Monday, September 19, 2005

Out of Katrina's Wake, Victims Find Aid in Harlem

I wonder if any of them are deaf.

Out of Katrina's Wake, Victims Find Aid in Harlem
By NINA BERNSTEIN (NY Times, I think)

Published: September 17, 2005

Using a model developed to help bereaved families after 9/11, New York has turned one floor of an old Harlem welfare office into a welcoming center where several hundred Katrina storm survivors are finding one-stop disaster assistance.

Asia Townsend of New Orleans waited for her son, David, 27, Friday at the hurricane disaster relief center in Harlem.

The center, which opened at noon Thursday, had handled more than 300 people from 100 families by Friday evening, city officials said, describing them as people who had made their way on their own from the storm-devastated Gulf region to join friends and family in New York. State rules for identification were waived so that no one would be denied public aid for lack of documents lost in the flood.

"We wanted to make these people feel welcome," said Bob McHugh, a spokesman for the city's Human Resources Administration. He said employees worked around the clock to remodel the space for the city's Office of Emergency Management, which is in charge of the overall operation. "These people are traumatized, and New York's going to be there for them."

On Friday night, the two dozen people at the center were almost overwhelmed by the city and state officials who were there to offer help. There was a day care area where children could play with toys on a newly-tiled floor, banks of telephones, computers and cubicles for privacy.

Besides such basics as food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance, the families found offers of counseling from the Office of Mental Health, help accessing bank records from the State of New York Department of Banking, representatives from the Social Security Administration, and Red Cross workers handing out debit cards and hotel assignments.

"I'm tired, hungry; I'm ready to settle down," said Sheila Clifton, 39, who was holding a donated teddy bear and seeking a place to sleep for her family - sons Nicholas, 15, and Brandon, 17, and her granddaughter, Akyra Nettles, 5. "Everything's in one place, and I like it like that."

Nicholas said they had walked out of their house in New Orleans' Carrollton section in waist-high water two days after the storm, gathering what belongings they could, including important documents. With rides from friends and strangers, they made their way to Texarkana, Tex., and finally, after learning from an online bulletin board that Ms. Clifton's brother in New York was looking for her, they flew to New York with the help of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA. Ms. Clifton had not seen her brother in seven years, Nicholas said.

Ms. Clifton, who said that before the flood she worked at the Place d'Armes Hotel in the French Quarter and was a student at Southern University, soon had a hotel room provided by the Red Cross, and had signed up for other benefits.

Initially, New York State prepared for many more than the 750 or so people who have shown up in county social services offices since the hurricane, said Joseph F. Bruno, the city's emergency management commissioner. Until Monday, officials at FEMA, had planned to send planeloads of Katrina evacuees to the state, and the city and six counties had volunteered to take them in - including Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Erie, Onondaga and Monroe.

Camp Smith near Bear Mountain had been selected as a staging area for up to 1,500 at a time and the state had agreed to accept as many as 5,000. Then the state, city and county officials who had mobilized for the event were told mass transports were off. Apparently too many evacuees resisted a secondary migration so far from home, Robert Doar, commissioner of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said yesterday.

Meanwhile, however, the state relaxed the rules for obtaining public benefits like food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance. "If someone presents themselves as a victim of Katrina and doesn't have a driver's license or ID, those document requirements should be waived," Mr. Doar said yesterday.

"The situation in New Orleans was unprecedented. We wanted to respond in a way that showed the heart of New York, and we have."

At the same time, he added, counties were told, "Don't completely forget about the fact that there are unfortunate people in your cities and towns who will attempt to abuse this."

At the center, which will be open seven days a week - 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday - most of those seeking help Friday night had documentation, officials said.

Before reaching the center at 530 W. 135th Street, near Broadway, many had stopped at a welcome center set up nearby in the Great Hall of City University of New York, where weary families were issued photo ID's, screened by health care workers, and collected free MetroCards, diapers, comfort kits and cots.

Officials said they expected about 50 families a day. Mr. Bruno suggested that most would eventually return home to rebuild their city. But some seemed ready to put down roots.

Ollie Stewart, who worked at a home for abused children in New Orleans and lived in the Garden District, said his mother wound up in Tennessee and his sister in Georgia. But he likes what he has seen since Sept. 2, when he moved in with his 37-year-old brother, Darryl Bloodsaw. After picking up a Red Cross debit card worth $360 for 14 days, he said he was planning to stay in New York.

"They're taking care of me here," he said, "showing me mad love."

Peter Beller contributed reporting for this article.