With bulk of Katrina evacuees, Texans begin to feel burden

A year after the hurricane, Houston complains about their persistent joblessness. State officials plea for federal help.

As school starts across the country and children displaced by hurricane Katrina crowd back into the hallways, many state and local officials are getting the first real indication of how many evacuees will be permanent residents of their communities.

An estimated 84,000 people who fled Katrina's path remain in the Atlanta area, increasing demand for long-term housing and city services such as mental-health services.

In Baton Rouge, La., some 50,000 evacuees are believed to remain – a number that's hard to pin down because many of those people are also trying to rebuild in New Orleans.

It's Houston, however, that has received the lion's share of Katrina evacuees: 150,000 are still there. And while Texas has warmly welcomed this group, the stress over increased unemployment and crime is starting to be felt.

Indeed, in Houston and other cities affected by the relocation, some officials are beginning to reassess the financial implications of their generosity over the past year. Their conclusion: The federal government should continue to support the state and municipalities where evacuee numbers remain high because many are still not on their feet almost a year after the storm.

To get a better sense of the numbers, Texas recently commissioned a survey to figure out who is still here and how much progress they've made integrating into communities.

While the report is not yet final, Kathy Walt of Gov. Rick Perry's office says the initial numbers show that 220,000 evacuees are still in Texas.

"That's significant," she says, "because the vast majority of the people who fled Louisiana in the wake of Katrina were lower-income individuals. And if they are going to remain here, we need to know what kind of services they are going to need" – and, more important, be able to pass that data on to Washington for reimbursement.

The Gallup survey, due out in early September, will also show that a large percentage of the evacuees still in Texas don't have jobs (59 percent) and live in households with incomes of less than $500 a month (41 percent).

"People realize that Katrina was an extraordinary event. And because we are also a Gulf Coast state and could have been in the same position, there is a good deal of empathy for this group," says Don Baylor, policy analyst of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. "But Texas also does not have a lot of patience with able-bodied individuals who chose not to work."

At a job fair in Houston last week, for instance, Mayor Bill White encouraged unemployed evacuees to get to work, pointing out that there are 5,000 positions open in the city.

"We don't believe in dependency in Houston. We're a working city. It may not be the perfect job, but there are jobs available and people should take them," said Mr. White, who has been a strong advocate for the evacuees.

In the city, a disproportionate number of Katrina evacuees needed special care, such as health and social services.

The Harris County Hospital District's cost of treating the evacuees, for instance, is currently more than $7 million – only 33 percent of which had been reimbursed by the federal government as of mid-July.

In addition, the federal Medicaid waivers were taken away at the end of June – so many evacuees are now without medical insurance altogether, leaving the county to cover the cost.

"It's just another one of those straws laid on the stressed camel's back. And how long that camel is going to stay up, there is no telling," says R. King Hillier, the hospital district's director of government relations.

The hospital district is continuing to work with the Texas congressional delegation, pleading its case and reminding them of the added burden, says Mr. Hillier. "Everyone was proud of us for what we did. But the federal government said it was going to help get this paid for, and it's still not paid for."

One bright spot occurred last week when US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced that Texas would receive an additional $428.7 million in emergency funding to help meet the continuing housing needs of hurricane victims.

Present at the Houston announcement, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas said one of the most difficult challenges she's faced has been convincing her congressional colleagues and the Bush administration that a hurricane that didn't actually hit Texas has had profound financial implications for the state.

"We need the money to follow the people, not just the infrastructure," she said.

The federal government did just that when it dispersed some $890 million to cover Katrina-related educational costs last year. But this year, there will be no additional funding – and that is creating problems for many school districts.

Texas, which received $225 million of that federal money, saw an increase of 46,500 Katrina students at its height last year. About 35,000 of those were still here by the end of the school year, and 31,000 will return this year.

The majority of those that remain are expected to be permanent, says Debbie Graves Ratcliffe at the Texas Education Agency in Austin. "The reality is there are still not a lot of housing or jobs in New Orleans, so they are staying here."

Each year, the state of Texas adds about 80,000 new students. But this year – with the permanent Katrina students – it added more than 110,000.

"That's a lot to absorb, especially when they tended to hit a small portion of the state," says Ms. Ratcliffe.

Houston, for instance, took in the bulk. Area school districts have, for the most part, been able to handle the increased numbers, but evacuee children needed extra attention last year because of the emotional trauma and added burden of having to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

That meant more cost to the districts, and while most of last year's federal allocations have been paid out, administrators are uncertain about the financial needs this year.

In addition, crime associated with Katrina evacuees is adding to the taxpayer burden. Arrests among people in this group have already cost the county's criminal-justice system more than $18 million.

"Most of those who remain have become great neighbors, are assimilating well, getting jobs, and doing fine. But even if only 5 percent aren't, we have a problem," says Robert Eckels, Harris County chief executive, pointing to the more than 40 murders involving Katrina evacuees since last year.

In June, Governor Perry sent Houston $19.5 million to help pay for additional police officers and overtime to patrol areas with large numbers of evacuees. But that is just a stopgap measure while the state prepares to ask for increased help from Washington.

"What the federal government doesn't seem to understand is that this isn't just a six-month or one-year crisis," says Judge Eckels. "It's a marathon."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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