Fate undecided by evacuees

Published 6:00 am Monday, March 27, 2006

More than 15,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees – including 2,524 inLincoln County – are still living in a seven-county area ofsouthwest Mississippi seven months after the storm devastated theirhome region, according to a recent population study.

The population study was compiled by Claritas, a targetmarketing information company, through various data networks,including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the AmericanRed Cross. The estimates made in the study are not a finalassessment of the impact, but a current view – combining availabledata and estimates with the knowledge of data experts in theimpacted area.

At 5,212 and 2,524, respectively, Pike and Lincoln counties leadthe area in the highest number of evacuees still residing withintheir borders. Lawrence County, with 2,289 new residents, andCopiah County, with 2,175, closely trailed in the numbers.

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Adams, Jefferson and Franklin counties posted less than a2,000-person net population gain in the months following the storm.Statistics indicate a population rise of 1,610 in Adams County, 685in Jefferson and 520 in Franklin.

Some area officials were pleasantly surprised at thenumbers.

“To put these numbers into perspective, we’re looking at theequivalent of 500 families of four or more,” saidBrookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Executive VicePresident Cliff Brumfield about the local total. “To add more than2,000 people to a county of 30,000 in a such a phenomenally shortamount of time has had quite an impact.”

The fact such a large influx of people has not overly taxed thecommunity’s infrastructure and, in fact, has greatly assisted thecity by boosting its sales tax income and through other meansspeaks highly of the evacuees who chose Brookhaven as asemi-permanent refuge from the storm, he said.

“That number does somewhat account for an increase in sales taxnumbers, even though we were noticing some increase there evenprior to Katrina,” Brumfield said.

According to the report, Hurricane Katrina forced an immediateand massive relocation of hundreds of thousands of people.Demographers have been challenged to track the dramatic populationshifts.

Anecdotal reports have been plentiful, but solid data arescarce, and the situation continues to change rapidly as evacueesput down permanent roots, return home or are forced by jobopportunities or economics to move elsewhere.

It is a complication the Benit family can fully understandbecause their situation remains unstable.

Terese Benit, her husband Fred, and daughter Melanie came toBrookhaven before Katrina struck and took refuge at EasthavenBaptist Church, which became a shelter during the storm. They leftthe shelter for the temporary housing in Jabez Park inSeptember.

Their home in St. Bernard Parish was totally destroyed, TereseBenit said. Although the family loves Brookhaven, they remainundecided on where to live permanently.

Fred Benit stays in New Orleans during the week to work at thesame job he had before the storm and returns on the weekends tostay with the family here.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Terese Benit said. “Weknow we are here until May because we can stay in the camper untilthen. We’ll have some place to go, but we don’t know where we’llpermanently stay. We need to get close enough for his work.”

Brumfield estimated at least 50 percent of evacuees still herein March would likely decide to call it home. Others may be waitingon insurance claims, their source of employment to reopen orpossibly experiencing other delays before being able to return tothe coast.

“The hurricane is over six months behind us, but we’re still inthe aftermath,” he said. “It could be years before there is asufficient infrastructure there for them to return to someneighborhoods. A lot of them have found suitable employment hereand plan to make Lincoln County and Brookhaven their home.”

David Holland, director of the WIN Job Center, has strived toprovide every means possible to either aid the return of evacueesto their homes or to help them make southwest Mississippi their newhome. The Mississippi Department of Economic Security hired 25integration counselors statewide to assist evacuees, and theBrookhaven center was chosen as the regional office for one ofthose counselors.

Brumfield said the MDES and his office have noticed a subtlechange in the nature of job-seekers in the past few months.

The number of people seeking immediate job assistance hasdeclined and the impetus has shifted to those who have researchedthe Lincoln County area on their own, but still need their specificquestions answered. Questions now being asked relate todemographics, education, health care, and the availability of civicgroups.

“They’re now making informative decisions and seeing what’s bestfor them and their families – whether that means staying here orreturning to the coast,” Brumfield said.

Churches have also been a great help in assisting evacuees tosettle in to their existence here by assisting in the location ofliving quarters and addressing other domestic needs.

For its analysis, Claritas used information obtained in apopulation projection study of all counties for Oct. 1, 2005, andJan. 1, 2006, as base figures.

The estimates of initial hurricane impact modified theseestimates to reflect the estimated population loss or gain due tothe storm.

Population loss was estimated based on a Claritas block overlayof FEMA flood and damage assessment maps – with population in theflooded and most heavily damaged areas designated as displaced.These figures were then supplemented with data from the AmericanRed Cross.

The January figures were a particular challenge, according tostudy writers, because the return of population to the impactedcounties is more difficult to measure. All such estimates arepreliminary, but may provide a first measure of repopulation in theimpacted areas.