Trying to Track Katrina Survivors

Along with sheltering and supporting survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the government and charities are struggling with the prospect of tracking the biggest and most sudden migration of Americans since the Great Depression.

Out of more than 9 million Gulf Coast residents who suffered Katrina’s visit to their neighborhoods, more than 2 million evacuated and officials expect that as many as 1 million will be displaced from their homes for months or years.

Keeping tabs on Katrina evacuees is important not only to the individuals and families who have dispersed to virtually every state and the District of Columbia, but also to the governments and private groups trying to help them effectively.

“It’s going to be a monumental job for the people scattered in the evacuation to stay in touch and retain many of the networks of social support they’ve come to rely upon,” said Jeanne Hurlburt, a sociologist at the Center for Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes within Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Research Center.

“The formal assistance networks like FEMA and the Red Cross will tally the people they serve, but there are an awful lot of people who are getting help from family, churches, employers and friends who may not tap into any formal aid system, and be a lot harder to trace.”

It’s unclear how long the numerous Web sites set up by organizations to help Katrina survivors find family members and friends will remain in place, or if they’ll be useful in helping larger groups stay in touch over time.

And it’s also uncertain whether the roughly 200,000 people FEMA _ the Federal Emergency Management Agency _ plans to place in mobile homes and campers will be grouped in any relationship to former neighbors, or how many people may abandon or join the trailer villages over time.

“Usually, people get into temporary housing within a few weeks, so they can resume some normalcy, but we’ll still be seeing people taking those steps this time next year, because so much is gone,” said Capt. John Quinn, a Salvation Army worker for relief efforts in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Officially, there were more than a quarter-million people in shelters in the first two weeks after the storm, although many shelter operations in churches and other settings opened and closed without official notice. FEMA tried to get everyone in a shelter registered in its computer system, but many people left before signing up.

The Red Cross says it is paying for 140,000 people to stay in hotel rooms in 46 states and is extending the usual 14-day limit for such stays to 28 days for Katrina victims.

Relief experts say hundreds of thousands of other evacuees have been absorbed into extended families, friends and even the homes of strangers, or found rental housing in cities across the country, although the bulk are in Louisiana and Texas.

FEMA has registered nearly a half-million Katrina victims for financial assistance in the past two weeks, while the Red Cross has signed up 250,000 families for aid, both despite frequent computer registration problems at shelters and relief centers, and long delays getting through to phone registration lines.

Government officials are urging anyone who had damage from the hurricane to register, even if they have insurance coverage, on the chance that grants or loans may eventually be available. Those with minor losses are being asked to hold off filing for the time being, though.

The key to making sure victims are not lost in the system, officials say, is to update temporary addresses as evacuees move out of shelters and hotels and relatives’ homes and into other housing over the coming weeks and months.

“Every time they move, they need to let us know with a phone call, at a service center or online,” said FEMA spokesman Greg Welty. “But they don’t have to repeat the entire registration process.”

After problems with disbursing money through debit cards, FEMA is trying to deliver as much assistance as possible through direct deposits to bank accounts, but of course, many evacuees either don’t have access to their banks or don’t have an account at all and must be issued checks by mail.

The U.S. Postal Service has managed to get some mail through to thousands of people who listed shelters as addresses, but officials stress that whenever people make a move, they need to file a change-of-address notice at a post office, by phone or online. More than 100,000 people with ZIP codes from the disaster zone have made requests so far.

At the same time, local Red Cross chapters, social-service agencies and charities around the country are trying to canvass their communities to find out how many Katrina evacuees are there and what sort of help they may need. While many who fled inland before or just after the storm may have moved on, a second wave of displaced people has arrived.

“We know from past studies that people with stronger social support do better weathering disasters, but this time, the support is coming from a lot of unfamiliar places,” LSU’s Hurlburt said. “There’s a lot of outreach from various denominations and other organizations starting to go on to make sure ‘their people’ are being looked after. Whether this will help in finding out what happened to everyone affected by the hurricane is hard to tell at this point.”

Katrina is already offering opportunities and challenges to the nation’s official people counters, the Census Bureau. “We’re just beginning to talk about how we can follow these population shifts to help guide national policy, but at the same time, we’ve got field workers of our own who still aren’t accounted for,” said Census spokesman Stephen Buckner.

(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)