Gustav evacuees starting to head home

'A lot of people' came to Hopkins County to ride out hurricane

By FAITH HUFFMAN, News-Telegram News Editor

Sept. 3, 2008 - Hopkins County Salvation Army, like many emergency assistance agencies across the state, has been busy since the weekend, lending aid to evacuees of Hurricane Gustav.

"There are a lot of people who evacuated here," Hopkins County Salvation Army Chairman Jo Marie Neal said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm not sure how many we've helped altogether. I know I've helped three families so far today."

Neal said HCSA has helped provide basic supplies such as food, toiletry items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, and clothing.

Helped locally were a number of individuals who left when officials along the Gulf Coast issued the call for evacuation. Quite a few of the evacuees have been from New Orleans and Louisiana, and a few from Texas coastal areas. Some have stayed a few days at local hotels, others in the homes of family members -- including some who were evacuated from New Orleans during Katrina and opted to make homes in Hopkins County rather than return to Louisiana.

Quite a few have stayed at local parks such as Cooper Lake State Park where they could wait out the storm in tents or campers, according to Neal, who notes that some packed everything they could haul, including furniture, and brought it with them.

Those in need of assistance finding lodging have been directed by Neal and other officials to area shelters such as those established for evacuees in Paris and Tyler.

Across the Gulf Coast region, Salvation Army staff served about 100,000 meals to evacuees, volunteers and first responders during the first 72 hours of the evacuation effort. More than 100 mobile feeding units, towing 54-foot mobile kitchens, and multiple fixed feeding sites were utilized. On Sunday, feeding sites were established along evacuation routes, providing lunch and dinner to 300 bus drivers near Hattiesburg, Miss., alone. The Salvation Army had at least five shelters in Texas, according to a news release from the Dallas Salvation Army office.

Salvation Army provided clean-up kits, hygiene kits, drinking water, shower units and first aid supplies, as well as offering missing persons support through the SA Team Emergency Radio Network (www.satern.org) as well as emotional and spiritual care where needed.

Officials in Hardin, Jefferson and Orange counties announced yesterday that the mandatory evacuation order had been lifted and residents were safe to return home. Approximately 280,000 residents from the Southeast Texas coast self evacuated. Approximately 10,000 residents who could not self-evacuate were taken by bus to shelters and will be transported back to their homes beginning today. Texas is also coordinating the return of Louisiana evacuees as soon as safely possible, according to the Governor's office.

"While we are thankful that Texas was spared from a direct hit, I am proud of Texas' efforts to protect residents and property from the threat of this hurricane," Gov. Rick Perry said in a press release. "As residents begin to return home, I want to thank them for their cooperation with state and local officials, and thank all of those who have assisted in preparing to keep Texans and our Louisiana neighbors out of harm's way."

Louisiana residents who evacuated from communities near New Orleans are already being allowed to return home. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, however, said that while the doors to the city won't officially be open until midnight tonight, no one will be turned away if they try to enter New Orleans early, but did warn that New Orleans was still in a ''very, very vulnerable state,'' according to the Associated Press.

''I don't want people heading in yet,'' Nagin said. ''But if they jumped the gun, we will let them through.''

Electricity is a problem however. Louisiana officials said the main transmission lines into southern Louisiana were crippled and they had no timetable for when power might be restored. Hospitals were running on generators, and some had to move patients who they feared would suffer without air conditioning.

President Bush was set to tour hard-hit areas of Louisiana Wednesday, and authorities were still trying to assess the damage to low-lying communities on the southeast coast. A levee broke in Plaquemines Parish, and National Guard helicopters were bringing in sandbags to plug it. The break was threatening a small group of houses, said parish spokeswoman Karen Boudrie, the Associate Press notes.

New Orleans expected to begin this weekend bringing back the estimated 18,000 residents who didn't have the means to evacuate on their own and were sent to shelters in Louisiana and other states on buses, trains or aircraft.

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