TOP STORY >> Katrina's Aftermath
Leader staff writer
Five days into the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history, even as many tens of thousands of people desperately stew in frustration and anger in New Orleans awaiting long-promised water, food and medical help, local people are helping out.
Bringing what little they could pack into the family car before fleeing—perhaps forever—from the homes and jobs and neighbors and schools they’ve known for a lifetime, refugees from Hurricane Katrina have flooded into area motels, some without a clue where they are headed, what life holds in store for them or from where their next meal will come.
They bring with them their hopes and fears, their children, pets and medical and emotional problems, often with too little food, too little water, too little money and not enough information about the folks back home.
Estimates of refugees in the state range as high as 20,000, according to some reports, although firm information is hard to come by.
Local churches, private citizens, businesses and governments are doing what they can.
The Jacksonville Chamber of Com-merce has coordinated a schedule of free meals to be provided at area churches and pantries, planned a job fair and is opening a shelter behind the chamber.
Gov. Mike Huckabee has identified 20,000 beds in the state for refugees, 4,000 of them at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith. He has declared an emergency to exist in every Arkansas county and freed millions of dollars for relief.
Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency identified a hurricane and levee failure at New Orleans as one of the most likely disasters, the agency was caught flatfooted this week—even though the hurricane was expected.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln Friday praised Huckabee’s response to the crisis, but called the action and inaction of President Bush and the Federal Emergency Ma-nagement Agency “unacceptable.”
“I was a little dismayed it took (the President) until today to get down there. There’s no doubt we need the kind of leadership that will make sure the agencies that are operating can operate efficiently.”
But locally, with guidance and support from the state Education Department, schools have begun enrolling students fleeing Loui-siana and Mississippi, forgoing for now the niceties of transcripts and other requirements.
The local Pulaski County schools have enrolled about at least seven students and are expecting more, particularly Arnold Drive Elemen-tary School, located on Little Rock Air Force Base. The base has opened a re-ception center to welcome airmen uprooted by the storm and flood and those with elementary school aged children would most likely attend Arnold.
“We’re expecting more and will do whatever we can,” said Arnold Drive Elementary Principal Jackie Smith. “We have a way to get uniforms and help the students get supplies,” she said.
At Jacksonville Middle School, the boys’ campus, three displaced students enrolled Friday.
In a competition to see which middle school could raise more money for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, the Jackson-ville girls raised $1,000 versus $400 for the boys, according to Girls Superintendent Angela Romney.
Responding to inaccurate information that many school-aged children were holed up in Lonoke motels with their parents, Lonoke Schools considered sending a school bus to pick those children up, according to John Tackett, assistant superintendent.
The new Holiday Inn Express at Lonoke emerged as the unofficial headquarters for Lonoke’s newly arrived travelers at the prompting of Christina Harris, a motel employee who took it upon herself to round up food, clothing and information for them.
One woman with two children, including a 19-month-old, told the desk clerk she was out of money and would have to leave, Harris said. A guest checking out pushed his credit card forward and had the clerk pay for two more nights for the woman.
“The parking lot’s been plenty full,” said Jason Thompson, general manager of the motel, “about 90 percent from Louisiana.”
By Thursday morning, he said, some were heading back to New Orleans “to see what’s left,” and others had run out of money and don’t know what to do.”
In the motel’s computer room, Marlene Nobles and members of her family surf the Internet, trying to find out how their home and neighborhood fared.
“My husband is still there and we can’t get in touch,” she said.
Then after a pause, “I feel that he’s well.”
Nobles and the Fergusons are headed to stay with family in Indiana. “I’m concerned,” said Chole Ferguson, 14. “We left people we know and want to have a house to go home to. This is going to be a life-changing event.”
Meanwhile, the Arkansas National Guard has about 1,000 soldiers and airmen in the affected areas, providing various kinds of aid.
“I’m very proud of the wonderful people of Arkansas who have opened their hearts and homes and churches and communities to help the displaced,” said the senator.
She said the Senate this week convened to pass a $10.5 billion emergency relief authorization, mostly for FEMA search and rescue. When FEMA moved to homeland security, it became entwined in tremendous bureaucracy, said Lincoln.
“Clearly, there have been simulations and there’s no reason that we should not have been prepared better—and we will be in the future,” she said.