Military Update: Military's relief groups ease burden on troops displaced by Katrina
The number of servicemembers displaced by Hurricane Katrina was still being calculated more than two weeks after the storm devastated coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But clearly thousands of active-duty members, reservists and retirees had lost homes and other property.
Indeed, when military victims of Katrina finally are counted, they likely will outnumber the 72,000 National Guard and active-duty forces deployed to the tri-state area to assist with rescue, relief and security operations.
But what military communities have that others might lack during catastrophes are proven command structures, their own emergency relief societies, solid family support systems and robust information networks, run both by the services and military associations, and linked across the Internet.
Days before Katrina hit, military relief societies had begun to help families ordered to evacuate with offers of interest-free loans. Bases outside Katrina’s path prepared to receive thousands of military evacuees.
After the storm, the Defense Department granted “alternative safe haven” authority to families of military and Defense Department employees to relocate anywhere within the continental United States for up to six months with per diem payments to cover their lodging, meals and incidental expenses.
An estimated 350,000 active-duty and reserve military retirees and dependents reside in counties hit by Katrina. That figure includes the southern Florida counties through which Katrina passed before intensifying over the Gulf of Mexico.
Humana Military Healthcare Services, the Tricare contractor for the region, estimates that 136,000 military beneficiaries have been displaced. Humana is conducting a weeklong outreach effort to advise displaced people of their benefits, sending representatives or information packets to almost 600 American Red Cross shelters. Beneficiaries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama can reach Humana at (800) 444-5445 or at: www.humana-military.com.
Tricare’s other two regional contractors have been directed to provide care to evacuees and to settle accounts later with Humana.
“There is a lot of heroic work like that going on,” said Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.
Other resources are available to military people through Military One Source at (800) 342-9647 or at www.militaryonesource.com.
Most displaced service families are Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., ordered 14,000 students, staff and civilian workers evacuated, leaving 2,000 “essential” personnel to protect the base and restore vital operations. Keesler suffered heavy damage, with at least 1,000 of 1,800 housing units destroyed. Its hospital, a major regional facility, was flooded. Even if a serious mold problem can be avoided, the facility likely will take months to reopen.
“That impacts a lot of people,” said Jim Delaney, chief operating officer for the Air Force Aid Society. The aid society, through mid-September, provided $320,000 in financial help to military Katrina victims. Many Air Force families, he said, were sent to other air bases such as Maxwell in Montgomery, Ala.; Barksdale in Shreveport, La.; Little Rock in Arkansas, and Lackland in San Antonio.
AFAS and sister aid societies make loans or grants while being as “nonbureaucratic” as possible, Delaney said. The goal is to provide immediate financial help and decide later who can repay.
John Alexander, with Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, said his group had approved loans or grants of $1.4 million to more than 3,700 “clients” from Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss., expected to resettle in areas such as Fort Worth, Texas; Houston or Pensacola, Fla. The money might be just enough, he said, to cover rental security deposits or a first month’s rent.
The hardest hit base was Naval Station Pascagoula, Miss., already tagged for closure by the latest BRAC commission. Ships there were redeployed to safe harbors but hundreds of sailors’ cars, parked pierside, were destroyed.
Gulfport Naval Station, Miss., also sustained heavy damage, though Seabees have returned and begun repairs. With base housing demolished, Gulfport families were housed for a time in four warehouses. The day that Navy-Marine Corps Relief began giving $250 in grants to single members and $500 to married families, Alexander said, “the line got quite long.”
As money is paid out, more arrives. Navy Relief has received more than $400,000 in donations since Katrina hit.
In New Orleans, the Navy and Marine Corps evacuated a combined reserve headquarters building. The Coast Guard moved its Eighth District headquarters temporarily to St. Louis.
Tom Omri, director of Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, said his group has paid $536,000 in emergency funds so far to displaced families. He estimated that up to 5,000 Coast Guard military and civilian workers, reservists, retirees and family members were in Katrina’s path.
“We know people have lost their houses; we don’t know how many,” said Omri. “A lot of guys who have been doing the rescue work realize that, once they go back, there is going to be nothing there.”
“The Katrina mess” adds stress to a military community already coping with the strain of wartime operations, said Raezer of NMFA. But it’s also a war-tested community more ready than most to help the public and one another.
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