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All-out effort aids storm victims.

Even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, the DAV had already begun implementing plans to aid disabled veterans and their families affected by the storms. The National Service Department had gotten authorization for hundreds of disaster relief vouchers, National Service Offices had been put on alert, and Mobile Service Offices (MSOs) were ready to deploy to Gulf Coast states as soon as it was safe to do so.

"It was most impressive how quickly the DAV mounted such a substantial disaster relief effort for disabled veterans and their families affected by the hurricanes," said National Commander Paul W. Jackson. "Not only did we develop and implement a plan to deploy MSOs to the disaster areas, we committed more than S 1.5 million in the form of disaster relief grants."

In the end, both Katrina and Rita rampaged along the coast and plowed inland, producing catastrophic damage and untold casualties in the coastal areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. It will be some time before the extent of the physical and human devastation from these hurricanes can be estimated. As of this writing, the DAV provided financial assistance to more than 2,000 disabled veterans and their families affected by the storms.

Disabled veterans and their families can use those disaster relief grants to buy food, clouting, and temporary shelter or to obtain relief from injury, illness, or personal loss resulting from natural catastrophes that are not covered by insurance or other relief agencies.

In preparing for the task ahead, National Service Director Randy Reese and his management team at Washington Headquarters had mapped out an overall strategy based on standard disaster relief procedures. Then the waiting and watching began.

"For several days before Katrina hit the United States, we sent notices to the field and held conference calls with National Area Supervisors to share information on the developing situation and mobilize disaster relief teams so they could deploy as soon as safely possible," Reese said.

But it soon became plain that Katrina was going to be a real challenge.

"For one thing, the storm continued to get bigger and stronger as it swirled around in the warm Gulf waters. For another, Katrina cut such a wide path of destruction that we had to constantly tine-rune our plans to meet emerging challenges," said Reese. "Hurricane Rita, though still dangerous and deadly, affected a much smaller area, mainly along the Texas-Louisiana coast. Nevertheless, DAV deployed two MSOs to assist disabled veterans and their families in the region."

According to the National Hurricane Center, Katrina began its dangerous journey southeast of the Bahamas on Aug. 23 and moved across South Florida, dumping over a foot of rain, toppling trees and power lines, and damaging homes and businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. Katrina also brought heavy rains and sustained tropical storm force winds to the Florida Keys.

After entering the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina continued to build, reaching Category 5 strength, with winds hitting their peak intensity of 175 mph. Katrina made landfall in Plaquemines Parish, La with 140 mph winds on Aug. 29.

The brutal storm continued moving northward and made a second landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border with winds near 125 mph, Katrina weakened as it moved inland to the north-northeast but was still a hurricane 100 miles inland.

By the time Hurricane Rita came along, the DAV had distributed disaster relief grants to more than 1,500 eligible disabled veterans and their families who were victims of Hurricane Katrina. MSOs were deployed to Alexandria. La.: Bayou La Batre and Mobile, Ala.; Biloxi, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, and Meridian, Miss.; and Pensacola, Fla.

Normally, National Service Officers (NSOs) working with Department and Chapters would go into affected areas to aid disabled veterans and their families in need of disaster relief. Often, NSOs will operate out of Department headquarters or a Chapter home, or from a Mobile Service Office at a designated emergency center. But Katrina rendered those plans impractical as entire communities were devastated and roads and bridges were washed out, severely limiting access to some of the hardest hit areas.

A widespread gasoline shortage in the Gulf region also limited the range of MSOs in affected areas. "Another wrinkle we encountered was the fact that many disabled veterans affected by Katrina were evacuated to other cities or out of state, so we had to adjust our plan of action to that reality, as well," Reese said.

As many residents of the stricken areas were evacuated to other communities, the DAV also assisted qualified veterans at the various evacuation sites, such as Baton Rouge, La., and Houston, Texas, as well as other outreach events coordinated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, DAV National Service Offices nationwide have disaster relief grant applications on-hand for displaced veterans. Once applications are approved, grants are distributed by our National Headquarters in Cold Spring, Ky.

"NSOs are able to verify all applicant's status as a service-connected disabled veteran through the VA within minutes, which helps make sure that DAV disaster relief grants only go to those who are eligible for our assistance," said Reese.

"As we conducted disaster relief efforts, our NSOs received outstanding cooperation and support from our Departments and Chapters throughout the storm-ravaged areas." said Deputy National Service Director Garry Augustine. "This was especially important as some of our NSOs and their families also were displaced by the hurricane themselves."

