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Resettling Hurricane Katrina evacuees slows, but continues

Amy Isaacson thought she was taking a three-week job last October to help resettle some people who had come to the Inland Northwest, displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

When Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services received a 22-month Katrina Aid Grant from Catholic Charities USA, she agreed to stay in Spokane.

Greg Cunningham and Amy Isaacson

Immigration and Refugee Services has assisted more than 80 people who left the Gulf Coast and came to Eastern Washington.  While fewer are coming now, she still has about 15 cases and expects more will seek assistance after Feb. 28, the 18-month cutoff for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Some just called for the phone number of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) or FEMA.  Some came for referrals.  Some have needed full wraparound services for long-term recovery as they resettle.

Wraparound services include housing, employment, medical assistance, enrolling children in schools, helping establish or re-establish government services, or advocacy with FEMA, DSHS or Social Security.

So Amy has learned about the network of resources in the area for referring people.  She has also taught evacuees how to navigate the system to find energy assistance, winter clothes, furnished housing and other necessities.

On top of their losses, stresses of resettling and difficulty dealing with bureaucracies, many experience post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that affect other pieces of their recovery, Amy said.

For example, she may help someone find a job, but the person may be depressed and unable to get up in the morning to go to work or arrange child care.

“The psychological and emotional impact of the disaster lasts months if not years,” she said. “Many evacuees from New Orleans were highly vulnerable to begin with.”

Some organizations and individuals adopted families for Christmas gifts, but most who came to this region had family connections, had lived here previously or have friends here.

“Many had lost documents they need to prove their eligibility for programs or were unable to understand letters telling how to apply for assistance,” she added.

Amy has also been involved in Catholic Charities Spokane’s disaster response planning in case of ice storms, power outages, chemical spills, an earthquake in Seattle or a pandemic disease.

“My liberal arts background gives me ways to analyze as I enter new fields.  I have learned about emergency response, homeland security and public health,” she said.  “I know the players.”

After completing studies in history at Boston College in December 2000, she worked in marketing for KREM-TV.  Then two years of teaching English as a second language in the Marshall Islands stirred her awareness of the unjust disparity in material wealth and led to a commitment to find work that will “make the world more fair, compassionate and just.”

Her work with Catholic Charities helps her clarify her values.

 “I love working here where the emphasis is on need not creed,” she said.  “While not Catholic, I’m proud to be part of this Catholic agency.  The heart of what Christ taught is to open our arms to everyone.  It’s part of my values from my family connections to Gonzaga University, where my mother was a professor in the graduate school of education and the doctoral leadership program.”

Her supervisor, Greg Cunningham, has been director of the program for more than five years.  He had helped resettle refugees from the former Soviet Union until Sept. 11.  Since then, there have been fewer refugees to resettle, so they have dropped that part of their work, but had the skills to help resettle people after Hurricane Katrina.

For 27 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Immigration and Refugee Services resettled refugees. Initially most were Vietnamese.  In the mid 1990s, there were Bosnians, followed by people from the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Cuba.

Now World Relief does the only refugee resettlement in the area, he said.

The Catholic Charities’ program provides immigration services, helping people determine and access immigration benefits—including legal residency and citizenship—through programs at St. Patrick’s in Pasco, St. Patrick’s in Walla Walla, Sacred Heart in Othello and on human trafficking in the Okanogan.

While studying for a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, which he earned in 2001 at Eastern Washington University, Greg contacted his predecessor, Sean Stone, to help run the ESL program for immigrants, initially as a volunteer.  When Shawn left, Greg, who has also taught in Catholic schools, took over as director.

Some evacuees from New Orleans resettled in Royal City, Lewiston and Brewster, as well as Spokane. 

“Some who lived in New Orleans all their lives decided snow would be better than hurricanes,” Greg said.  “A few have gone back, but most have stayed.  If people make connections in communities, they are likely to stay.”

Because snow, cold and pine trees are new to many refugees as they are to Gulf Coast evacuees, the refugee orientation program has been the foundation of the evacuees’ orientation.

 “Recent response has been phenomenal, raising funds for the tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan and for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, plus resettling people here,” said Greg.

Amy is impressed that “individuals, businesses and agencies came through, helping set up homes, transport people and provide furniture.  People reached out to offer things to us.”

For information, call 455-6190.


February issue will include an overview of individuals and faith groups who have gone to the Gulf Coast to help with long-term hurricane recovery.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © January 2007