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Much Aid, Few Hurricane Refugees

Times Staff Writer

They were expecting hurricane victims by the planeload.

So it’s no wonder that authorities at Los Angeles International Airport sprang into action when the first Katrina evacuees arrived by accident -- and by car.

Members of a New Orleans family that fled to Los Angeles by automobile were injured when their car collided with another near the entrance to LAX as they were headed for a nearby hotel, where they were to be housed by the Red Cross.

Airport police who rushed to the Sept. 14 accident scene helped rescue two adults and two children from their badly damaged sedan. As the family was taken to a hospital, officers towed their car to an airport lot and secured it and the evacuees’ possessions.

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Moved by the family’s plight, officers went to the hospital to check on them: a 50-year-old grandmother, her 30-year-old daughter and two granddaughters ages 5 weeks and 11. After the four were treated for minor injuries and released, officers drove them to the hotel.

That turned out to be only the start of the airport’s unusual emergency response.

Airport workers donated food, clothing, diapers and baby formula. Airport Police Officer Rose Crutchfield took up a collection that raised $300 to buy other things and give the family some spending money.

Airport administrators, who had been told to expect as many as 2,000 hurricane evacuees on planes chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, dipped into a special supply of toiletries and other necessities donated for Katrina victims by LAX-area merchants.

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Airport police intervened on the family’s behalf with the car insurance company to expedite repairs to their 2003 Oldsmobile. Officers also helped arrange for the family to rent a car and then kicked in an additional $100 to cover an unexpected fee charged by the rental company.

Through his church, Officer James Bradshaw found a family willing to share its home with the evacuees for up to six months.

“We could see that the family was very distraught,” Sgt. Aletha Metcalf said. “These were the only hurricane victims we’d run into. We wanted to do all we can.”

Metcalf said the family had driven to California expecting to stay with a relative in Los Angeles. When that turned out to be unfeasible, the Louisianans turned to the Red Cross for assistance until they could travel to Texas, where other relatives live.

The evacuees declined this week to discuss their predicament. On Friday, they were still waiting for the car repairs to be completed, Officer Belinda Nettles said.

“This has all been a little overwhelming to them,” Metcalf explained. “This family is very proud.”

Airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said LAX was on standby last week after federal officials advised that as many as 2,000 evacuees were headed to Los Angeles.

That prompted airport workers to put out an appeal to merchants in Inglewood, El Segundo and Westchester who are participants in a “We Fly as One” retail program to donate merchandise for special “welcome kits” for refugees.

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Volunteers from Loyola Marymount University helped package nearly 600 of the kits, sorting them for men, women, boys, girls and infants, Castles said.

Larger items and food and water were diverted directly to the Gulf Coast by LAX officials, who last week placed them on trucks sent by Rotary Clubs in Inglewood, Hawthorne and Lawndale to storm victims in Baker, La., she said.

Castles said FEMA officials notified LAX on Sept. 16 that the Los Angeles airlift was on hold.

The airport remains prepared to receive storm victims, however.

Plans call for evacuees to land at a terminal next to Imperial Highway and take a bus to a nearby reception center that will be staffed by representatives of the city and county emergency preparedness departments, county health and social services offices, the Red Cross, FEMA and other agencies. From there, evacuees will be placed in shelters.

So far, 1,864 families left homeless by Hurricane Katrina have at least temporarily relocated on their own to Los Angeles County, said Anna Burton, assistant general manager of the city’s Emergency Preparedness Department.

The airport’s Metcalf said LAX would be ready for evacuees if an airlift was scheduled. “We were just surprised,” she said, “that our first ones arrived by car.”


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