolled any displaced students, the 12 other campuses around the state have enrolled a total of 20 students. The state community colleges have been reaching out to their counterparts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, Collins said, in order to let students there know that a tuition waiver is available for them.

“It is getting easier, and word is getting out, but it took a lot of work on our part,” she said. “There were a few states that have offered this, but mostly it’s in the area. I don’t think they’d gotten a lot of contact from the New England states.”

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