Leader Blues

Thursday, September 07, 2006

TOP STORY >>Hurricane relief centers closing doors

Leader staff writer

After serving 900 evacuees, the Hurricane Katrina Assistance Center on James St. in Jacksonville closed its doors Saturday, but help is still available by scheduling appointments through the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. The volunteer staff at Cabot KARE (Katrina Assistance Relief Effort) located in the old Knight’s grocery store, is also thinking about closing that center on Nov. 17.

The relief centers were started by local residents after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29. More than 75,000 people from the Gulf Coast made their way to Arkansas after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. According to the Arkansas Katrina Assistance Relief Effort, an estimated 30,000 hurricane evacuees are still in the state after President Bush’s Oct. 15 nationwide deadline to get evacuees out of shelters and into temporary housing.

“We’ve served about 200 families at the center,” said Buffy Zelnick, co-director of Cabot KARE. The center is currently open on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. “Right now people are coming by to get winter clothes, furniture and household things like small appliances and decorations for the home,” Zelnick said.

Zelnick said the Cabot KARE committee has discussed closing the center on Nov. 17, how to disperse the leftover donations as well as how to continue to provide help through the upcoming holiday season. Cabot KARE began as a relief center and quickly became a valuable resource for the people displaced by the hurricane by providing Internet and telephone service, maps and local information.

Likewise, the Jacksonville relief center started as a collection point for clothing and toiletry donations in the back of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce building on Dupree Drive after hundreds of evacuees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Ala-bama filled hotels in Jacksonville, Lonoke, Cabot and Beebe. Volun-teers filled hundreds of plastic shopping bags with toiletries for the evacuees staying in the area.

As more evacuees came forward with more needs, Mary Lou Gall and Angie Mitchell, both volunteers from Jacksonville, stepped up to help coordinate assistance. As donations poured in, the volunteers were able to set up the center behind the chamber of commerce, in a building lent to the city by Jacksonville businessman Harold Gwatney. Hurricane Katrina evacuees went to the center to get non-perishable foods, clothing, toiletries and assistance with getting housing and employment. During the first two weeks the center was open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., seven days a week.

“I believe everyone helped because we knew it had to be done,” Mitchell said. Eventually, the center was open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Hurricane Rita then struck the Gulf Coast in Texas and west Louisiana on Sept. 24, sending a new wave of hurricane evacuees into area hotels, leading the center back to being open daily for about a week.

“You knew they were a hundred miles away from home and some people lost everything,” Mitchell said. Mitchell says most of the hurricane evacuees in the area are settled into housing and many have jobs. In order to move out of the building, most of the leftover clothing has been taken to either to the Care Channel at 201 Elm St. or the Fishnet Missions thrift store at 709 1/2 West Main Street, between Walgreens and Discount Tobacco. Much of the leftover non-perishable food has been donated to Fishnet Missions as well.

Mitchell says during the last few weeks the center was open, evacuees were stopping by to get winter clothing such as coats, jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts and pants. Mitchell said community efforts for the evacuees would continue over the approaching winter months with food baskets for Thanksgiving and the holidays.

“I’d like to try to organize a project to provide Christmas presents for the children of evacuees,” Mitchell said. For an appointment or more information about the Hurricane Katrina Relief Center, contact the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce at (501) 982-1511. Cabot KARE can be reached at (501) 605-0931.