Red Cross, area officials striving to regain order

Published 5:00 am Thursday, September 15, 2005

Following days of chaos over Red Cross assistance, officials andauthorities late Wednesday set up a ticket distribution system forthose requesting help to return – beginning next week – to get thefinancial help.

“It’s a whole lot better,” Brookhaven-Lincoln County CivilDefense Director Clifford Galey said this morning following a nightof ticket distribution at the Hansel King Sportsplex on Belt LineRoad.

An estimated 6,000 people filled the sports complex groundsTuesday night and Wednesday as Red Cross and local officials triedto devise a means of processing and handing out checks to residentsfrom Louisiana and Mississippi, including the local area, impactedby Hurricane Katrina. Galey said tickets were distributed startingaround 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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“The complex was cleared out before dark last night,” Galeysaid.

Ticket distribution continued until around 3 a.m. today andresumed at 8 a.m. Galey said there are plans for 24-hour ticketdistribution at the complex.

“We’ll work that out with Red Cross,” Galey said. “Someone’sgoing to be there 24 hours a day until this calms down.”

During a Wednesday morning meeting with local officials, RedCross relief coordinator Tim Connolly said the plan was to see 600people a day beginning Monday.

Under the system, motorists come to the sports complex from thewest on Belt Line Road and circle the softball fields to where RedCross officials are handing out tickets. Around 9 a.m. today, thetickets being handed out were for Sept. 26. When those aredepleted, tickets for the following day will be given out and soon.

“It worked last night, and I hope it continues to work,” Galeysaid.

Connolly said tickets were being printed for 20 to 30 days’worth of processing. He said Wednesday the number of potentialclients is unknown.

“This is just potentially the tip of the iceberg,” Connolly saidof the number of people who showed up Tuesday night and thosealready seen earlier this week at the Multi-Use Facility.

Connolly said the Red Cross was overwhelmed by the complexnature of the emergency. He said there are not enough volunteers toconduct assessments and verify information, thus “whole counties”qualify for assistance.

“Essentially, it’s the voting age population of 12 to 15counties who can claim head of household,” Connolly said.

While some measures are being taken to curb potential abuse,Connolly indicated it is too late to alter how the Red Cross ishandling the assistance process.

“Unfortunately, once you go down that road you’ve got to stay onthat track,” Connolly said.

Residents can apply at any assistance center or call the RedCross at 1-800-975-7585.

Centers are located Jackson, Natchez, Hattiesburg and YazooCity, although that center reportedly shut down Wednesday due tocrowd control and security problems. Officials said there are plansto open centers in McComb and Tylertown.

Connolly said there are five levels of assistance, ranging from$350 for singles to $1,565 for families of five or more.

As word of the process has spread, Connolly said, almost 80percent of checks written now are for the maximum $1,565. Based onthat, he said, he has advised the national organization that $12million to $15 million will be needed to address the situationhere.

Also, Connolly said he has received calls from business ownerscomplaining about their employees missing work to go stand in linefor assistance. He said the impression is that $1,500 is “realmoney” and worth it for employees take a sick day or vacationday.

Connolly said a computerized record-keeping system should be upin a few days and should keep people from going to centers morethan once.

Connolly said the hurricane numbers overwhelmed theorganization’s ability to issue debit cards, which have been usedto help people following smaller disasters.

Therefore, checks are having to be manually cut, and that hasbeen debilitating. Compounding problems earlier this week was adelay in having the checks delivered here.

Trustmark National Bank representatives also attended theWednesday morning meeting. The bank’s main office downtown wasdesignated to cash the checks, but they were also presented atbranches that were not prepared for that much volume, said ChrisThurman, president.

“It created a mess (Tuesday) afternoon,” Thurman said.

The scene at the sports complex this morning was vastlydifferent Wednesday. Then, residents complained about a lack oforganization, no information about what was going on, the heat andother problems.

“We’re out here like unfed dogs,” said Angie Newman, aBrookhaven resident who said she had been at complex since 4 a.m.Wednesday. “It’s been terrible.”

Others voiced concerns about elderly and disabled people stayingout in the heat. Red Cross volunteers were at the complex to tendto medical needs as they arose.

“There’s folks got no business being out here in this heat,”said Angela Lofton, of McComb.

A few people huddled in softball field dugouts for shade.

“This is the awfulest thing I ever seen in my life,” said AleanHarris, a Detroit native now living in Copiah County.

The presence of National Guard soldiers upset some of thosewaiting for assistance.

“Put down the guns and pick up pens to get information to helpus,” said Greg McDuffy, of Monticello.

Connolly said earlier that once someone has a ticket forassistance, the process goes “as smooth as glass.”

“People are happy,” he said.

Some waiting at the complex Wednesday afternoon confirmedConnolly’s assertion.

“As long as I get something with a date and time to come back,that’ll be fine,” said Diana White, of McComb.

White said she had been to Brookhaven four times and yesterdaywas the first time she had been able to park to be in line forassistance.

Unlike some others at the complex, White and her mother MaryFelder were taking the situation in stride. They said there was noneed to get mad.

“We really are thankful for everything,” Felder said.