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The great Katrina migration

In just 14 days, the hurricane scattered as many as 1 million evacuees across the US, the largest dislocation in 150 years.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2005


Rhode Island has more than 100 evacuees in Navy housing. Ohio has 20 in Red Cross shelters, plus almost 2,000 staying with relatives or friends. California has 807 families in hotels, while Massachusetts is putting up some 200 individuals at an old military base on Cape Cod.

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States on the edge of the devastated area have larger numbers, of course, with 50,000 in Arkansas and 200,000 in Texan shelters and homes.

Two weeks after it blew through the US Gulf Coast, it's clear that hurricane Katrina has resulted in the largest displacement of Americans in 150 years - if not the largest ever. The scale is monumental. It's as if the entire Dust Bowl migration occurred in 14 days, or the dislocations caused by the Civil War took place on fast-forward.

Many evacuees are putting down roots in new areas and say they'll never return. Others face months of a temporary existence before they can go home. Whatever they do, the nation may never be the same, as a smaller New Orleans rises up from its ruins, and bits of Creole culture are seeded from East coast to West.

"This is the biggest resettlement in American history. A whole city has been uprooted," says Stephen Kleinberg, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston.

If nothing else, the resettlement is already a story in state-to-state generosity. As of Sunday, there were an estimated 374,000 hurricane Katrina refugees in shelters, hotels, homes and other housing in 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Red Cross and state relief officials.

The total number of refugees may surpass 1 million, but a large percentage have been absorbed into their own relative's homes, say experts.

In many cases evacuees have ended up in places far from their native Gulf coast. A surprisingly large percentage of them say they like what they see.

Take Arizona. Whether it's the clear weather in the Valley of the Sun, the helpful support, or being far from the reach of hurricanes, many of the hundreds of evacuees brought to Arizona intend to stay.

Vanessa Willis-Nelson beams as she strides out into the noonday sun from the State Fair Exhibit building. Inside, the Arizona Job Services department is holding a two-day job fair for Katrina refugees, many of whom are temporarily living in the adjacent Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Ms. Willis-Nelson says a lot has happened in the past eight days to contribute to her sunny disposition. She has been offered a job at a local nursing home, and her husband has found work at a local warehouse. This week her family is scheduled to move into a subsidized apartment.

"I ain't ever going back," she says. "Here we have three good meals a day, new clothes, and good medical treatment. You can't get that kind of help in New Orleans."

Besides, the hurricane was the most frightening experience of her life, and she has no desire to ever repeat it. She says her New Orleans home flooded so fast that she was in water up to her neck on the second floor of her home before she knew it. A military helicopter plucked her, her husband, eight children, and two grandchildren from their rooftop. Then they were put on a plane - for the first time in their lives - and landed in Phoenix on Sept. 3.

"We're going to start all over again here," she says. "Thank God for the change."

Timothy Ambrose couldn't agree more. Dressed in a brown Speedo T-shirt, blue jeans, and new white Adidas sneakers, he seems overwhelmed by the help he's received in Arizona.

Two firms at the job fair offered Mr. Ambrose positions. In addition, Red Cross volunteers helped him locate his wife who ended up in Shreveport, La., while he landed in Phoenix.