Officials worried about reluctant evacuees

Published 1:32 pm Tuesday, September 9, 2008

At a Red Cross shelter at the Mississippi Fairgrounds in Jackson, evacuees sat outside in the heat and complained about a lack of resources.

Yvonne Barnes, a press operator at a dry cleaners in Baton Rouge, said she didn’t have money to wash her clothes or buy bar soap, much less purchase gas to go back to Louisiana. She was at the shelter with her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren. Barnes said she thought the “government” would provide funds to evacuees in need.

“People here are angry,” Barnes said. “I can tell you that’s going to have an effect on future hurricanes.”

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She said it will come down to a choice between two scenarios: flee to avoid devastation similar to Hurricane Katrina or stay to avoid her current situation in the aftermath of Gustav.

“We don’t want to go back and then come back because of Ike,” Barnes said. “They don’t understand our funds are gone.”

Emergency officials in Mississippi say one of their biggest challenges may be convincing coastal residents who struggled to flee Hurricane Gustav to do it again if Ike heads into the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of Mississippians left their homes along the Gulf Coast last week after evacuations were ordered for those in temporary housing and low-lying areas. Hurricane Gustav didn’t pack the punch most feared, but it did leave hundreds of homes and other structures damaged.

Another residual of the storm has been evacuees who either arrived at inland shelters broke, or people who ran out of money in the days following the evacuation. On Sunday, dozens of evacuees were still at a shelter in downtown Jackson, unable to afford the trip back.

“I think the thing we have to focus on the most are the people who evacuated and struggled to get back home. That’s going to be the segment of the population that presents one of the biggest challenges,” Jeff Rent, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Sunday.

Rent said Mississippi is still in a wait-and-see mode for Ike, which is forecast to cross Cuba and skirt Key West by Tuesday as it heads to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s expected to slowly strengthen possibly to Category 3 strength on its way to a landfall late in the week somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and the Texas coast.

“We’re on the right side of it,” Rent said of the storm, adding that evacuations will be ordered as warranted.

Mississippi school buses provided transportation to hundreds of coast residents last week, bringing them to the Jackson shelter and then returning them back home days later.

Biloxi Councilman Bill Stallworth, who runs the nonprofit East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center, said he’s aware of the hurricane fatigue that comes from repeated evacuations.

“People did evacuate for Gustav. Then the next one comes right behind it and people think, ’Why should I evacuate?”’ Stallworth said.

The councilman, whose ward lost more than 3,000 homes to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said his volunteers are prepared to go door-to-door in East Biloxi if Ike forces an evacuation.

“We’ll start printing up information on Monday to update people,” he said.

Daniel Alford, 21, of New Orleans, said he’s still “stuck down here” in Jackson, but it’s probably better than going back ahead of Ike.

“At least I have a place to sleep,” Alford said.