Help still available for hurricane Katrina evacuees in Kentucky
In the past nine months, two Kentucky-based Katrina hurricane reintegration counselors estimate that they have driven 20,000 miles each looking for and helping Katrina survivors who have relocated to Kentucky, but they know there are many more who don’t know that assistance is still available. Kentucky received a $200,000 federal grant in October to hire the reintegration counselors who have served more than 3,300 people so far.
Kentucky counselors Russell Weatherwax and Paula England say Katrina hurricane survivors are hard to locate for a variety of reasons including that some don’t read local newspapers where notices have been posted, many don’t have a point of contact in their new communities to get information, or they assume they are not eligible because they have found a job in Kentucky.
“I believe we haven’t been able to reach about 25 percent of the people who qualify because they haven’t gone to a health department or they don’t have children in school,” said Weatherwax, who covers the area of Kentucky west of Interstate 65.
England said the main message she wants to get to evacuees is “We are still here and we do want to help them rebuild their lives. If we can help them then it will be better for all of us. They need to get back to feeling normal.”
England can be reached at 1-800-490-2002 and Weatherwax can be contacted at 1-800-928-7233 ext. 113.
There also are misconceptions about who is eligible for assistance. Weatherwax tells the story of one displaced couple who did not return his calls about the program. Finally, he tracked them down at their new place of employment in Kentucky. They thought they didn’t qualify for help because they had a job but he told them about other services such as counseling.
“This program is not based on income. It’s based on helping them get on their feet economically, socially and emotionally,” said England, the counselor who is based in Lexington and covers the area of Kentucky east of the Interstate 65 and Louisville.
Weatherwax and England are two of 150 reintegration counselors in 12 states hired through the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) who are an information and referral source for Katrina hurricane evacuees now living in other states. They find people affected by the disaster and connect them to government and private services to help them get back on their feet. The Kentucky counselors are connected to the Office of Employment and Training’s local One-Stop Career Centers and can help people who have been displaced by the hurricane get access to employment, training, education, counseling and other human services.
The reintegration counselors were given a list of evacuees in their states based on information from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) but as they search for people they find more to add to their list. England described their jobs as sleuths and problem solvers. “We don’t take no for an answer,” she said.
Some of the evacuees chose to come to Kentucky while others simply loaded a bus in Louisiana and ended up here. “Most of them thought they were leaving for three days,” said England.
Nearly a year later, many are still in a holding pattern waiting on insurance companies or FEMA to find out if they can reclaim their lives on the Gulf Coast. “Initially it was a scramble to get a place to live, get child care and get transportation. Now their housing assistance has run out. Initially, they were just trying to make ends meet. Once school was out many thought they would return home but there is no home to go back to,” England said.
Some homeowners affected by the disaster now find out that their policies covered hurricane damage but not flood damage. England said, “Some are still paying on houses that they can’t live in or that aren’t there. If they aren’t paying on their mortgage then they will ruin their credit and can’t qualify for loans.”
Weatherwax said in the last few months he has seen more psychological problems with evacuees than when they first came to Kentucky. Many of them are just starting to come terms with losses in their lives and they feel the rest of nation has forgotten them. “I’ve cried with a lot of them,” he said.
“They’re still struggling to recoup what they had a year later. It took them 20, 30, 40 years to get to where they were and they don’t have anything now. It will take 20 or 30 years to get back where they were,” England said.
England said many of the evacuees are suffering from agency fatigue because they have to seek out the services from many different sources. The reintegration counselors have become a central contact person for all the resources they need, she said.
Weatherwax said his biggest problem is helping evacuees navigate government forms and terminology to get basic services. Many of the evacuees had never used government assistance before the disaster and don’t know what is available or where to apply. In other cases, people do not have the documents they need to prove job certification or employment history, or references because former employers are gone. In addition, there is a maze of federal, state and local networks that have to be worked through and it becomes even more complicated than normal because computer records have been destroyed.
Weatherwax said just a few weeks ago he was still trying to help two people from Mississippi get unemployment insurance because there was a problem getting information from Mississippi.
Many of the displaced people are unfamiliar with their new communities and do not have a social network for support. People from New Orleans, for example, were shocked that many towns in Kentucky do not have public transportation, something they relied on there.
“It’s a very slow process and they need a lot of hand holding,” said England. “They need to know they are worthy and useful and they are going to succeed.”
This is the first time that the federal government has hired reintegration counselors to help Americans displaced by a disaster. “It has been like inventing the wheel. You have to think on your feet. It’s a work in progress. You have to be persistent,” England said of her job.
“This is the most challenging and frustrating job I’ve ever had but it’s also the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” she said.
The counselors also deal with people who have lost loved ones and neighbors in the hurricane. Weatherwax tells of an elderly man who is retired from the military and has lost his entire family to the disaster. “They tell you their stories and you think, ‘My goodness, I can’t imagine anything worse,’ and then the next person comes along. When you think you’ve heard the worst, they you hear something even worse,” said Weatherwax.
The work has touched them personally and they are driven to help people regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Both said they wanted to go to the Gulf Coast to help people when the hurricane struck so this is a way to help people now. “You’re helping people. It’s like I’m an ambassador for the whole state of Kentucky,” England said.
Neither counselor has heard a negative comment about Kentucky from evacuees. They said the evacuees now living in Louisville and Paducah love those Kentucky cities because they are river towns and they remind them of home. “Evacuees have been very impressed with Kentucky and they feel real welcome here,” Weatherwax said.
The Office of Employment and Training is an agency of the Kentucky Education Cabinet. The cabinet coordinates learning programs from P-16, and manages and supports training and employment functions in the Department for Workforce Investment. For more information about our programs, visit www.educationcabinet.ky.gov or www.workforce.ky.gov, or call 502-564-6606.