The Evacuees: Who Fared Well and Who Didn't

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Larry Hayes drove from New Orleans to Atlanta three days before Katrina hit to stay with relatives, learning later that his Gentilly neighborhood home — situated between the London Avenue Canal and Lake Pontchartrain — was destroyed. A licensed social worker, Hayes found that his clients and livelihood were gone too, so he began showing his resume around Atlanta, and today is the Fulton County Supervisor for Project Hope, a FEMA-funded mental health program within the Georgia Department of Human Resources, where Hayes now numbers fellow Katrina evacuees among his clients. "I'm going to stay in Atlanta," he says. "I would have had to start from scratch in New Orleans, so I can start from scratch here."

In part because he left on his own and set himself up in a new location, Hayes is a success story among evacuees, according to a study of evacuees in five cities published this month by Appleseed, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. The study found that those who self-evacuated pre-storm and had someone to stay with fared better, with much of that category going to Atlanta, where only 16,000 of the 100,000 evacuees who came have left, versus those who ended up in Houston (150,000 of 250,000), San Antonio (15,000 of 30,000), Baton Rouge (25,000 to 30,000 of 300,000) and Birmingham (1,500 of 20,000), who have either returned to New Orleans to gone elsewhere. The report found that evacuation was an ever-evolving odyssey, as evacuees moved an average of 3.5 times after fleeing Katrina's wrath. Only Baton Rouge and Houston took in more people than Atlanta, with those cities and their new residents facing more dire circumstances. "I didn't go through living on a bridge and people pointing guns at me," says Hayes, 52.

All told, 400,000 people fled or were evacuated out of the city of New Orleans, where the current population is still half the pre-Katrina level. Taking in those who also left Mississippi, Alabama and other regions of Louisiana, 1.5 million people have applied for FEMA relocation assistance, according to the Appleseed study.

Also, according to the report, Atlanta did a better job than some cities at managing the influx by setting up "megacenters" that combined FEMA, housing, hospital referral and medical services in centralized locations. The city's expanse of shelter space and existing plans to house natural disaster victims in them helped too, and Atlanta got "extremely lucky" that hospitals had few scheduled surgeries due to the upcoming Labor Day weekend last year.

But not all was rosy in any city that took in New Orleans residents, including Atlanta. "Public and private agencies were faced with a relief effort for which they were generally unprepared," says Appleseed Executive Director Linda Singer. In Atlanta, experienced Red Cross personnel had shipped out, leaving the agency understaffed, which led to clashes with some local government officials on how to help evacuees.

In Houston, where 25,000 evacuees were bussed to the Astrodome, circumstances from the beginning were worse, and remain challenging. According to the report, 40% of its New Orleans transfers have left. But Houston still has 35,000 people among its evacuees in temporary housing, and funding vouchers are running out for some 5,000 by August 31, another 2,000 in September and all of the remaining by October 31.

Cindy Gabriel of the city's Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force says many evacuees attempted to return to New Orleans this summer, only to retreat upon finding services unable to reestablish them. To combat that, on August 21 a center was set up called Journey Home to provide evacuees with a sense of what is available back home.

"Many evacuees are shopping around for services that may be an immediate fix," says Jerry Montgomery of Houston's Katrina Aid Today. "We hope to steer them toward a process of long-term recovery."

Even Hayes says he's still personally seeking his own long-term recovery, despite the successes in Atlanta. "Am I happy?" responds Hayes. "No, I'm not happy. I don't think anyone's happy with being forced from home, but my clients are much more comfortable speaking with people from New Orleans. We were refugees last September, by October we became evacuees and by March we were survivors."