"The National Service Office In New Orleans was shut down because of the stone. so the Department of Louisiana offered our NSOs the use of its headquarters in Baton Rouge," said Reese. "We certainly appreciate Department Commander Hilmer Hermann and Adjutant Frank Cummings for their generosity and support."

"Teamwork really came to the fore in our disaster relief efforts in Louisiana," said Oklahoma City National Service Office Supervisor David Reeves who drove a Mobile Service Office to Alexandria, La. "The local DAV Chapter 7 was a wonderful, well-received asset. Their manpower. diligence, and willingness to make a difference had a positive impact on all the evacuees we assisted. Together we visited with over 100 evacuees and distributed 84 disaster relief-drafts."

In addition to assisting veterans at the Alexandria disaster relief center, the MSO traveled to emergency shelters in Deridder and Leesville to assist disabled veterans and their families in those communities.

Reeves also praised Alexandria VA medical center director Barbara Watkins and her staff who "really went out of their way to ensure we had power and Internet access for our MSO."

"In fact, the VA's cooperation all along the line, from Central Office in Washington to individual hospital directors and regional office managers and staff, was tremendous. We couldn't have done it without them," Reese noted. "And they were very effective in evacuating patients from the disaster areas and making sure that veterans were well taken care of despite the most difficult and dangerous challenges they faced."

In addition to DAV's disaster relief efforts in Louisiana, an MSO was deployed to aid disabled veterans in Mississippi, where "there was such a huge need," Augustine said. Particularly hard hit was the Biloxi-Gulfport area. "In just over two days, our NSOs provided assistance to more than 200 disabled veterans and their families in the area."

Elsewhere, the Department of Florida made its MSO available for disaster relief efforts in Bayou La Batre and Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., which also suffered stonn damage from Katrina.

Reese said Department Commander David Stone and Adjutant Albert Ii. Linden, Jr. ' jumped right in and offered the use of the MSO, which was ready to roll just as soon as it was needed."

"As our NSOs made their way into the disaster areas, they were amazed by the level of support and cooperation of Departments. Chapters, and the generosity of individual members," Reese said.

As NSOs Filippi P. Micocci and Daniel J. Rioux drove their MSO through Mississippi, they found many "shining examples of what the state and local DAV Chapters should be."

"Department Commander Raybon (Leo) Windham and Adjutant Jimmy Reese not only provided logistical support for us, but also showed up at two of our locations to assist with the crowds of veterans we were assisting. They were there when we first showed up, and they did not leave until the last veteran was helped," Micocci said.

But from Department Adjutant Reece's standpoint, the NSOs were the ones who deserved the praise. "These guys have done an outstanding job. I lost count of the veterans they assisted. They make the DAV shine and make me proud to be a member of this great organization," lie said.

And when there were no hotel rooms to be found in southern Mississippi, Department Senior Vice Commander Dennis Moody invited Micocci and Rioux to stay at his house. "Within a day, we felt like we were part of his family," Micocci said. "At the time Moody was also hosting other hurricane victims and feeding and clothing them out of his own pocket."

"I have never seen people taking action like this before, helping our fellow disabled veterans on a local level," Micocci said. "The DAV Chapters in our states can make a difference, and our members should know that by being involved, they can be part of a solution that could save a life."

"That's well-deserved high praise for our members," said National Commander Jackson. "But it's really a team effort that makes fulfilling our mission of service and hope possible. It's unfortunate, though, that terrible events like hurricanes have to happen to shine a light on who we are and what we do."

Hurricane Victims Won't Lose VA Payments

* The Department of Veterans Affairs is providing replacement checks for victims of Hurricane Katrina who are unable to obtain VA benefits checks mailed to their homes or electronically deposited in banks within the affected area.

More than 80% of veterans receive their VA benefits checks through direct deposit, and those payments. will continue without interruption. Veterans and beneficiaries who do not have access to their banks or who normally receive a paper check can obtain a replacement check by calling 1-800-827-1004 or by visiting any VA regional office in the country. VA hospitals are not able to provide replacement checks.

For questions related to health care for veterans within the hurricane zone, the VA is operating a toll-free hotline at 1-844-547-4571. Information for veterans affected by the hurricane is also available on the Internet at www.va.gov.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Disabled American Veterans
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Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Autry, Dave
Publication:DAV Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1746
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