- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

As many as 800 American evacuees from Lebanon are expected to begin arriving in Maryland this morning, state and federal authorities said yesterday.

The first of eight flights, each carrying about 160 people from Cyprus, is scheduled to land at about 7 a.m. at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, yesterday opened the airport as a repatriation center for Americans fleeing Lebanon. Today’s arrivals from Cyprus were evacuated from Lebanon by cruise ship.

“Most will be arriving tired. All will be relieved, but clearly some will be angry. Some will be frustrated. Some will be incredibly worried about those left behind,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

The flights are part of a mass U.S. evacuation from Lebanon, which has become embroiled in a violent conflict with Israel. About 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon are seeking to evacuate.

John W. Droneburg, director of Maryland’s Emergency Management Agency, said the flights have been chartered by the State Department.

“These folks have had a very bad few days, if not a few weeks,” Mr. Droneburg said. “Our philosophy is that they want to get home, and we’re there to provide the best customer service possible.”

The evacuees are mostly U.S. government workers, students and vacationers, Mr. Droneburg said.

Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management Agency, said the initial flight left Cyprus late yesterday and stopped somewhere in Europe to refuel.

Evacuees will be guided through U.S. Customs to a help center, where state officials will have computers and phones available for them to communicate with family and friends.

Anyone needing housing during the day or overnight will be given a room in one of the hotels near BWI, as well as some cash for “incidentals” from the state comptroller’s office, Mr. Droneburg said.

“We really believe people will want to go home,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich designated BWI as a repatriation center in response to a request from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The governor said the costs of the repatriation effort are minimal and could be reimbursed by the federal government.

“We don’t particularly care about that [cost] right now,” he said. “We’re not dealing with a whole lot of money right now.”

When the Americans land at BWI, repatriation staff will arrange transportation to their home states.

They also will provide basic first aid and medical assistance, such as providing medications for chronic illnesses and mental health crisis counseling. Toiletries, food and child care also will be available.

Maryland’s Department of Human Resources and the state Emergency Management Agency are coordinating the repatriation services for the Americans flying in from Cyprus.

Officials said more details on flight arrivals would be made available soon, but the last of the flights are expected to arrive Saturday morning.

However, Mr. Ehrlich said “details on this are changing by the hour,” leaving open the possibility of more flights arriving at BWI.

HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said the Refugee Resettlement Program, which is operated by HHS, provides assistance to evacuees for up to 90 days after they return to the United States.

Hostilities erupted between Lebanon and Israel when Hezbollah fighters kidnapped Israeli soldiers and bombed northern areas of the Jewish state. Israel has retaliated with air strikes on Lebanese targets, including Beirut.

The State Department has recommended that Americans evacuate Lebanon because of the escalating violence.

Americans gathered in Beirut seeking to flee from the bombings have grown increasingly frustrated as U.S. Embassy officials have scrambled to arrange for their transportation.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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