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VOL. 121 | NO. 69 | Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Getting It Done:

Memphis' Community Services Agency continues helping hurricane evacuees

By Andy Meek

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UNDER THE PAPER TRAIL: Christa Hallman of Displaced Citizens of the Gulf Coast (middle) sifts through a mountain of forms with Errol Johnson and Mildred Alcom at her kitchen table. The three are among thousands of hurricane evacuees who are being helped by Memphis' Community Services Agency. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

It was six months after Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf Coast, and government officials were stuck in an inefficient bureaucratic muck. Embattled former FEMA director Michael Brown sat down with an NBC Nightly News reporter in February to defend his department's much-maligned response to the storm.

"Everyone should have known what we were facing," Brown acknowledged.

It was another example of media attention being focused on the federal government's - and especially FEMA's - plodding reaction to the hurricane. Yet there are other lesser-known responses to Katrina that have unfolded in relative anonymity, such as that of a Memphis group chosen to help funnel FEMA aid to local evacuees.

That group is the Memphis-Shelby County Community Services Agency (CSA).

While national attention slowly has begun to focus elsewhere, the CSA has pressed on, helping thousands of people who came to the Bluff City to escape the desolation.

The CSA's is an uncommon story in a news cycle dominated by the effects of red tape and quirks of officialdom. It involves a government agency that's quietly, powerfully, getting things done.

Just doing it

Since late last year, the CSA has been helping hurricane evacuees like Wendell Siggers find and pay for shelter, utilities and other must-haves.

"Oh man, the CSA, they have just been tremendously helpful," said Siggers, who fled to Memphis late last year from Metairie, La., and has since found work as a contractor for Time Warner Cable.

"For about a month and a half to two months after I got here, I had this thing where, for lack of a better description, it was sort of like shell shock," he said. "I had to run from everything I owned."

Siggers' job involves attempting to collect on past due accounts.

"(CSA) assisted me with a place to stay, assisted me with covering the utilities and anything that I've needed, anything that I lost. They've just been the bridge over the troubled water."
- Wendell Siggers
A hurricane Katrina evacuee who is living and working in Memphis

If he can't work out arrangements, he often has to climb poles or crawl around beneath homes to disconnect services.

Among other things, the CSA pays the $569 monthly rent for Siggers' apartment on Ridgeway Road near Winchester Road.

"They assisted me with a place to stay, assisted me with covering the utilities and anything that I've needed, anything that I lost. They've just been the bridge over the troubled water."

The CSA's mandate comes from federal and state leaders who delegated the responsibility of providing for the needs of hurricane evacuees to Tennessee's nine CSAs, which are spread across every region of the state.

Lives in transition

Christa Hallman was a university student in Biloxi, Miss., when the storm hit. Hallman, who created a support group for evacuees in Memphis - Displaced Citizens of the Gulf Coast - said CSA officials have shown up consistently at the group's weekly meetings.

Meetings take place Monday nights at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, 70 N. Bellevue Blvd.

"The CSA is on board, and they're there every week trying to solve problems anyone has," Hallman said. She's calculated roughly 2,100 families, which works out to 7,500 individuals, who are still in Memphis after fleeing the storm.

For many evacuees, the days have become a strenuous guessing game; what will they do once public assistance runs out? With savings accounts drained, jobs lost and homes and lives ruined, how does a person establish a new life in an unfamiliar city?

Time is beginning to run out for some of the storm evacuees. FEMA has begun mailing notices saying public assistance soon will be cut off.

The table in Hallman's temporary apartment, not far from Sycamore View Road, is piled with stacks of papers, forms and documents that chronicle her life after the storm.

"I got a cancellation letter from FEMA a few days ago," she said. "FEMA is just so indecisive with what they're doing, because I got another letter that says they want to work with me. One day they'll say one thing, another day they'll say something else."

A bid for security

At a meeting of the CSA's board of directors last week, executive director Susan Adams said they've heard FEMA is essentially canceling the local aid program. What that means for evacuees like Siggers and Hallman is unclear. The government, and by extension the CSA, still is working to support many of them on an individual basis.

"We've heard April or May could be the last month that some of them are provided rent," Adams said. "This has just been horrible for the evacuees. They've had no security at all."

CSA board member Sara Lewis observed: "Some of these people came here with literally the clothes on their back and the shoes on their feet."

That includes evacuees like Valerie June, who fled to Memphis along with 22 family members last September from Metairie.

FEMA, through the local CSA, found and paid for an apartment in Hickory Hill for June and some of her family members. New Hope Baptist Church in Whitehaven furnished it for her.

"We all lost everything, but the people of Memphis just swept me off my feet," June said.

Public aid still is being funneled to Siggers, who said he got a rent cutoff notice Feb. 28 from FEMA. Another letter came after that, informing him he would be covered for three more months. He gave CSA credit for getting him back on his feet.

"So now, I've been working hard like a madman," he said. "I'm just trying to stay above it all and get myself in a situation where things are a little bit better, you know?"

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