- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

Retired veterans found refuge in the District yesterday, two days after they fled their storm-battered beachfront retirement home in Gulfport, Miss.

The 250 veterans traveled 16 hours by bus to the D.C. Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly known as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, where they will stay until their Gulfport residence is repaired — if possible.

“We’ve had serious damage [in Gulfport],” said Timothy Cox, chief operation officer for the D.C. retirement home. “Direct eyewitness reports say that only the slab is left on some of our buildings. … Dozens of windows have been blown out, and it may be three to six months before we even know if we can go back.”

A total of 415 veterans from Gulfport — including staff — will be housed in the District, others making their way by plane and car.

Hundreds of rescue workers and volunteers from across the country have rushed to the parts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Officials have called the response one of the biggest relief operations and one of the largest search-and-rescue missions in U.S. history.

The search-and-rescue team from Montgomery County saved two persons from the rubble in Harrison County, Miss.

“Shortly after they got started, they recovered two folks who had serious injuries,” said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County’s fire department. “They were treated by our folks … and taken to a hospital.”

A half dozen units of the D.C. National Guard were among the many units to be mobilized yesterday. The Guardsmen were posted in New Orleans to help restore order and stop the looting, carjackings and gunfire in the flooded city.

As many as 800 of its estimated 2,300 members will be deployed, said Maj. Sheldon Smith, a D.C. National Guard spokesman.

A group of 22 sheriff’s deputies from Loudoun County left yesterday for Jefferson Parish, La., to help with rescue efforts and to maintain law and order, said sheriff’s spokesman Kraig Troxell. They were to be sworn in as deputies in Louisiana with full police powers.

About 45 civilian volunteers from the D.C. area have already left for the disaster area to help distribute food and water.

Another 500 persons are expected to train with the American Red Cross and leave within the next two weeks, organization officials said. The Red Cross began a four-hour disaster relief “boot camp” where volunteers undergo proper training and can be deployed quickly to the Gulf Coast.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick asked the 140 parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington to donate money and time to disaster relief.

“In all my years — and I’m an old man — I’ve never seen a disaster like this in the history of our country,” said the 75-year-old prelate, who donated blood earlier yesterday. “I hope in this extraordinary time they would find a way to become as generous as they possibly can be.”

Most of the military veterans who fled their retirement home in Gulfport and arrived in the District yesterday fought in World War I, World War II and the Korean conflict. For many of them, all they have left is what they came with, at most a bag of clothing.

Officials said the ground floor of the 11-story building was under about 10 feet of water, ruining the kitchen and a long-term-care facility. A perimeter fence on the 44-acre campus also was destroyed.

“Thank God we left at night, so they couldn’t see anything,” said nurses’ assistant Ouida Evans.

When the seven chartered buses pulled into the home on North Capitol Street yesterday, scores of volunteers and military service members cheered and waved American flags.

The veterans, whose average age is 79, stepped off the buses with the help of walkers, canes and even oxygen tanks. Some were in wheelchairs. The veterans were mostly in good spirits but they looked weary. The veterans left Gulfport Tuesday night and spent Wednesday in an Atlanta hotel.

“I’m very glad to be here,” said William Thomas, a Vietnam War veteran. “It was a long trip.”

Several registered nurses joined the group in Atlanta to help take care of the veterans during their trip to the District.

“This whole event is the culmination of everyone involved going above and beyond,” said David Chandler, a nurse with Emory Adventist Hospital in Atlanta. “From the hotel to the nurses, the fact that there were this many people safely evacuated and not one casualty, that’s a miracle.”

Marcia Cannavito, a nurse from Atlanta, said she thinks the veterans from Gulfport have not yet understood the destruction Hurricane Katrina left behind.

“All of the residents, they don’t even know what they’ve really been through yet,” she said. “These people are under the impression that they’ll be here in D.C. for just two or three weeks. They’ve lost everything, some of them are here without any luggage, just the clothes on their backs. Many have just one bag full of belongings.”

Area residents are beginning to raise money for the hurricane victims.

Students at Langley High School in Fairfax County will begin a fundraiser when they start school on Tuesday. The Potomac Nationals, the Carolina League affiliate of the Washington Nationals, will donate 50 percent of all ticket sales from this weekend’s baseball games to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

Area colleges and universities are inviting students displaced by the storm in the Gulf Coast to attend classes here for at least the fall semester.

George Mason University in Fairfax is streamlining admissions for students at the storm-damaged colleges. Georgetown University is inviting local students attending Loyola of New Orleans University to study on its D.C. campus through the fall. Officials at American and George Washington universities said their schools are considering relief plans for local students who can’t start their semesters.

Officials from area elementary and secondary schools said they also are ready to welcome the refugee children into their classrooms.

“We have gotten more calls from families here in Arlington who have relatives or friends that they’re going to invite to come up and have a place to stay,” said Linda Erdos, a spokeswoman for the Arlington County Public Schools System.

“And we’ve gotten some calls from folks down in the New Orleans, Biloxi areas saying, ‘I have an aunt in that area, can I come?’, ” she said. “And our response has been, ‘absolutely.’”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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