Katrina's Angels

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California Opens Arms to Survivors

Date: 9/28/2005

California opens arms to survivors
Some arrive in L.A., San Diego -- at least 300 to come to S.F.
Carrie Sturrock, Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writers

Monday, September 5, 2005

California received its first wave of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina on Sunday, in San Diego and Los Angeles, while San Francisco and San Jose prepared to accommodate a combined 400 victims.

At least 300 evacuees may start arriving today in San Francisco, where they will be offered temporary shelter, access to jobs, city schools and permanent quarters in public housing, authorities said.

San Jose will take up to 100 victims, but there was no word on when they were expected to arrive or how they would be housed, according to a city official.

In San Diego, some 80 refugees arrived by plane on Sunday and cheered and wept as city officials boarded the plane to welcome them.

"There was just this release of raw emotion. They just about had me in tears," said Augie Ghio, the city's homeland security chief.

In Los Angeles, newly arrived refugees were met by caseworkers who helped them get food, clothing and medical attention. Children were given teddy bears.

Although refugees began arriving in California, the state had not yet officially finalized a plan on how many hurricane victims would be accepted, in part because state leaders were awaiting word from the federal government about how the state would be reimbursed for costs.

The state, however, had already contacted at least one city to set up shelter for refugees. That city was San Jose.

"When you see what's going on there, you can't help but be concerned and want to do what you can to help,'' said San Jose spokesman Tom Manheim, who explained that the state's Office of Emergency Services contacted the city to ask for its cooperation.

He said San Jose is working with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to find shelter for up to six months for the refugees.

State leaders are assessing how many evacuees California can accommodate before pledging to help a definite number, said Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

"We want to make sure, before we say we can shelter a certain number of people, that we have adequate facilities and resources to take care of those people," he said.

In San Francisco, city officials said they put aside their Labor Day holiday plans and met to come up with an immediate response to the hurricane crisis.

"San Francisco isn't going to stand by while people debate how, when and where to support people who have been displaced by the hurricane," said Dariush Kayhan, director of the city's housing and homeless services for the Department of Human Services.

"We're going to set up a safe spot for people to come and bring the services to that site. ... That's who we are. That's what this city knows how to do," Kayhan said.

The city has planned to work with the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities to help hurricane victims.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, the refugees will be housed temporarily in the lower level of St. Mary's Cathedral on Gough Street. The Salvation Army will provide meals to the refugees, who will be offered medical attention through Catholic Healthcare West's St. Francis and St. Mary's hospitals.

By quickly responding to the victims' needs, San Francisco could lose out on funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state officials have warned.

"If they haven't used the normal procedures, they take a risk," Henry Renteria, director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services, said in a news conference Sunday. "If you don't do it according to the rules established by the state and FEMA, you could take on expenses not deemed eligible (for reimbursement.)"

So be it, said Mayor Gavin Newsom's spokesman, Peter Ragone.

"We have great respect for the governor, and if they choose to not take the money the federal government would make available and reimburse the city, we'll do it on our own with charitable and philanthropic resources," he said.

San Francisco leaders are exploring a number of permanent housing options, Kayhan said; there are 200 units available in the Hunters Point and Sunnydale public housing projects.

"It's their choice if they're interested in that housing and see it as an improvement," said Kayhan. "Folks may come here and stabilize for a short period of time and move elsewhere."

If the city gets money earmarked for Katrina victims from the federal government, it may be able to provide rental assistance for apartments throughout the Bay Area. City officials also hope Bay Area residents will step forward to help displaced people.

The San Francisco Unified School District plans to immediately offer to enroll victims at schools with extra space, said Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Because the school year is just one week along, it's not clear which sites have openings.

"We have schools where there is room for them," she said. "We have staff who will welcome them and help make this transition as easy as they can on the students and their families."

The tragedy hit close to home for one of Ackerman's senior staff, Chief of School Support Operations Eloise Brooks, whose mother and eight siblings lost everything. The district's central office has raised $3,000 to help her family.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. E-mail Carrie Sturrock at csturrock@sfchronicle.com.