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Evacuees Find Open Doors in California

Times Staff Writers

There was the free trip across country in a private jet. And there was the complimentary bottle of water -- wonderfully ice-cold water -- handed to her upon her arrival.

Elaine West savored them both Sunday as she helped lead the first trickle of what could become a wave of survivors of Hurricane Katrina into California.

“I think I might stay here,” said the grateful 52-year-old former candy maker as she surveyed Los Angeles from a hilltop next to the Hollywood Freeway.

She quietly told of being driven out of her Uptown New Orleans home, not by rising floodwaters but by vandals who looted her neighborhood and by gunfire that killed two of her neighbors.

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“I don’t see myself ever going back to New Orleans again,” she said. “Even to visit.”

West was among 10 evacuees who arrived early Sunday at the Dream Center, a church-sponsored outreach and rehabilitation facility based at the former Queen of Angels Hospital near Echo Park. They were among the first of what could be thousands of hurricane victims headed for California.

Elsewhere in the state, 80 survivors from the Gulf states arrived in San Diego late Sunday on a jet provided by a local businessman and were taken temporarily to Kearny High School. An additional 300 were reportedly headed to San Francisco for short-term stays at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

San Jose agreed to take in 100 evacuees after being asked by the state Office of Emergency Services, said Tom Manheim, a spokesman for the city.

Rob Gandy, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had asked that all counties in the state be surveyed to see how many victims they might be able to shelter.

Gandy could not provide any figures for how many survivors California might take in or how many counties had agreed to be hosts.

Los Angeles County and city officials said they were still trying to determine how many evacuees they could take in, based on available shelters, and hoped to have an estimate by Tuesday.

Red Cross officials in Los Angeles scrambled to find temporary housing of at least two weeks in local hotels and longer-term shelter in corporate housing or at empty military bases and other government facilities.

“To have people have to sleep in the Forum or in the Sports Arena for six or eight months isn’t acceptable,” said local Red Cross spokesman Nicholas Samaniego. “All of the Southern California Red Cross chapters are trying to see what we can come up with.”

The Red Cross assisted members of eight families Sunday who made their way to Los Angeles. Caseworkers were counseling the new arrivals and issuing “client assistance cards” -- debit cards that can be used to purchase clothing -- and arranging temporary housing, Samaniego said.

Operators of the Dream Center said they could immediately come up with space for 351 evacuees -- 251 at the old hospital and 100 at Angelus Temple in Echo Park.

“We’ll help them out with jobs. We’ll help them get back on track. We’re not talking shelter, we’re talking rebuilding lives,” said Clint Carlton, a Dream Center administrator.

The 10 people were flown from the Baton Rouge, La., area to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank by Missouri-based Lion Heart Aviation Group and are being logged in by FEMA and screened by Dream Center staffers “to make sure they really want to come to Los Angeles,” Carlton said.

Rooms with bunk beds, toilets and toiletries have been prepared for the evacuees. Shower facilities are nearby, as is a cafeteria. The newcomers were selecting used clothes from a Dream Center stockroom. Church officials, meantime, put out a plea for more garments -- particularly children’s clothing.

About half of the former Queen of Angels complex has been retrofitted to current earthquake standards and is suitable for housing, officials said.

Founded in 1927 as a Catholic hospital, Queen of Angels was a centerpiece of the Los Angeles medical community for decades. In the mid-1990s, a Christian ministry bought the site for about $4 million.

Dream Center Pastor Matthew Barnett escorted the evacuees to lunch at Sunset Boulevard’s Spaghetti Factory restaurant before taking them on a short bus tour of Hollywood Boulevard. He said most of the early arrivals agreed that there’s little for them to return to in the Gulf region.

“I don’t think New Orleans will ever come back,” said one of them, 33-year-old Darren Fountain, a native of the the Big Easy.

Fountain said he had fled the flooding with his fiancee, Teaaka Burton, 28, and stepchildren Jammel Sims, 1, and Tearkeae Sims, 6.

They slept in his dilapidated 1985 Cadillac after it ran out of gas 40 miles outside New Orleans. After four days, they were rescued by volunteers from a Louisiana Dream Center.

“We don’t have money, identification, Social Security cards, anything,” said Fountain -- who worked as a waiter at the city’s famous Acme Oyster House restaurant.

Burton, who worked as a cashier at a family-style Rally’s restaurant, said, “It’s scary coming here. But we’re here.”

Evacuee Phillip Smith, 59, recalled floating food and candles in plastic bags through neck-deep water to his home’s second floor before a friend helped him get out.

“I’m still nervous about coming to L.A. I feel like I’m on another planet,” the self-employed construction worker said.

Thomas Quinn, 47, a pipefitter who worked on an offshore oil rig, rescued 28-year-old tugboat deckhand Ricky Perrin and his wife, Leticia, as they stood on a roadside looking for a ride to the Superdome as the hurricane roared toward their mobile home in Lafitte, La.

They headed north into Alabama and then into Mississippi before landing in a Dream Center shelter and then in Los Angeles.

“You think in your mind you can go back and rebuild. But we talked and agreed there’s nothing to go back to,” said Quinn. “Our trailer is gone,” explained Leticia Perrin, 37.

In San Diego, the mayor’s chief of staff, Denise Price, said the city was “coordinating with other agencies making sure they all work together to help” those brought there.

The 80 evacuees taken to San Diego flew in a jet chartered by businessman David Perez, who spent about $250,000 on the mission after seeing the grim images of victims on television.

“I’m just happy to save some lives and get people to where they can have shelter and food and water,” Perez said.

The planeload included some Vietnam veterans, who Perez said told him their time in the Gulf Coast as after the hurricane was worse than what they experienced during the war.

“All of these people wanted to get out of hell, but nobody wanted these people. These people have been sleeping on the hard ground for days,” said Perez, the owner of Surge Global Energy, a San Diego oil and gas firm.

Perez was reloading the plane with supplies and planned to fly back Sunday night to pick up more survivors.

“We’re making a quick turnaround,” he said, adding that officials at Louisiana State University were screening evacuees for health problems before getting them to the airport for Perez to pick up.

Gayle Falkenthal, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in San Diego, said the evacuees there included 16 children.

“We will be bringing in caseworkers tomorrow and finding them more permanent temporary shelter,” Falkenthal said by telephone Sunday from the school shelter.


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