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Sending Help, Offering Shelter

City government deploys resources as residents open their homes.

Two days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, Alexandria city government was already in motion to offer assistance and relief. In an emergency meeting between Mayor Bill Euille, Vice Mayor Del Pepper and Emergency Management coordinator Mark Penn, the city set in motion a plan to get help to those whose lives were devastated by the storm.

While one member of the Police Department has already been deployed, other teams of police, firefighters and relief workers are awaiting orders. This weekend, the city will co-sponsor a fund-raising race at Oronoco Bay Park. In the past two weeks, city leaders have been working to identify volunteers and match their fields of knowledge to the specific needs of specialized teams as part of a regional effort that includes neighboring jurisdictions.

"We have been on the end of enhanced coordination," said Euille, adding that many residents have asked why more Alexandrians haven't already been deployed. "The governor has asked jurisdictions to pool and contribute certain numbers of folks to the state effort, and these things take time."

SEVERAL REGIONAL TEAMS have already been organized, and Alexandria is playing a prominent role in staffing the teams. A 46-member regional team is currently being put together that includes five Alexandria city employees from the Fire Department, Transportation and Environmental Services, Parks and Recreation and Information Technology Services. They are currently awaiting an assignment to the New Orleans Emergency Operations Center.

Alexandria Police officers were some of the first to volunteer to help, with 97 employees volunteering for deployment. The Police Department has submitted a plan to send a 15-person team to the Gulf Coast, and city leaders are waiting for assignment. But one member of the force is already there. Capt. John Crawford, the Police Department's public information officer has been sent to the New Orleans Emergency Operations Center.

"He's like everybody else in that he wants to go down there and help," said Amy Bertsch, a public information officer with the Police Department. "He was really excited to get going and get on the road."

Crawford was notified Monday night that his 10-member regional team had been activated. He was deployed Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., stopping in Tennessee for a two-hour nap at a police barracks before returning to the road.

Other city departments have also submitted lists of employees who have volunteered to travel to the Gulf Coast to help hurricane victims. Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities has submitted a list of available shelter managers and formulated a list of tree crews to assist in clearing debris. In addition to submitting a list of volunteers, the city's Health Department has been busy providing inoculations to those who are headed for dangerous flood-ravished areas.

"All of these folks going down there have to be inoculated," said Euille. "These things take a while to happen."

At the Fire Department, 90 employees volunteered for service. The department is in the process of submitting a plan to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to send a team of five code inspectors to Mississippi to assist in damage assessment. Their current mission is to await assignment by Mississippi. Ten firefighters are also part of a 50-person team organized by the Northern Virginia Fire Chiefs that is currently awaiting deployment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

THE HOUSING OFFICE is coordinating with nonprofit agencies and faith-based organizations to provide lists of available housing opportunities in the city for those displaced by the storm and its aftermath. Euille has been working to organize the city's relief efforts. He sent 71 letters to churches and synagogues asking them to talk to their congregations about helping the relief efforts. He also taped a public service announcement asking citizen to do anything they can to help. The announcements will begin airing on Comcast on Sept. 15.

The primary response agency for social service needs is the Alexandria Red Cross, which is helping to administer the D.C. Armory shelter and has processed 44 displaced families — 42 in private homes in Alexandria and two families in hotels. It has also deployed 45 Alexandrians to the Gulf Coast region. Julia Wright, executive director of the Alexandria Chapter of the Red Cross, spent two weeks in the Gulf Coast.

"The people there didn't have much to start with, and now they have nothing," Wright told members of City Council on Tuesday. "The funeral director told me that if we hadn't arrived, they would have starved to death."

Wright said that her trip was emotionally draining, and warned volunteers that traveling to the Gulf Coast will be a difficult experience.

"It's not easy," Wright said. "But I was glad to represent Alexandria."

Groups that often get overlooked have also been recognized by city leaders. The city's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse has offered 15 beds to house evacuees who need their services. The city's Human Services Department also assisted 17 displaced families in getting situated in Virginia.

"Our doors are open," Euille said. "Alexandria is a caring community, and the response to Hurricane Katrina puts that in action."

THE CITY IS WORKING to make it easy for people to come to Alexandria. Residency requirements and fees have been waived for hurricane victims, and one evacuee is living at the Carpenter's Shelter with his 22-month-old son. City Councilman Ludwig Gaines said that he invited the evacuee and his son over to his house to watch the Redskins game and was heartened by his story.

"He said that he's not going to go back, and that he's going to make Alexandria his new home," said Gaines, adding that the man especially appreciated the treatment he received at the Carpenter's Shelter. "It really speaks highly of the Carpenter's Shelter and all the work they do there."

The city is also co-sponsoring a race at 9 a.m. Sept. 17 to raise money for the Red Cross 2005 Relief Fund. The Gulf Coast Relief 5K Run Walk will start at Oronoco Bay Park and feature Alexandrians James Carville and Mary Matalin. Registration is $25, and registration forms are available at Pacers Running Store at 1301 King Street. More than 500 people have already signed up for the race.

Five displaced students have enrolled with Alexandria City Public Schools: two at T.C. Williams High School, one at Patrick Henry Elementary School, one at Tucker Elementary School and one at Hammond Middle School. Three of the students are from Biloxi, Miss., and two are from New Orleans. The city's Department of Mental Health has created a brochure to help children deal with the trauma and stress associated with Hurricane Katrina that will be distributed at city schools. The Virginia Department of Education has waived all requirements that would normally apply to incoming students.

"This is the way it's supposed to work, and it worked well," said City Manager Jim Hartmann, who took time to thank Emergency Management coordinator Penn for the job he's done: "You are officially the employee of the year."