Caring in the Country

by Mary Tutwiler

Funding for food and shelter in small towns hinges on community efforts and volunteer fundraising.

Two weeks after the disastrous strike of Hurricane Katrina, evacuees in the small towns of Acadiana are focusing on how they will afford to live. But small towns such as New Iberia are also experiencing unexpected financial challenges of their own, as sheltering and feeding the displaced storm victims has been dependent on the generosity of the community.

"Everything that's been done has come from community volunteers," says New Iberia Mayor Hilda Curry. "If it hadn't been for the locals and the United Way, I don't know what we would have done." New Iberia has two shelters located in the civic centers in City and West End parks, housing approximately 500 people. There are 1,200 evacuees residing in the parish's motels and state parks. And scores of evacuees are staying in private homes.

The agencies committed to support these disaster victims have yet to provide financial support. "FEMA isn't in at all," says Jim Anderson, Iberia Parish's director of emergency management. "None of the people have gotten Red Cross vouchers; none have gotten FEMA checks."

Meanwhile the city is paying increased utilities to keep the two civic centers running as shelters, as well as overtime for park staff and police. "I don't have any idea what it's costing a day," Curry says. "We have 500 people taking showers. The police are working 24 hours. We just authorized the city to keep paying the bills while we wait for FEMA to reimburse us."

The Red Cross arrived without supplies, according to Curry. The community has donated medical services, food, transportation, help with social security and food stamps, registration for school and employment assistance. "Everything we need has been given," Red Cross volunteer Cathy Williams says. "Prescriptions have been filled free by local pharmacies. For four weeks we have a schedule of 500 meals that have been donated and cooked. There are mental health counselors every day. Companies from the port [of Iberia] are hiring. People have no money, but the people of the community are taking care of them."

The concern is how long this outpouring of generosity can be sustained until FEMA arrives with options and finances for evacuee populations.

Some problems could be alleviated this week. The Red Cross should be taking over meals any day now, and FEMA representatives have been in contact with city government and Anderson, looking for long-term housing. Curry says existing trailer slots are the priority. "We have about 70, in the Mixon trailer park," she says. "And there are 35 houses on the demolition list. We are asking for money to renovate them."

Contingency plans are moving forward, and city officials are meeting with the ministerial council. "There are 165 families in the shelters," Curry says. "We're looking for a local family to adopt each one, to help them find their way around here. If we work with family members, we might find a way to help people get jobs and relocate them. We have been working as a community to try to provide services that haven't materialized. We can't wait for FEMA."