After days of fearing that they’d been abandoned to die, hundreds of victims of Hurricane Katrina were brought to Phoenix and greeted with smiles and hugs as emergency aid workers welcomed them to their new shelter: Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Applause broke out as the first evacuee stepped out of a city bus that picked up some of the disaster victims from Sky Harbor International Airport. Some hurricane survivors said "thank you" to volunteers who guided them into the coliseum.
Within 48 hours of learning that refugees were being brought to Arizona, hundreds of volunteers from local aid organizations, church groups and government agencies carried in 1,100 cots and blankets, plus food — fresh fruit, eggs, chocolate and white milk, crackers, doughnuts and other items for meals and snacks.
Maurrie Sussman, an American Red Cross volunteer from Phoenix, held each evacuee in a tight embrace after they got off the bus. A few began to cry on her shoulder. She consoled them, stroking their faces, their heads as they grieved.
The survivors feel as if they’ve been treated like animals, Sussman said, so they need a human touch to prove that they were not forgotten.
Her job, she explained, is to "become what they need. That means touching and hugging — doing whatever it takes to help them feel wanted."
Only a few victims carried items with them, wearing the clothes they had pulled on before Katrina’s winds and waters destroyed their homes. Some toted plastic sacks holding water and items provided by volunteers. They were ragged and walked slowly, gingerly— as if they had carried a massive weight across miles.
Two refugees gave their pets — a dog and cat — to be cared for by Arizona Humane Society workers. Another refugee handed over a cocker spaniel, which just delivered 10 pups. The animals were put in an air-conditioned, makeshift kennel next to the coliseum. More animals were expected as additional refugees arrive over the next few days.
Most victims arriving at the coliseum fled New Orleans, where confusion erupted last week as officials — local, state and federal — took days to evacuate residents trapped and neglected amid the chaos. Families were split up during helicopter rescues, and the wait for assistance became a nightmare.
Rep. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, rode buses with the refugees from the airport. Their stories were shocking and disturbing.
A music teacher from New Orleans described how he was separated from his mother when rescuers came to their home. "They left her," Landrum Taylor recalled later.
The refugees could end up staying at the coliseum for six months. But Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and state agencies are scrambling to find apartments, houses and jobs for the storm survivors, some of whom ultimately may decide to make new homes in Arizona.
"A number of private employers have already been in touch with my office," Napolitano said, pausing from a tour of the coliseum before the first refugees arrived.
Arizona volunteers will assist any refugees who choose to go stay with friends or family in other parts of the country, said Cathy Tisdale, CEO of the Red Cross’ Grand Canyon Chapter.
Survivors were filled with a jumble of emotions — weariness, anger, depression, sadness, fear. To help them recover, counselors and mental health professionals are needed, and Christian and Muslim leaders are providing spiritual support, Red Cross and state officials said.
Valley residents are offering to take refugees into their homes. Landrum Taylor said she received calls from more than 70 extending such invitations.
Jannah Scott, Napolitano’s adviser on faith-based organizations, is helping Christian and Muslim leaders in the Valley pool their resources to offer spiritual support and assistance. Some members of their congregations want to open their homes to refugees. State officials are hashing out the details on how to match refugees with families.
Aid workers expected 500 people to arrive by today, with more due by bus and plane over the next few days. Once the coliseum is full, additional refugees could be directed to Tucson.
The Red Cross and Salvation Army were just two of the dozens of volunteer organizations helping with the effort.
Several state and local agencies sent law enforcement officials and firefighters to help keep the area secure for refugees. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio provided sheets and blankets, among other items.
Children who survived the disaster were given a small area in the coliseum where they could play, color and watch movies — "hopefully where we can let the kids just be kids for a while," said Chris Scarpati, director of the Child Crisis Center.
State officials say schoolaged children will attend class at local districts so they won’t fall behind.
Arizonans may be called upon to accommodate more hurricane survivors. Texas has found itself overwhelmed with more than 250,000 refugees at shelters across the state. The Red Cross has 360 shelters in the Gulf Coast overflowing with 100,000 other hurricane victims.