- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

An entire city of people are suddenly homeless.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Craig “Poncho” Thompson. “We got nothing.”

He and his fiancee, Gabriella Frank, left their New Orleans home on Lake Pontchartrain at noon Sunday. “My fiancee waited till the last minute. I’m a man, I was ready to go.”

Getting out the door proved the easiest task. It took them 10 hours to make it to Meridian, Miss., a drive that normally takes three hours. After one night, they moved south to devastated Hattiesburg, Miss., where there were motel rooms, but little else.

Thousands of others were engaged in this same, storm-induced migration, setting out for safety in all directions, bunking with friends or family or settling down at any hostelry or shelter that would have them.

Gone are not just homes, but possessions, cars, addresses, records and — at least for now — jobs.

A federal housing task force is looking at more permanent options for these refugees, from makeshift trailer parks outside New Orleans to Alabama state park cabins, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is coordinating federal agencies in the relief effort.

“That’s obviously a huge challenge,” he said of the housing situation.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the city of almost half a million people would have to be totally evacuated and residents would not be allowed back into their homes for at least a month.

Rebuilding will take even longer.

“The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana, is under water,” President Bush said. “A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed.

“This recovery will take years,” he said.

Trenese George, 38, a teachers’ aide from Buras, 60 miles southeast of New Orleans, said she had just seen her town on television.

“All we could see were the roofs,” Mrs. George said. “I just recently got transferred to Buras, and now there is no Buras.”

Mrs. George was in River Center, a huge exhibition hall in Baton Rouge, La., on the Mississippi River. Local authorities, with the help of the Red Cross, turned the hall into an enormous shelter in an effort to accommodate the 5,000 people who have evacuated to the city.

River Center is one of more than 230 shelters opened by the Red Cross in schools and city facilities throughout the Gulf Coast region.

Eventually, though, people from the region will have to return home and assess damages. There are multiple resources for people who have suffered losses, including private insurance and government resources.

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said it is important to document property damage and losses, such as a list of damaged items, receipts, bills and photographs that establishes items needing to be replaced or repaired.

Property owners also should identify the structural damage to homes with a list of problems to show the adjuster.

The association also recommended keeping receipts from purchases for emergency repairs, and holding on to damaged furniture or other expensive items.

Federal agencies, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, can help uninsured or underinsured people.

FEMA operates the Individuals and Households Program, which can provide money for temporary housing as well as home repair and replacement, auto repair, moving and storage.

The Small Business Administration also coordinates a Home and Personal Property Loan Program, which makes low-interest loans to families who need extra money to rebuild.

Other agencies also are making storm-related plans.

The Social Security Administration, for example, said that it was working to ensure that thousands of displaced elderly and disabled residents still will have access to their monthly checks, which begin to go out today and tomorrow.

For thousands of people with no access to a bank or to their home, the agency is working with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure the delivery of checks at temporary disaster centers. FEMA will determine where the centers are established.

Some private companies also are making allowances for storm victims.

The finance arms of the Big Three U.S. automakers this week said they are allowing customers affected by Katrina to defer their car loan payments.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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