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Cold Comfort

Facing hard realities five months after Katrina

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In the middle of a Pittsburgh winter, Dan Buchanan and some of his fellow New Orleans evacuees here have faced what Buchanan called "the chasm of further ruination" in a pleading letter to his adopted U.S. senators -- heat shut-offs and eviction notices. Buchanan got a 10-day gas shut-off warning at his Lawrenceville apartment on Jan. 6. He mustered family help by the 16th but he knows other evacuees who aren't so lucky.

"We did have a glitch for a little bit, to say the least," says Steve Chopek, who is funneling federal Hurricane Katrina benefits to 106 households in the region through Pittsburgh's Urban League. Most of the checks he distributes as the League's manager of hurricane outreach pass through multiple hands before reaching these individuals and families. And this winter, Chopek notes, a new state law allows gas companies to shut off non-paying customers much sooner.

Happily, Chopek says, utilities and landlords have responded to his phone calls and given his clients more time on their bills and rent. But "a lot of people, they get here, they find housing, they get their kids in school, and now, after the holidays, normal life is hitting them. They're still overwhelmed. This is the population that had no other options. The same people who needed assistance down there need assistance here."

On the other hand, Chopek says, "Many of them don't bring me their bills until they're due. They gave me a million excuses, but I worked at the Department of Public Welfare for a while, so I've heard them all."

At 31, about to start his second year at Tulane University after moving south from Rhode Island, Buchanan's evacuation tale is everyone's story: observing native New Orleanians calm on their porches. Deciding to leave when local media started recommending an emergency hammer in the attic. A car filled with tent, cook stove and CDs but no underwear, plus his only family there: 6-year-old daughter Hope and Hope's mother, Buchanan's ex-girlfriend. Cots in a church shelter near Memphis. Joining friends in unfamiliar Pittsburgh. Signing up with various agencies for Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance. Discovering the charity of a Squirrel Hill couple, becoming a visiting student at Carnegie Mellon.

Buchanan has been back to his Garden District house twice. He found his front door broken open by search-and-rescue squads but everything intact, thanks to a slight elevation. His ex-girlfriend, living closer to Lake Pontchartrain, lost most everything.

Hope is happy in a Lawrenceville elementary school, Buchanan says. But he's felt some unfamiliar emotions himself -- even though he has been homeless before, albeit under different circumstances.

"I had sort of an atypical adolescence -- I wouldn't call it vagrancy or anything," he says. "But I lived sort of homelessly for a few years when I was too young and too immature to get an apartment and get a job."

Still, evacuating an entire city, he says, "is the most bewildering experience I've ever had. I've found it really hard to keep my concentration on anything. I started dealing with feelings of depression that I never had to deal with before. You couldn't make plans. It's hard to get a job" -- or an apartment, not knowing whether you'll need them for a month or a year. Deciding to stay in Pittsburgh, as of December, was "a real relief."

The Pittsburgher in charge of Buchanan's most concrete relief, Steve Chopek, will be out of his temporary job in a month, when FEMA wants evacuees to deal with the agency directly.

"In March, we were told we can't help anymore," Chopek says. Getting his clients moved to FEMA's individual assistance programs will be "an education process," he says.

He has had to do some educating of Katrina evacuees himself, he adds -- things like "turn down the heat; they can't afford the high heat bills."

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