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Arlington Forms Partnership With Biloxi

County businesses, residents and government officials will help Gulf Coast city rebuild following Katrina.

The county board announced last week it is forming a partnership with Biloxi, Miss., to help that community rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The Arlington Response to Katrina (ARK) task force, formed in September, generated the idea of a collaboration as a way for Arlington residents and businesses to play a long-term role in the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.

The county board envisions forming an in-depth partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Biloxi, and hopes the collaboration will influence civic groups, houses of worship and businesses in each locality to work together to aid the city as it rebounds.

The county seeks to create a guided framework for a community-wide response, enabling the government, citizens, nonprofit organizations and Arlington businesses to marshal their resources and provide more effective relief aid and services, officials said.

“Time can move Katrina to the back of our minds,” said Rich Doud, president of the Arlington County Chamber of Commerce. “But we know they still need help and this will be a long, long process. It’s admirable that we are doing something sustainable to help them.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Arlington deployed a team of six emergency managers to New Orleans to support the city's police department. Additional teams went to New Orleans throughout September and a regional group of fire fighters provided emergency services in Hancock County, Miss.

Arlington’s Department of Human Services assisted more than 150 families who were displaced by the hurricane with help locating temporary housing, counseling and job placement.

THOUGH ARLINGTON RESIDENTS have donated generously to the Red Cross and other Katrina funds, the county government recognized that individuals and businesses wanted a more formal, hands-on process for helping hurricane survivors.

Though the county has been ready for months to aid affected localities, the hardest hit communities are still not able to begin major rebuilding projects, officials said.

“In Biloxi they are still in the emergency stage,” said Ellen Bozman, co-chair of the ARK task force and a former county board member. “People still do not have houses and health facilities. Everyone is [striving] to meet their immediate needs.”

Biloxi was chosen because it is similar to Arlington, in that it has an ethnically diverse population, high-tech industry, a military base on its outskirts and a college, Bozman said.

It is too early to know exactly what the partnership will encompass, because Biloxi residents and businesses are only beginning to rebuild and assess the long-term impact of the deadly storm.

Arlington will work to meet Biloxi’s needs and the assistance will be sustainable, whatever it’s final form, said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette.

“We were not going to respond to the emotion of the moment unless the county was willing to stick with it,” Fisette said.

The most pressing concern in Biloxi is housing. Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia began working in the city the week after Katrina struck. Many homes that were flooded remain structurally sound, but need to be stripped, refurbished and rewired before residents can return.

Habitat for Humanity has finished renovating three houses and is currently working on another 27, said Karen Cleveland, executive director of the organization’s Northern Virginia. Thanks to volunteer labor, donations and discounted supplies, Habitat has been able to renovate a house for only $10,000 to $20,000.

The organization is hoping the partnership with Biloxi will inspire Arlington residents to donate their time and money to helping reconstruct houses in the Gulf Coast city.

“We’ve seen people in Northern Virginia opening their hearts and wallets to the people of Biloxi,” Cleveland said. “With Arlington getting behind this we will be able to reach out to new donors who didn’t know how to help the folks down there.”

THE ARLINGTON BUSINESS community is also eager to get involved in the rebuilding effort in Biloxi and its endeavors will be coordinated by the Arlington County Chamber of Commerce.

Doud, president of the chamber, said he is considering providing Biloxi’s chamber of commerce with computers and planning staff to help them restart their activities. He expects Arlington businesses will contact similar companies in Biloxi and ask them what assistance they require.

“The most important thing is not to impose on them what we believe they need,” Doud said. “This will be defined at the other end and then we will see how to help.”