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One Year Deadline Looms for Evacuees

County’s public/private partnership serves Katrina evacuees as they try to rebuild their lives.

Within days of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, evacuees from New Orleans began arriving in Fairfax County. Some came because they had relatives or friends in the area, others had boarded a bus with no clear idea of the destination, knowing that they had to get out of the city. The flow of evacuees to Fairfax eventually peaked at about 1,100. By then, the public and private sectors had already mobilized, according to Kathy Froyd, a Division Director in the County’s Department of Family Services.

She said the formation response was initially spurred by the Board of Supervisors, the school superintendent, and the PTA. Soon businesses, schools, religious organizations, non-profits and volunteers coalesced around the county government’s effort, and the Fairfax Families Care collaborative was formed. “There were a lot of people in this community who came together to support these families,” said Froyd. “You had within a couple of weeks everyone sitting around the table.”

The collaborative took shape as a “first response” to the disaster, meeting the emergency needs of people who had arrived thousands of miles from homes that no longer existed, and often without even the barest of necessities: checkbooks to withdraw money, birth certificates to establish identity, clean clothes to change into.

Froyd said there was no single, premeditated decision to partner so closely with the private sector. She said that the partnership occurred organically because of the enthusiasm from the community. As the weeks became months, and emergency needs gave way to long-term issues of readjustment, the county retained the public-private partnership that defined the collaborative, choosing to sub-contract the work of case management for Katrina evacuees to three non-profit organizations: Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), United Community Ministries (UCM) and Reston Interfaith.

Of the more than 1,000 people that had come to Fairfax from New Orleans, about 300 were in need of long-term social service support. These were “families that were truly needy and got here and had nothing and didn’t have any resources to fall back on,” said Lura Bovee, a regional manager within the Department of Family Services. She said the county’s model of “contracting with a public agency and using the community based organizations for a quick response to a disaster” has worked effectively over the past nine months.

The county is currently paying the cost of this partnership. But, said Froyd, “A significant number of the things that are done locally … will be reimbursable by FEMA.” She said the county is not yet sure what percentage will be reimbursable.

MEREDITH MCKEEN is coordinating the Katrina effort for NVFS, which is also the over-all coordinator for the county. She said NVFS was chosen to coordinate the county-wide effort because of its experience conducting similar large-scale case management and trauma recovery after September 11. “We have that model that is very effective for people in groups who were affected by large scale disasters,” she said. “We basically adapted that model to work with Katrina evacuees who are here in our area.”

She said the biggest difference between the two is that Katrina relief has only been funded for one year. “There’s limited funding in this particular instance … so it’s a shorter time frame in terms of having people work towards self-sufficiency,” McKeen said.

For this reason, NVFS began implementing its programs immediately, to catapult the evacuees towards self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. “Eventually all these programs will be gone, so the idea is to help people get connected to each other and develop their own support groups,” McKeen explained.

“Its not like we were given a year because people decided Katrina folks only needed a year … To be honest its kind of arbitrary … The problem is … there area lot of folks who cannot make a decision. Through no fault of their own … people haven’t been able to make a choice and move forward,” McKeen said, referring to the fact that many evacuees still do not know about the status of their houses and their neighborhoods. They are waiting for the government to tell them if or when they will be able to return.

ROBIN GILMORE is UCM’s case manager for disaster support services. She said there are about 95 to 100 evacuees in Mount Vernon currently receiving support from UCM. This equates to about 45 individual households. She said these households are rarely traditional families. Often they are composed of single people in multi-generation units, for instance an adult daughter, mother and grandmother. Many of these families gradually reunited with one another over great distances. “The structure of the family is that they all lived very close together [in New Orleans.] When they lost everything, multi-generations of families were wiped out, so they kind of came together,” said Gilmore.

Gilmore said the county’s collaboration with non-profits has made social service provision in Fairfax quicker and more efficient. “We offer a more structured case management program,” she said. “Fairfax County really responded quickly.”

Describing the initial response to the evacuees in the weeks after the hurricane, Gilmore said, “We wanted to have contact with everyone who had come into Fairfax County … It didn’t necessarily have to be about economic resources … because everybody was devastated.” She said that many evacuees had money in the bank, but could not access it without an ATM card.

