First Gustav Evacuees Begin Arriving In Tyler
By COSHANDRA DILLARD
Tyler will be a hub for several thousand Hurricane Gustav evacuees as city officials enact its emergency response plan, and so far, it seems as though early relief efforts have been fluid.
Mayor Barbara Bass Saturday signed an official declaration of disaster/emergency condition during the second of two press conferences on Saturday. Mayor Bass said preparations are specifically geared towards the evacuations of special needs evacuees from Beaumont.
“We are fully prepared to respond to the emergency situation,” Mayor Bass said. “We have activated our emergency operations center as well as our reception center.”
The city’s reception center is located at Faulkner Park off of U.S. Highway 69, just north of Loop 49. A team of police, fire and medical officials are in place to greet and process evacuees, whether they come in official buses or in cars.
By 5 p.m. Saturday, the first four buses carrying about 155 people arrived in Tyler and headed directly to a shelter, Tyler Fire Department Captain Jeff Akin said.
Meanwhile at the reception center, about 12 people — a family of four and a group of eight — were the first to check in with officials before heading to a local shelter.
A small bus carrying about 15 evacuees arrived by 7 p.m. and about 1,000 more are expected to arrive by Monday, Akin said.
Tyler Fire Department Chief David Schlottach said following numerous conference calls with state officials, they are expecting to receive about 6,000 evacuees, although, he said he is uncertain if any will be coming from New Orleans.
“We really do have great communications with the state,” Chief Scholattach said. “Tyler is heavily involved in this.”
City officials said since the reception center will process thousands of people, they are implementing a system that will move people to shelters smoothly.
“We are really streamlining this process,” said Susan Guthrie, city of Tyler communications director.
Guthrie said evacuees coming in their own cars are asked to go directly to the reception center so they may keep up with the number of people they are receiving and to avoid having an overflow at some shelters.
Before leaving Beaumont, evacuees have already been entered into an intricate computer system that will keep track of them once they make it to Tyler.
“They already have a bracelet with a barcode,” Captain Akin said. “They will walk through the scanner and it automatically loads into the computers. We have a list of where they need to go.”
This system ensures that families can locate each other when coming to East Texas, Akin said.
“With Hurricane Katrina, we had no system. Families were calling wanting to know where family members were and we had no way of finding out. This way, we have a better way of tracking where people are going.”
Stan Lewis, with the Salvation Army, said they will provide food and water to evacuees at the reception center through Monday, before heading south. He said 150 volunteers will load up on about 20 disaster vehicles but he is unsure what city they will be deployed to.
“We could go to New Orleans or it could be Port Arthur,” Lewis said. “Until then, we are going to try to help these people.”
Bob Frazier, 66, was among one of the first evacuees off of the first bus at the reception center. Although anxious about the result of Hurricane Gustav, he said he was a little more at ease with the way state and local officials are handling the evacuation process. During Hurricane Rita, Frazier said he spent three days on a bus without food, water and bathroom breaks.
“Today we had plenty of water and it only took us about four hours to get here,” Frazier said as he snacked on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich provided by Salvation Army volunteers. “It wasn’t bad at all. I knew it would be different this time.”
Jason Hollowell, a Tyler Junior College paramedic student, volunteered at the center and said he was prepared to be there all night, bringing an extra change of clothes. He said he helped with relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina and he is also pleased that things are much more organized this time.
“It’s a week before and it’s already set up,” Hollowell said. “There are things we are doing in anticipation and preparation. With Katrina, the storm hit and we walked outside and there were 45 buses. We learned a lot about what not to do from three years ago.”
With the influx of evacuees, Chief Schlottach noted that East Texas drivers are to use precaution when traveling roads and highways.
“Traffic will be very congested because there are a great number of self evacuees coming up the highway,” he said. “I just advise citizens to bear with it because their fellow Texans are trying to get out of harm’s way.”
Chief Schottach said those interested in volunteering can call 211 to find out ways to help with relief efforts.
With the signing of the declaration and activation of the emergency management plan, Mayor Bass said the city will now be eligible to request reimbursement from federal funds for providing shelter and relief to evacuees.