Arkansas readies for possible evacuees

Published 6:02 pm Friday, August 29, 2008

Arkansas officials and businesses were preparing Thursday to handle evacuees fleeing Tropical Storm Gustav, which could make landfall on the Gulf Coast early next week.

The state is prepared to house up to 4,000 evacuees at Fort Chaffee, and hotels in the southern half of the state were busy taking reservations from coastal residents.

Nick Dunn, front desk manager at the Holiday Inn and Suites at El Dorado in the state’s far south said the rush began Wednesday morning.

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“The phone was ringing off the hook. We were (completely) booked by 2 p.m.,” Dunn said. The hotel is sold out from Sunday night through the following Thursday, he said. Almost all of the reservations were from Louisiana, with most saying they were from New Orleans.

The Econo Lodge Inn and Suites in Dumas was fully booked, too.

“We’re all booked this Saturday and Sunday,” said a clerk. “They’re all from Louisiana.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center projected a track in which Gustav would make landfall at Morgan City, La., just west of New Orleans, though the storm could change course.

Three years ago, Arkansas took in thousands of refugees after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Tommy Jackson, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said the agency’s employees are on standby, which means they have to be ready to go to work if the emergency center is activated.

Jackson said Arkansas has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Louisiana to accept evacuees, if necessary. A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said emergency planners were told to draw on their experience from 2005 and develop a plan.

After Katrina and Rita, Arkansas took in 15,000 refugees. A year later 4,000 of them were still in the state, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In 2005, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee enlisted church camps and other venues to serve as shelters. National Guard armories served as centers to help refugees and numerous private agencies stepped in to provide assistance.

Beebe spokesman Grant Tennille said Beebe, who was in Denver for the Democratic National Convention, had been in touch with emergency planners.

“Obviously we’ve got some benefit in that we’ve been through this before,” Tennille said.

In 2005, Fort Chaffee also served as a processing center for refugees who were being assigned to church camps.

Arkansas spent $44.1 million on refugee assistance in 2005, according to FEMA.

Huckabee estimated that as many as 75,000 evacuees came to Arkansas in 2005, including those who needed government help and those who made their own arrangements.

Dunn said he’ll have an extra person working behind the desk when the rush of Louisiana residents begin to check in.

While hotels in south Arkansas were largely booked, there were open rooms further north.

At the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Little Rock, front desk clerk Tommy Fuquay said he was reserving rooms for people planning to flee the storm.

“We are not booked up, but the trend is picking up,” Fuquay said. “We are starting to fill up on Sunday going into Monday.”