Gilmore described how the small difficulties inherent in such an unplanned and desperate exodus would exacerbate one another. “[The evacuees have] all experienced trauma. Pretty much every aspect of their environment has been changed: church, family structure, economics, work. The difficulty of trying to negotiate all the different agencies that were trying to help … or trying to get people to work, or trying to talk to insurance companies, they really have had to work very hard at trying to get through a lot of that, which takes a lot of energy. It was emotionally difficult… A lot of grief and loss issues have been brought to the surface.”

McKeen agreed. “Some people have pretty strong reactions to what is really a traumatic experience, but also an incredible amount of loss. That can really affect a person’s ability to organize.” She said many of the evacuees she’s met had been “totally self-sufficient” in the lives that had been swallowed up by the rising water. Evacuees chafe at their sudden dependency on county services. Many are also frustrated by the complete overturning of their financial positions. “We’ve got a lot of clients who are renting up here and having to pay a mortgage in the gulf south on a home that was completely destroyed,” McKeen said.

BOTH UCM AND NVFS are trying to use counseling to give clients the tools they need to cope. “There are a range of reactions that really make sense for such a huge event. We’ve provided people the information to know they’re not crazy,” said McKeen. “The hard part is there’s no set time frame … Each individual is going to heal on a different timeline.”

But McKeen said they have had the most success not through individual sessions on the counseling couch but simply by helping to recreate the community that Katrina dispersed. “Getting people together has really proved to be very important, very healing for people. The Katrina people are really looking for those connections. They lost … basically their whole community. There’s a whole informal network people basically don’t have anymore … I think September 11 created an artificial community, nobody wanted to be a part of that community. But Katrina, they lost that community and are looking to get it back. But with both we’ve really seen there is no straight line between experience and recovery.”

Gilmore said that she has also seen how every issue pertaining to the evacuation of New Orleans - emotional, physical, financial, social – is intertwined. She said that dozens of clients have sat in her office to begin the task of reorganizing wind-whipped, flooded, dispersed lives and “Nobody didn’t cry. Everybody, when they start talking about it – because their worlds have been turned upside down.” The role of case manager is never simply a technical one. “It all comes up and so you do handle that.”

UCM has begun having a counselor come in two days a week, but thus far the response has been slow. “Therapy is a new concept for a lot of people,” Gilmore explained. “[But] now that they are coming out of a shock kind of phase, a lot of them are recognizing the signs of trauma and they are asking and seeking [help].”

But recovery will be difficult as long as the biggest uncertainty in their lives remains unresolved. “They can't really make choices until they get word on their homes, whether they can rebuild,” said Gilmore. “This is a long-term recovery. Those that had minimal damage can go back there but what I’m hearing from evacuees, it’s pretty devastated still … We’re thinking three to five years before they can really get back there and get stable … The long term traumatic piece of it is that their worlds are forever changed. Even if they go home, home is never the same. Having said that, this is the most resilient, positive group of people that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”

GILMORE SAID that regardless of where the evacuees will be in three years, finding work now is their first priority. “It’s kind of a critical piece. If they plan to stay, they’ve got to be working … and [at] better jobs, better paying[than they had in New Orleans]. Because they’re finding it’s a higher cost of living here, a lot … Everything is more expensive: food, transportation, just everything.”

The challenges that evacuees’ face in the upcoming months and years are daunting. But most evacuees are prepared to face these challenges from a position of stability that may have been unthinkable nine months ago, when the water was rising. Everyone involved in the county’s response to the hurricane seems to view it as a success. “This kind of model as an immediate response to a disaster situation I believe was unusual,” said Froyd. She credited the county’s strong relationship with non-profits prior to the disaster as the reason the effort that incorporated them could be launched so quickly. “We work so closely with them that we immediately started working together to figure it out,” said Froyd. “What we did was considered a model around the metropolitan region.”

“I think the [community-based organizations] have done a good job of planning with the families,” added Bovee. “They have a transition plan for each of the families.” When Katrina’s anniversary rolls around, and many of the funds that are currently propping up the evacuees are cut off, those that are still struggling to meet their needs will be incorporated into the county’s existing social services structure. The logic of the transition is simple: regardless of why they arrived, or when they may leave again, the people from New Orleans will no longer be evacuees. They will be members of the Northern Virginia community.