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Katrina survivors struggling

Life is a struggle for the Hurricane Katrina survivors now living in Maryland.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | January 20, 2006


"Some were told if they don't clean up their property they'd get a fine. Families are having problems getting the funds for traveling back and forth."

—Kathy Hurt


Life is a struggle for the Hurricane Katrina survivors now living in Maryland, but social service agencies are working hard to help meet their needs.

Many survivors are stressed out and frustrated, said Kathy Hurt, project manager of Katrina Assistance Recovery Effort (KARE). KARE is an agency assisting Katrina survivors living in Baltimore and in four Maryland counties.

KARE formed in late October with funding from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). KARE has 11 outreach teams made up of two staff members each. The teams go to hotels and other living communities where many families have been staying since the hurricane. The teams meet with the families to assess needs and offer referrals to assistance available in the state.

Hurt said that stress from not knowing what's next is very visible in the eyes of those she and the KARE outreach teams meet with.

"We've had some extreme cases of grief we've had to refer to a crisis response center," said Hurt. "And yet I think many families are still in a state of shock, the grief hasn't come through yet because they're not yet permanently settled."

Close to 4,000 people came to Maryland after evacuating from the Gulf Coast last September. Housing is the number one priority for the survivors, as many are still living in hotels with funds from FEMA, but the deadline on hotel and motel payments from FEMA comes at the end of February for the majority of Katrina survivors.

"Many families are trying to find a permanent place to live, and some are traveling back and forth trying to clean their property out down there," Hurt said. "Some were told if they don't clean up their property they'd get a fine. Families are having problems getting the funds for traveling back and forth."

The KARE teams are reaching out to the families they find each day, knowing that there are thousands that still have not come forward. Teams are also paying close attention to the needs of children, offering counseling to them and trying to move more into local school systems. More than 600 kids from the Gulf Coast are now in the Maryland school system, said Hurt.

Uprooting kids from their homes can be very hard on them for a number of reasons, said another KARE team member.

"Sometimes children don't do well - especially the teens," said Connie Reese, outreach worker for KARE. "Teens are no longer in their schools, and it can be tougher for them. Now they don't know anybody, they may not have the right clothes, they don't have what they had back home. It takes a while to get them back on their feet."

The KARE office is a busy place, even when all the outreach teams are out going door-to-door in the field. Hurt said the phone rings constantly as survivors call in for help. KARE works closely with other local agencies to connect the families to what they need, be it furnishings for a new apartment or food. Hurt and Reese both noted that the outreach teams meet with families multiple times to assess mental and physical needs - and to also listen.

"We sit with them and ask open-ended questions to give them the chance to talk about their grief," explained Hurt. "Basically we listen and reassure them that they're normal and that their reactions are from an abnormal situation. After listening, we also tell them things that can help mitigate their stress."

Most survivors have traumatic stories about how they ended up in Maryland. Reese said some say they were put on a bus or plane and didn't know where they were going until they got here. Some have family members stuck in other states and some lost loved ones to the storm. Others, said Hurt, were just told to get out of the affected areas and left with only a few days worth of clothing.

"One young man said he left in a car and got here and he doesn't know how - he drove through water that was up to his windshield to get out of his neighborhood. He said he doesn't know how he was able to make it. You can just see the trauma. Everyone has a story to tell."

For Hurt and Reese, responding to the needs of Hurricane Katrina survivors is very similar to their last job - helping Maryland's Hurricane Isabel survivors. Isabel hit Maryland in September 2003, and Hurt said that experience only prepared them better for helping the Katrina survivors.

"That experience for us helps in terms of recognizing grief symptoms, but obviously this is much more extreme than Isabel," she noted.

Some Katrina families have decided to stay in Maryland permanently, while others are trying to go back. In either case, the struggle happening now is overwhelming for many. "You can see the grief in their eyes," said Hurt about one public meeting with the survivors she attended.

"Many are trying to find jobs but aren't having any luck. One lady there said she just needed a job - any job. She'd been a computer tech before, but said now she'd take any job she could get. She didn't even realize her value in the job market here. She was just saying she'd take any job she could get just to have a job. It's devastating to many - it's just the devastation from the hurricane plus the flooding plus the relocating to areas with different cultural background, it compounds the issue."


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