FEMA Evacuees Stuck in Shelters

New Orleans residents are being allowed to return today, but getting home is proving to be a problem, particularly for the thousands of families who received FEMA assistance to evacuate before Hurricane Gustav hit.

Mayor Ray Nagin agreed today to allow those who fled the city to return about 24 hours ahead of schedule, and has lifted the curfew he imposed Saturday.

But the FEMA-run evacuation was coordinated with a battery of federal and state agencies, and now those same agencies are all trying to work out how to get people back -- and in the meantime, evacuees eager to see their homes again wait and wait.

"It's like I'm in a cage and I can't get out," said Orleans Parish resident Michael Wise, 18, who on Saturday took an Amtrak train out of New Orleans to Memphis.

Since then Wise and a couple of hundred other evacuees have been camped out at the Hickory Hill Community Center. The center has two large rooms full of cots. A group of teens crowds around the only television set playing a video game, while younger children play a game of tag with a tennis ball.

The adults are mostly milling around, bored, playing the popular guessing game "When will we get to go home?"

Everyone, it seems has heard a different story.

New Orleans resident James Richards, 22, said he has packed and unpacked three times in the past 12 hours.

"First they said Friday. Then they said Thursday, and now it's back to Friday again," Richards said.

At least 1,800 evacuees headed to Memphis last weekend on Amtrak trains, and thousands more came by car. The city has seven FEMA shelters up and running throughout the city, with about a dozen more run by the Red Cross.

"If it was me, I would want to get back home too," said Shelby County Sheriff's Office spokesman Stephen Schular, who is coordinating with FEMA on the assistance efforts in Memphis. "We want to move as quickly as possible. The priority is to get these people home."

But that priority requires significant planning and that, it turns out, will take some time.

Cheryl Michelet of the Louisiana Department of Social Service said a team of federal and state agencies worked together to coordinate the evacuation of residents, and it will take the same team of federal and state agencies to work together to get the thousands of residents back to the state.

New Orleans residents who received federal assistance to evacuate registered at various city checkpoints as they left. Those logs are being used to identify who went where and to coordinate which agency is responsible for getting them back home.

But the first step is for the local leaders in each parish to make a request of state and federal officials that says, in effect, "We're ready for our residents to come back." Only then will the re-entry process take place. Despite his announcement today, it is unclear whether Nagin has made this request.

Once the re-entry request has been made, officials like Stephen Shular will begin the process of getting the evacuees ready to go home.

"We physically have to get the buses to the shelters. Then we have to get people up off their cots and pack their luggage and get them ready to go," Schur said.

The current plan is for the FEMA evacuees in Memphis to board Amtrak trains late Friday to return home, although that timing is subject to change.

Evacuees with medical or special needs will not be transported back home until the "medical infrastructure is in place to care for them," according to Cheryl Michelet, and there's no word yet on when that might be.

As for residents who evacuated on their own -- those who drove by car to stay with relatives or in hotels out of harm's way -- they are already streaming back to cities and towns throughout Louisiana, causing gridlock on many roads.

State officials continue to warn returning residents that services are far from back to normal. There are thousands of homes still without power in New Orleans and elsewhere, and the latest estimates are that only about 50 percent of the state will have power restored in the next nine days, a figure Gov. Bobby Jindal called "unacceptable."

There are long lines to get such basics as fuel for cars and generators. In Praireville, La., people waited in line for up to 3½ hours just to get some gas.

Still, for those camped out in shelters hundreds of miles from home, facing another night on a cot in a crowded room, no electricity sounds like no big deal -- they just want to go home.

"I'm not used to this. I just want to go home and sleep in my own bed. Have you heard anything new about when we can go home?" Michael Wise asked.

Of course, at the Hickory Hill shelter, there were a few contrarians who didn't seem to care one way or another about going home -- especially when home meant going back to school and leaving your two new best friends behind.

Seven-year-old Rondnell fled Gustav with her mom, dad, two sisters and a brother. Rondnell's dad patiently explained that going home meant sleeping in her own bed and eating home-cooked food for the first time in about a week, but Rondnell wasn't swayed one bit.

"I'm staying," she said flatly, and went back to coloring her book.