CHICAGO – Officials pressed ahead Thursday with the largest airlift of people in U.S. history, funneling evacuees from the hurricane-swamped Gulf Coast to states around the country.

Of the nearly 1 million people displaced by Katrina, some 250,000 were living in shelters affiliated with the Red Cross and federal disaster agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia as of noon Thursday, said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

In addition to those in shelters, hundreds of thousands of evacuees had spread out across the country to stay in hotels, with family and friends and in housing provided by state and local governments.

“We’re still very much in crisis mode,” Knocke said, “and our focus is on saving lives and continuing to save people in and around the region and evacuating people from the New Orleans area (so we can) get them to shelter and get them the care and aid they need.”

Louisiana and Mississippi residents more accustomed to river towns and mangrove swamps have found themselves sheltered far from home in mountainous Colorado or arid New Mexico.

“It’s the largest (American) Red Cross response to a natural disaster in the history of our organization,” said spokeswoman Devorah Goldberg. “We know it’s going to cost in the millions, because we’ve already sheltered about 160,000 people and we have over 650 (Red Cross) shelters open in 17 states. But we don’t have final figures because we’re in the midst of trying to respond to this disaster and meet the immediate needs.”

Texas housed by far the largest number of evacuees, with 135,000 in shelters, followed by Louisiana itself, with 71,700, according to Homeland Security figures.

But numbers were fluctuating by the hour as planeloads of evacuees arrived in new destinations, and the figures only hinted at the extent of dislocation.

In Arkansas, with 15,600 people in shelters, state officials said the actual number of evacuees was as high as 70,000 and growing. And some states not on the federal shelter list, such as Pennsylvania, reported they were housing refugees in schools and other facilities.

Nationwide, the 800 official shelters affiliated with Homeland Security, FEMA and the Red Cross were working with local governments to care for refugees.

The sheer number has taxed local resources in unexpected ways. In Columbia, S.C., officials changed bus routes so public transportation would regularly pass hotels where large numbers of evacuees were bedded down, said Chris Drummond, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford.

While the federal government lists 300 evacuees in shelters in the state, most of the evacuees in South Carolina were living in hotels, he added.

“We felt it would be best to direct them into hotels in an effort to bring some normalcy into their lives,” Drummond said. “I know, for example, in Charleston, down on the coast, at one point they had about 30 people in a shelter, but these were people who drove themselves or bummed rides. They were ultimately placed in some hotels, as well.”

Two states that do not yet have evacuees in official shelters said they were preparing for their possible arrival. Oregon was expecting 500 Saturday, said Anna Richter Taylor, spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Washington also was placed on standby, officials there said.

In Illinois, 300 evacuees were living in state-operated shelters, but there were probably 1,000 hurricane victims in the state when those living with family and friends were included, said Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Illinois won’t be on standby again until this weekend, she said. FEMA agreed to rotate the list of states on call to receive refugees “so that you don’t have all these states sitting around thinking that they’re getting somebody that day,” Thompson said.

“It was really hard on everybody. This will be much better if a state can sit there and say, “Today’s the day we might get somebody,’ rather than, “Every single day is a day we might get somebody.”‘

Some 32,000 Red Cross disaster workers from all 50 states have served 5.5 million hot meals in its shelters, Goldberg said. And they will be doing so for some time.

“We’ll be there for them for as long as they need us,” she said. “No one knows how long. But we know that because New Orleans is shut down, since they’ve got this poisonous water, that it could take months.”

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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