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300 evacuees find haven here from hurricane's destruction

Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Richard Lacombe arrived in Western New York less than three weeks ago. He's already grown accustomed to wearing a No. 7 J.P. Losman Buffalo Bills jersey.

Lacombe of Slidell, La., plans to be here awhile with his wife and two children.

"Why go back there? There's not going to be anything for at least three years," said Lacombe, who has relatives here. "We'll make Buffalo our home. Why not?"

An estimated 300 people so far have migrated to Western New York from the Gulf Coast region devastated by Katrina and the ensuing floods.

"I'm already calling it home," said Alton Magee, who fled Bogalusa, La. "I love it here."

Magee, 22, rode a bus from Dallas to be in Buffalo with his fiancee, Amanda Starr. He is working on getting a transfer from his Wal-Mart job in Louisiana to a similar position with a Wal-Mart in Western New York.

Others hope to go back South as soon as possible.

County officials said they no longer expect a FEMA plane to arrive here with evacuees, as had been suggested.

But, even as progress continues on cleaning up the storm and flood areas, coordinators of a local collaborative effort assisting evacuees anticipate that more Southerners eventually will move here -- at least temporarily -- to be closer to family.

Many evacuees in Southern states, but with family in Western New York, still don't know the full extent of the damage in their communities because they haven't been able to get to their homes, said Warren Galloway, senior executive assistant to County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

"Once these people realize there's nothing there, they will be coming up," said Galloway.

Survivors of the hurricane and flooding have been getting expedited
entry into the Erie County and New York State network of social services, including Medicaid, food stamps, emergency assistance and housing assistance.

The state waived many of the bureaucratic hurdles to receiving the aid.

For example, residents seeking Medicaid normally would have to wait 45 days from the date of application to be eligible. For hurricane victims, that requirement has been removed by the state Health Department.

The county Department of Social Services set up shop in a one-step center at the American Red Cross on Delaware Avenue, along with the Buffalo Public Schools and nonprofit agencies such as the Salvation Army.

Rather than bouncing from floor to floor in the bureaucratic maze that is the Rath Building in downtown Buffalo, hurricane clients signed up for public assistance in the comfort of a wainscoted library in the Red Cross building, moving from table to table with little or no wait.

The state will grant benefits to qualified hurricane evacuees for at least the next four months, said county Social Services Commissioner Michael Weiner.

The commissioner has been dedicating five or six staff members per day to the Red Cross center, but he said his department can't afford that level of staffing much longer.

The Department of Social Services trimmed several dozen employees within the past year as a result of the county's fiscal crisis.

"It's something that's sort of fragile," he said. "We've got citizens of Erie County, and we've got to make sure we're addressing their needs, too."

Weiner and other county officials anticipate the federal government will reimburse states and counties for expenses incurred while assisting evacuees -- although exactly when that money will flow is unknown.

"Every community does this because it's the right thing to do, and it's a time of great need," he said.

Weiner said his department is tracking staff time for handling hurricane clients to ensure reimbursement later.


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