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Hurricane refugeesin for long haul

In the aftermath of a disaster that seems overwhelming, response is ranging from highly specialized deployments to small acts of compassion.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 31, 2005

In the aftermath of a disaster that seems overwhelming, response is ranging from highly specialized deployments to small acts of compassion.

Churches, families and friends across the affected states were housing people who were not sure when they're going home. But people not fortunate enough to have that connection have no place to go.

And U.S. responders were wrestling with what had become a key question by Wednesday: does this country have the capacity and expertise to house hundreds of thousands of people for what could turn into months?

The most comparable recent past experience the U.S. has had is when Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, leaving more than 200,000 homeless. Tent cities were hastily built, but the distribution of food and water became a notorious nightmare that enormously changed disaster response over the course of the next decade.

All U.S. military services are now participating the largest domestic disaster relief effort in years. The military is providing search and rescue, as well as medical help and supplies that support the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Four Navy ships loaded with relief supplies were expected to arrive in the Gulf by the weekend.

But to house the growing number of refugees, the U.S. government will need the assistance of voluntary agencies, said responders.

Even in today's more effective response environment, housing thousands of refugees will be a challenge said responders. Several faith-based disaster response groups said they were planning to tap the expertise of people who had responded to needs in the wake of the Dec. 26 tsunami.

"They're used to dealing with scale, said one responder. "We haven't had to deal with this scale."

Although national headlines are focused on New Orleans and the Mississippi coastline, the storm was huge, battering everything from just west of New Orleans to Pensacola, Fla., a width of more than 200 miles. To compare, last year's Hurricane Charley traveled hundreds of miles across Florida - but the damage path was 10 miles wide at its widest point. Katrina's slow pace also gave the devastating storm surge more time to build.

In the face of such a wide swath of damage, responders were concerned that, with the focus on the most devastated areas, outlying areas may be less visible.

By Wednesday morning, officials were estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, and a 200-foot dike breach continued to let in water from Lake Pontchartrain. U.S. military engineers were searching for ways to plug the gap, including dropping shipping containers filled with sand from airplanes. Water was 20 feet deep in some locations. Attempts to fix the breach failed on Tuesday, and crews continued their work on Wednesday.

"The breach in the 17th Street Canal is about 200 feet wide," said New Orleans Police Lieutenant Julie Wilson in a public statement. "The water is going to keep coming in until it reaches the level of the lake. I don't know what they are going to do."

The 'worst-case scenario' for Louisiana did not unfold until two days after Katrina hit - when at least some residents and responders thought the city had dodged the worst.

But "the devastation is greater than our worst fears," said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "It is just totally overwhelming. It is a tragedy of great proportions. There's no electricity and won't be any for quite a while. There's no water. And there's no food to be had. The communications network is completely gone. We think there may be only one major way into the city right now."

Rescuers have saved at least 300 people, but many lives have been lost, said officials, who said at least 100 people there were believed dead, and possibly many more.

Thousands of homes are in water up to their roof.

The Superdome, which is holding at least 10,000 evacuees, was surrounded by water on Tuesday, and on Wednesday emergency officials were making plans to evacuate them to the Houston Astrodome.

Looting has become a disheartening problem in the city as well, and 3,500 National Guard troops have been sent to the city.

In Mississippi, the worst-case scenario hit when a 30-foot storm surge demolished neighborhoods, businesses and churches up to six miles inland. At least 100 people were killed in that state, and officials expected that toll to double or triple.

The surge wiped away 90 percent of the buildings along the coast at Biloxi and Gulfport, leaving a scene of destruction that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour compared to a war zone.

Faith-based and voluntary groups report that the best way to help is to give cash donations, or to assemble relief kits using the guidelines provided. These groups have already deployed people to make damage assessments, set up volunteer efforts and distribute relief supplies across the worst-hit areas. In addition to the highly televised urban flooding, responders expressed concern about outlying areas that have been cut off.

Church and faith-based responders were distributing items ranging from water to medicines to cots.

Katrina struck Louisiana on Monday with 140-mile per hour winds, while slamming into the coasts of neighboring Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida.

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