- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Escaping the confusion of Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast refugees found a surprise in nearby Arkansas — the state had beds, meals and an emergency plan waiting, and it absorbed a 2.5 percent increase in its population.

“They treat us absolutely fantastic,” says Leon Johnson of New Orleans, temporarily at a camp in Little Rock. “They’ve got a group of people, and they opened their arms out and make us as welcome as possible. They’re taking care of our needs.”

Arkansas has taken in more than 60,000 refugees, both black and white, after Katrina arrived — only Texas took in more. Gov. Mike Huckabee is out preaching the golden rule and reminding Arkansans of the help they receive after their frequent tornadoes and infrequent ice storms. New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, within an easy day’s drive, are popular vacation destinations for Arkansans.

“I ask people, ‘Have you been to New Orleans?’” Mr. Huckabee says. “These are people who drove your carriage down Canal Street. They carried your bags to your hotel room and picked up the dishes when you finished eating. By golly, we’re going to be there to take care of them now.”

During previous storms, Gulf Coast residents have packed hotels and motels in southern Arkansas for days at a time, but it was clear early on that this storm was extraordinary.

Within a day of the storm making landfall, Mr. Huckabee had a plan called Operation: KARE (Katrina Assistance Relief Effort), along with a Web site to promote it.

“The migration of evacuees is not unlike the migration of ducks,” the Republican governor says. “People go as far as they have to go, but they try not to go too far from home. So naturally Arkansas became a safe haven.”

Mr. Huckabee estimated that 50,000 refugees came on their own, seeking motels or relatives. But the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans brought 9,000 more to a processing center at Fort Chaffee, a decommissioned Army base in the city of Fort Smith.

Several thousand refugees have applied for public assistance, many of them for the first time in their lives. Food stamp applications usually require seven to 10 days for approval; the state has cut that in half.

One woman brought 37 members of her family to Arkansas and says, choking back a tear, “this is the first time I’ve ever even though of applying for welfare.”

Marie A. Puglia of Metarie, La., applied for food stamps at Ricks National Guard Armory in Little Rock on Wednesday.

“It’s crazy,” Mrs. Puglia says. “I have no job. I’m a hairdresser. My customers are scattered everywhere. But this place has been wonderful.”

She holds up a pair of pink flip-flops and a shirt picked out of donations at the armory. The stamps will enable her to relieve the burden for the Little Rock family with whom she is staying.

Dale Thomas of Gretna, La., said she applied for food stamps on Sept. 3.

“The food has never stopped coming,” she says. She found a temporary apartment in the suburb of Bryant.

Texas initially took more than 200,000 evacuees, many of them to Houston’s Astrodome and other sites in southern Texas. States as far as away as Arizona, Utah and West Virginia accepted relatively small numbers of refugees, but no other state, not even Texas, took in a larger percentage of its own population.

Mr. Huckabee’s quick action could simply be second nature — in nine years as governor of Arkansas, the Southern Baptist preacher has offered relief and prayer in the face of natural disasters. His wife, Janet Huckabee, has worked in the shelters, too, enrolling refugees and arranging places for them to stay.

The governor is weighing a run for president in 2008. But Mr. Huckabee, who shares the hometown of Hope, Ark., with former President Bill Clinton, says helping evacuees has nothing to do with a potential campaign.

“That’s of no concern to me right now,” he says.

Although Arkansas is one of the nation’s poorer states, the governor and his legislators say they will spend part of the state’s $123 million budget surplus to help storm victims.

Many Arkansans opened their spare bedrooms and vacation homes to refugees, both black and white; others are taking in pets that the local Humane Society can’t keep.

Many refugees are doing their share, as well, finding jobs and volunteering.

“Time and again, people are saying, ‘I’m staying here. This is home for me now,’” Mr. Huckabee says. “People at camps are saying, ‘Put me to work.’ ”

One family at Crossett, Ark., is pleased that refugee guests have taught them to cook red beans and rice, a classic New Orleans dish.

The state has a job database. Operation KARE has programs to reunite families, help refugees obtain federal aid, find apartments and enroll their children into local schools.

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